The Edutained American The Edutained American You may try to deny it; many of us do. We are our own people, with our own thoughts, feelings, and opinions. We are individuals, and nothing influences us without our knowledge and permission. Certainly not the media; we create the media, after all, and direct it with our own tastes and preferences. It is merely a part of our lives, a not-too pervasive part.
We say this with absolute certainty and still know that we lie. For the media is not a part of our lives, it is our lives. It directs us, moves us towards what its creators, directors and sponsors want us to see. Everything we do is not media influenced, it is media-dictated. In some ways, our modern information systems are helpful. They are, after all, informative.
From these systems we learn, we process the information they bring on current events, popular culture, and every other subject known to man. But the information is tainted. It is filtered through the corporate sponsors and the agendas of those who bring it to us. Therefore we bow to the opinions of those who give us our knowledge on every subject they expose us to, from the clothes we buy, to the music we listen to, the films we see, books we read, politicians we vote for, religions we believe in. Our thoughts are not our own.
What does this mean to the world in which we live? How does this effect our leaders, our schools and our families? And in a society so permeated with media, how do we regain ourselves? Part One: What are our influences? For many of us who attend college now, the media has been around us since birth. The television was a effective babysitter, and we grew up accustomed to the quick, joke-a-minute style of cartoons and situation comedies. With the advent of MTV in 1981, we learned to absorb information through the two and three minute stories offered on that channel, as well as VH1 and BET. These channels opened to us a world that most of our parents simply didnt see as children. One hour of MTVs Total Request Live can show a child a re-enactment of JFKs assassination, done by Marylin Manson, in one of the most popular videos of the week.
The words of the song, however true and relevant they may be, are lost in the image, in closeup and slow motion. Vidoes by pop bands, while less violent, are no less disturbing in their objectification of humans and in their motion sickness inducing, rapid-fire images. They cater to a generation that already suffers from shortened attention spans by providing whirling sights that can be easily understood in the half-second they are shown. They show a world of anger, violence and cynicism. True, they often reflect the feelings and actions in parts of the nation, but also bring those to the sight of impressionable children who would not otherwise have known of it until they were much older. At the same time, the video-babysitter separates child from parent and makes us reluctant to ask what these images meant.
After all, we are led to identify with the musicians and models in the videos, and they often assure us that our parents do not understand and cannot be trusted. The information we soak up through these vignettes generally point to a distinct set of values, at odds with those of our parents. While they ask for respect and obedience within reason, we learn that adults are the outsiders, the butt of jokes and objects of ridicule, probably not very bright either. The regular television shows that we sit down to watch, often with our parents, are not much better. It has become much cooler to defy and be irreverent than to listen. This is certainly nothing new, one need only look at the flappers of the 1920s to see that youthful rebellion has been around for as long as anyone still alive can remember.
It does seem, however, that the adolescent exuberance and resistance of the Baby Boomer generation became something very different for their children, something darker and dangerous. Of course, the television that they were raised with stressed old-fashioned family values: respect for elders, kindness to neighbors, do your homework, eat your broccoli. The shows that children and young adults watch now are very different. We see insults thrown left and right, especially in comedies, where we learn to laugh at other peoples embarrassment and enjoy their discomfort, hoping to hone our own wit to be as sharp and cruel. Again, the jokes and images come very quickly, passing through our visual cortex and into the recesses of our brains before we have a chance to ponder, discuss, and dismiss them.
The reigning kings of speedy information, of course, are television advertisements. In these, the images zoom by so quickly that we often dont realize what we have seen and remember only one or two images, those that impress us most and make a false connection to our emotions. Advertisers count on this, of course. It is no longer enough to name the product and tell the consumer what it does and why they should buy it. We have seen enough of that, and our attention spans are bored with it.
Advertisers now seek to make us identify with the actors in some way, or cause an adrenaline surge that we will thereafter associate with their product. This method of connection is spilling over into the film industry, as well; one need only watch the recent release Fight Club to see it. The director, David Fincher, readily acknowledges the flood of imagery with the statement This is not unspooling your tale. This is downloading. (Entertainment Weekly, Nov 26 1999: 42) What, then, are we downloading? The values of modern media are clear and easily read, according to the students interviewed.
Five of the students mentioned youth or physical attractiveness, or both. This is easily explained; the casts of most television shows are under forty years old and in most cases represent the prevailing standard of beauty. Four students noticed a preoccupation with wealth and standards of living; many shows popular among young women (Beverly Hills 90210, various soap operas) showcase characters obsessed with wealth, be it their own or someone elses. Commercials are the same: young, attractive people with middle class or higher incomes, showing how this product helped them reach, maintain, or enhance their exciting lifestyles. None of the students mentioned intelligence, education, or respect as values portrayed in television shows or commercials.
Of course, it is not that the characters are deliberately anti-intellectual or uneducated, they simply do not hold these characteristics up to be emulated. We do not respect our athletes or movie stars or even our political leaders for their knowledge and discernment, and only sometimes for their wit or ability to think on their feet. We know what we see and how we see it, the question is, how do these values, brought to us in this rapid-fire way, affect our society? Part Two: Truth and Consequences The great computer that is the human brain grows ever more capable of processing large amounts of information in microseconds, and we of the younger generation are accustomed to the nonstop barrage of images and information that we are faced with. Have we habitualized this behavior to the extent that we can no longer internalize information presented in other ways? The evidence seems to say yes. Three of the students interviewed listed entertaining as one of the top two qualities of a good teacher, another named it as one of the most important qualities of her favorite PSU courses.
All of these students are under the age of 30, all part of the MTV generation. In fact, all four listed MTV as one of the channels they watch most. Do they feel that our culture of entertainment and immediate gratification contributes to their need for amusement and lack of interest in classes that do not provide it? Three of the four who claimed to have short attention spans and trouble paying attention in class say that the swift parade of visions seen in their daily life may be to blame. One student who does not admit to a short attention span, but ..bores easily (Int.1) believes that television shows and commercials has not affected her, but has the younger generation. Educators say this with more certainty. Altschuler states that his students comments ..attest to the pervasiveness, in colleges and universities, of the same culture, obsessed as it is with entertainment and celebrities, that dominates the rest of American society. (Altschuler, April 4 1999:sect 4A) Sacks lays the blame even more firmly on the shoulders of the media and bemoans the modern students lack of ability or interest in other methods of learning.
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