“ [Maine Commissioner of Education, Susan] Gendron and her staff say parents shouldn’t worry. Students are learning to write. The test triggered false results. Still, they say, they don’t exactly know why.”
— Kelly Bouchard, Maine Sunday Telegram, 9/7/08
State education officials recently buried the results of Maine 8th graders’ writing tests mandated under the hopelessly misnamed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal edict. Commissioner Susan Gendron ruled the test was flawed because 78 percent of the 14,900 kids taking the one question exam “failed to write a persuasive essay as required.”
The students were “prompted” to compose on the idea/ topic, “Television may have a negative impact on learning.” A series of factoids and their sources were provided under the headings: “Reasons in support….” and “Reasons against…” Gendron attempted to explain the decision to embargo the assessment’s outcome by saying, “Kids got ticked off at the [question]… In many cases it was an emotional response rather than an intellectual exercise we were seeking, so it was not an accurate reflection of their writing skills.”
One outraged middle schooled “education” consumer wrote, “These facts are lies (sic). I do my homework and get good grades even though I watch TV.” The teen hysteria provoked by the “prompt” — that TV’s flickering and fast-changing images MAY negatively impact learning — was evidently just too close to the bone. Something snapped deep inside Generation Z. Rational discussion of such heresy was clearly impossible. The affront was met with a subversive roar of indignation. The Gendronians blinked.
Portland (Maine) education official Tom Lafavore seemed to agree that the suggested topic may have been too dangerous and inflammatory to even discuss: “If I were a kid, knowing what I know about the influence of technology on their lives, my first reaction would be to completely disagree with the prompt.”
Yes, we have abandoned ourselves and our children to the hypnotic and diverting charms of corporate gizmos and their attention-span destroying barbarous vapidities. So it should come as no surprise when, after life-long immersion in the irrational and toxic crock-pot of digital “culture,” the young (or older) might well moronically proclaim doing “homework” and getting “good grades” to be “learning;” hence unaffected by TV programming.
As the late Neil Postman argued in his Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), “…the clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.” Postman held that there was something called the “typographic mind” — a rather recent and already vanishing development in human society. Called into being by the printed word, shared by a literate population, the typographic mind tended to erode the image-based, premodern tribal cultures. When people clung to trees, huddled in caves or medieval mud huts, their habits of mind were informed by the shaman, by legends carried forward in oral tradition, by pictures on the walls of caves and cathedrals. The world was often seen as controlled by jealous sky gods, or other remote “spirits” who required sacrifice and devotion. The Word was a spoken one and pictures embellished it.
But the written word demanded more of a society. Anyone can gape at images and listen to the law-giver and the fool. But, Postman notes, “A written sentence calls upon its author to say something, upon its reader to know the import of what is said. And when an author and reader are struggling with semantic meaning, they are engaged in the most serious challenge to the intellect…To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making, and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense…” It requires then, a critical and very different “habit of mind” than the semi-dream state induced by our shimmering telescreens.
The TV, as a cultural “tool for conversation,” encourages / demands far less engagement as it washes over the “viewer.” It’s a “Now … This” world in which, Postman writes, “There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly — for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening that it cannot be erased from our minds by the newscaster saying, ‘Now…this.’ The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately forty-five seconds), that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let us say, for ninety seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial.”
Decades of mind reconfiguring by TV addiction and the cheapening of even print media — rendered into garish color-ized tabloids, war-mongering agit-prop vehicles, and barely concealed business promo sheets — has left the US population in a perilous state.
Tightly bound by a premodern constitutional disorder and fiercely restrained from protecting ourselves from the corporatized rich, we are passively developing a premodern, even primitive, habit of mind to go with it.
The ice caps melt. Financialist flim-flammers demand “public assistance” on a scale undreamed of by poor women/children. People shuffle past or step over the homeless as they rush to purchase some sweatshop-produced trinket. The nation’s best topsoil is swept out to sea by now-frequent deluges. Our vacant/desperate youth aspire to slay goat-herders or sleeping Afghan children as means to a collegiate end, while tens of thousands die annually here from the inability to buy medical care.
While American journalists and citizens are repeatedly beaten and shackled by government goon-squads, “our” political / media system enthuses over skin tone, designer eyeglass frames, affairs of the womb, hairstyles, mooseburgers, and digital-flag worship. If it weren’t so perverse, it would be merely depressingly sad.
It’s official. We have officially voted rationality off the island.
In an incoherent, cartoon culture we wait for neo-shamans “Loofah Bill” O’Reilly, and “Greatest G.” Brokaw to tell us what to feel.
And now …
RICHARD RHAMES is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line).