Loving The Media

Neil Postman wrote an important book called Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business that every pastor, parent, and musician should read. Written in 1985, Postman could hardly anticipate the different modes of communication we have today (at the time, the main issue television), but his messages seem more applicable than ever.

His perspectives on "educational [sic] television" may be applied just as easily to our culture's breathless embrace of laptop and tablets in the classroom. Allow me to provide an extended quote:

"Sesame Street"... [cannot] be blamed for laughing the traditional classroom out of existence. If the classroom now begins to seem a stale and flat environment for learning, the inventors of television itself are to blame, not the Children's Television Workshop. We can hardly expect those who want to make good television shows to concern themselves with what the classroom is for. They are concerned with what television is for. This does not mean that "Sesame Street" is not educational. It is, in fact, nothing but educational--in the sense that every television show is educational. Just as reading a book--any kind of book--promotes a particular orientation toward learning, watching a television show does the same.

"The Little House on the Prairie," "Cheers," and "The Tonight Show" are as effective as "Sesame Street" in promoting what might be called the television style of learning. And this style of learning is, by its nature, hostile to what has been called book-learning, or its hand-maiden, school-learning. If we are to blame "Sesame Street" for anything, it is the pretense that it is an ally of the classroom. That, after all, has been its chief claim on foundation and public money.

...and at the end of all this, a remarkable insight:

As a television show, and a good one, "Sesame Street" does not encourage children to love school or anything about school. It encourages them to love television. [1]

This unanticipated side effect has wide-ranging ramifications on how we think and communicate.

Is it possible we've allowed unwittingly ourselves as a society to be conditioned to prefer a certain mode of discourse, and in fact, expect that mode to be present in all situations? Perhaps if, as my father once suggested in this case, "the medium is the message," and Postman is right, we can easily predict and explain the following:

  • A movement toward including modern technology in worship and education (video screens, entertaining music, iPads)
  • An confusion and possible inversion of the traditional text/music dynamic. Instead of previous eras, where the music supports the text, the text supports the music--or, as is more likely, both are indifferent to one another.
  • An endless quest to include ever more arresting visual and dramatic cues, paralleling those found in television (and more recently, the internet)

This isn't necessarily surprising, but the possibility that we're gradually replacing our focus on the message's content (meaning) with its mode of delivery is compelling.

  1. Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves To Death, Penguin, 1985. 144-5.