His face radiating self-satisfaction, a television anchorman told his audience in Baltimore one night last week that television may prove to be an effective tool for learning. In a recent test, he said, one group of students was exposed to certain material through the traditional devices of classroom discussion and reading, while another group was given the same material on a Jacques Cousteau television program. The two groups were then quizzed and -- voila! -- produced approximately equal scores.
This may or may not rank among the wonders of the age, according to one's point of view, but it unquestionably reflects what is going on in the classrooms as the education establishment attempts to come to terms with the video culture. Desperate to attract the attention of schoolchildren who have been distracted, and perhaps benumbed, by electronic images, the schools are moving the television set into the classroom. It's a new variation on that old defeatist strategy: If you can't beat them, join them.
Precisely what is going on was described recently in stories that appeared only two days apart in The New York Times. The first was headlined "Video Cassettes Bring History to Life" and the second "Making History Come Alive on Educational TV." The stories sounded almost as much alike as the headlines: Both described, in decidedly positive terms, the creation of television programs designed to "bring history to life" for students accustomed to obtaining information from television.
The first is the "Video Encyclopedia of the 20th Century," produced by a company with the revealing name of Corporation for Entertainment and Learning Inc. The "encyclopedia" contains some 2,217 historic film clips in 75 one-hour cassettes, covering the period from 1893 to 1985, and is accompanied by a 2,500-page reference volume; a complete set costs $8,500, with discounts available if purchased by an entire school system.
The second is a series of 15-minute programs broadcast over educational stations, called "Newscast From the Past." Produced by two educational stations in Texas at a cost of $260,000, the series contains six episodes. Each is cast in the form of a local-news broadcast, with an anchorman and reporters in the field. Actors portray notable figures from the distant past and are interviewed by the reporters; there are also "commercials," in which manufacturers promote such newly invented products as longbows and paper.
Both undertakings are represented as making history more accessible to students and as encouraging them to learn more about what they see in the programs by reading books. One prominent educationist describes the "Video Encyclopedia" as material "to get underprepared students interested in reading and writing about events that they never thought interesting." The producer of "Newscast From the Past" says: "The idea is to make history come alive to children today in a way they can identify with. We are a television community. We see the wars, the statesmen on the evening news. Why not history? . . . If it takes a gimmick to capture a child's attention and the gimmick makes history interesting, then it's justified."
Well, it is and it isn't. Gimmickry of one variety or another is no stranger to the classroom and has a legitimate place there; there are many ways of getting students to snap to attention, ranging from field trips to professorial theatrics, and just about every teacher has resorted to them at one time or another. To ignore television as such a gimmick, not to mention a medium of instruction, would be to ignore the realities of the age. The problem lies, rather, in the ways in which television is used and the assumptions this use tends to encourage in the minds of children who are "taught" by it.
The first and most pervasive difficulty is that the use of television in the classroom has this effect: It substitutes entertainment for education, and it equates education with entertainment. As Neil Postman wrote last year in his brilliant polemic, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," "The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is entertaining, which is another issue altogether." Watching television in class, whether actual films of historical events or artificial re-creations, is entertainment, as proponents of "Video Encyclopedia" and "Newscast From the Past" implicitly acknowledge when they describe their shows -- for "shows" is what they are -- as carrots with which they hope to lure students into reading books.
But there is absolutely no certainty that this will in fact happen. What is much more likely is that as television moves into the classroom, books will move out. They will hang around in some form, to be sure, if nothing else as instruction manuals for the teachers who turn the video recorders on and off. But there is every reason to believe that in any discipline lending itself to "education" by television, the role of books will steadily decline. The reason is simple: Books are difficult, and television is easy.
It's fun, too. As one who is addicted to the likes of "Victory at Sea" and "The World at War," I predict with utter confidence that students who watch the "Video Encyclopedia" will have a wonderful time, even when the events they witness are calamitous. But watching soldiers seize the beaches in the South Pacific is not the same as learning how they got there. No, the answer is not that they got there by boat. They got there through the coincidence of historical forces that can only be understood -- to the extent they can be understood at all -- through reading the historical record, the recollections of those who were there and the interpretations of professional historians.
Television can give at least a slice of what happened, but its pictures are of no help when we want to know why it happened. Even at its most reliable, when it shows actual people and actual events, television is devoid of intellectual content. As for fictionalizing history, which is what programs such as "Newscast From the Past" are up to, television creates in the mind of the viewer an utterly false impression of the nature of the past and, for that matter, of history itself. No matter how well-intentioned their producers, such "docudramas" by their very nature trivialize the subjects they depict; their purpose is not to instruct but to amuse, and in the process they render both their subjects and history itself merely amusing.
Some may argue that it is better for students to know televised history than no history at all, but this avoids the issue. Shoving a television set in front of a classroom is a cop-out, an evasion of the fundamental responsibilities of education. Certainly there is a role for the TV set, as a supplement to books and instruction, but anyone who thinks it can replace those essentials is living in fool's paradise. Unless we have reached a national consensus that education is an arm of show business, we had better keep our infatuation with technology under control; television is many things, but it is not a book and it is no substitute for one.