It's fashionable to say that high school students don't know anything. As tens of millions of students returned to their classrooms this fall, it seemed that almost as large a number of experts offered discouraging words about whatever teaching or learning is going on in those classrooms.
Alan Bloom's book, "The Closing of the American Mind," was required summer reading for the critics, and a recent study by Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn has been cited as evidence that high school students are ignorant of history and literature.
And it's equally acceptable to lay the blame for every academic shortcoming at the dial of the television set -- to lament that kids don't know anything because their minds have been washed blank by the tube.
Yet television has also presented our teen-agers with a vast treasure house of intellectual stimulation -- with glimpses into every facet of our society and our history. Students can watch the Iran-contra hearings as they unfold. They don't have to wait for a secondhand account of them to be written for their history texts. And when the "Today" show goes to China, viewers can perch on the Great Wall alongside Bryant Gumbel and take a good look at a previously mysterious country.
As a teaching tool, television is unsurpassed. The problem is not that students watch TV. It's that such a high proportion of programs at best offer little in the way of intellectual stimulation and, at worst, reinforce negative stereotypes and foster unrealistic -- even destructive -- perceptions of life. There's no question that kids are going to watch the tube. It's up to us to motivate them to watch the good stuff -- and to ensure that there are programs on the air worth watching.
The Federal Communications Commission may be indifferent to programming content these days, but other forces in the community are not. Our own program, "It's Academic," continues on the air in its 27th year, thanks to WRC-TV and Giant Food, whose president, Israel Cohen, has a longstanding commitment to our local high schools. In addition to underwriting production costs for "It's Academic," Giant has contributed more than a million dollars in scholarship funds to participating schools. And it was at Giant Food's initiative that "It's Academic" became, three years ago, the first local series to be closed-captioned for the hearing-impaired.
Now it's true that "It's Academic" draws its contestants from a pool of students who are smart and self-motivated. But, in my view, that pool has been expanding, not shrinking.
Like Bloom and the Ravitch-Finn researchers, I regret that we have students who are unacquainted with great works of literature or who don't know the date of the American Civil War. But because year after year I see so many young people who have cheerfuly gained great stores of information, I wish to reassure the "experts" that things are not as bleak as they sometimes appear. Our kids do know a lot about U.S. history and politics -- and the fact is, even the most "popularized" Civil War drama on TV will stir interest in the authoritative accounts by Bruce Catton and other writers.
Yes, there has been a decline of interest in 19th-century literature (hardly anyone reads "Silas Marner" or "Twice-Told Tales" anymore), but there has been a corresponding increase in awareness of contemporary writers, such as Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison and Kurt Vonnegut. And Shakespeare has lost no ground at all. His major plays are still being assigned -- and read -- and augmented by Shakespeare productions on TV. In certain subjects, such as physics and mathematics, the "It's Academic" contestants we see today are often far more advanced than their counterparts from 1961, the show's first season.
True, we see the very brightest kids -- but we've seen thousands of them, not only in this area but in the many cities around the country where the show has been on the air. These teen-agers are not only smart; they are also well educated and well read. They have been taught by caring and creative teachers. I cannot believe that these students are that unrepresentative of their classmates. Their minds are definitely open, and it bodes well for the country.
Sophie Altman is executive producer of "It's Academic."