Seeing and believing
February 6, 2003
All over the world education is in crisis. Educators are alarmed at falling standards of literacy and numeracy. We can’t do sums, we can’t read and write, and consequently we can’t think as clearly as we should. Literacy and numeracy are essential stimulae for the growth of the reasoning and imaginative faculties. Colleges and universities are anxiously looking for ways to improve the quality of their graduates. In the ‘developed’ world schools are bursting at the seams as teacher burnout increases. Teaching staff are being recruited from eager developing countries at an alarming rate: alarming, because the crisis also affects poor countries who cannot afford to lose their teachers. In the midst of the much-vaunted “Electronic Information Revolu-tion” never has so little been taught by so few to so many. What has gone wrong ?
Here is one little noticed, but striking fact. Within the last forty years or so, something has happened that has never happened before. Teachers and traditional methods of teaching find themselves in direct competition, indeed conflict, with the commercial, visual media: television, film, computers (with access to videogames and the internet), music videos and magazines designed to influence the thinking and attitudes of young people. And the teachers are losing the battle. If education means the influencing and shaping of human perception and behaviour, then film, television and the electronic media are winning the war hands down. Recent research has shown that the behaviour of even year-old babies is measurably influenced when they watch television. That is a frightening, Orwellian scenario and should be a warning to all of us. The ‘box’ is not the harmless entertainment it seems: we watch t.v. but it is also ‘watching’ us, subtly altering our perceptions and attitudes. This effect, after all, is the basis of advertising, which, as we know, is the life-blood of popular t.v.
What can we do about it?
First, we need to remember that actions speak louder than words. We learn from seeing and doing, not from words alone. Those old cliches: “seeing is believing” or “one picture is worth a thousand words” are - like all cliches - essentially true. Yet much of our education practice today seems to ignore the fact that seeing something enacted, or, better still, being involved in the action, is crucial to understanding. And understanding is vital to belief. Why should the young be expected to understand and believe what they read or are told when they see ample visual evidence to the contrary ? “Do as I say, not as I do” has always been a recipe for disaster. Take one topical example. We are told and we read in the news that the invasion of Iraq is necessary for world peace. The Iraqis are said to have dangerous weapons of mass destruction which must be gotten rid of. What we see on television, however, (often in spite of editing) is the U.N. inspectors’ fruitless search for these weapons while the world’s mightiest military machine readies itself for war, cranking up its own weapons of mass destruction. The rigorous control of the electronic media during a war is also proof of the power and immediacy of the effect of visual images on the viewer’s mind. Seeing is believing. Or disbelieving. This is why the electronic media, especially television, can be of real value in creative educational practice if used for that purpose. There are already some examples of this “classroom” use of t.v. (“Sesame Street” comes to mind) but such programmes need scarce Government funding, since advertisers tend to go for the soaps and showy popular Hollywood/Bollywood fare. After all, they’re also in the business of influencing behaviour, and they know what the majority of their target audience watches. Even the apparently educational channels which focus on the world of nature and science are often slanted to convey a subtle commercial or political message.
Evidence of this ‘warping’ effect of slanted visual imagery may be seen in our attitude to the environment. There is no longer any wonder or awe at the vastness and complex beauty of the universe, or, for that matter, of the planet we inhabit. We see frequent images of the control and power the wealthy one-fifth of mankind now possesses over the earth. The Discovery channel, for example, has adopted the earth itself as a logo, which is used as an electronic bauble, a cute toy which they can transform into different shapes or switch off at the touch of a button. The image of bounteous nature is used to sell anything from Coca Cola (‘we’re bringing the world together’) to detergent. The great globe itself is merely another backdrop, a playground for the rich, and a reminder of their power over it. Images of rockets blasting off to Mars or Saturn to the accompaniment of applause and jingoistic hoots of pleasure are calculated to promote a feeling of naked pride in technological power. Such images are regular fare on television, in both real and imaginary scenarios. Astronauts are modern Argonauts, making of the entire universe a Hollywood backdrop for human aspiration and pride. The names of the vehicles and probes used often bear the names of classical or historical sea-faring heroes : “Apollo”, “Ulysses”, “Magellan”, etc. The object of all this space exploration, we’re told, is purely scientific and altruistic : “to boldly go where no one has gone before”, for the benefit of all mankind. But the images we see convey the real, if hidden, message: “this is what power means, and the colonisation of space is our manifest destiny”. The mystery, and with it, respect, for the universe and our role as custodians of planet earth, have been dissipated in images designed to make humans feel like gods. The universe is ours to do with as we like. Could this be one reason why we continue to pollute the globe with our own effluence? Why we can pump our poisons into the body and breath of the planet without a thought for the generations who must inherit it?
Television and the electronic media have become a widespread and lucrative means of shaping minds and altering attitudes. The electronic gadgets pouring onto the markets in an uncontrolled, ever increasing stream are in danger of becoming weapons of mass distraction. We have failed to sieze the opportuinity to use these things for enhancing our creative intelligence; our and our children’s knowledge of the world and our place within it. The internet and the Worldwide Web may have sounded a revolutionary, egalitarian trumpet-call by placing information within the reach of the masses. But even if every 12 year old child in the world could have access to the internet, information would still be a poor substitute for intelligence (meaning knowledge or understanding). Reading skills are absolutely necessary, of course, and television and cell-phones are extremely valuable additions to our lives. But to be able to read a book or newspaper or to surf 57 varieties of t.v. channels (while, perhaps, chatting on the ‘phone) is no guarantee of independent thinking. A whole world-view in which we play a supportive role only as consumers, is being promoted and marketed to us encoded in visual images. The training and development of the independent, intelligent, critical mind is now urgent. And the best way, perhaps the only way we can do this is by turning the electronic revolution to good account by using it to serve creative educational practice. Television has been called “The Cool Fire”. It has caused world conflagration without any visible damage. We must fight fire with fire. We must harness and use the power of television and the electronic world of images as part of a planned strategy to re-introduce the creative visual element of learning as an integral part of our entire educational system. We must begin to do this now: it may soon be too late.