T.V., No! Updated

I’m revisiting an old topic – the harm of screen watching. In 1988 I gave a speech on campus claiming that screen watching was doing harm to peoples’ thinking, communicating and living well. It was called T.V., No!

Since 1988 there have been many serious studies about the effects of online learning. However, none of them has included the added effects from the Pandemic, which started in 2019, and continues as this is written. There’s little doubt that it will have a strong impact, once the data is analyzed. Yet even without that data, available research has shown clearly that screen time impacts what and how well we learn.

For young children, screen time is seriously damaging. Catherine Berken MD, of Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto shows in this summary given to PBS news, that it slows speech development. Oxford University has a more nuanced and cautious study of young children, backed by 87 scholarly articles!

I believe online learning at all ages is only one factor in what much experience and study have shown me – a steady general decline in factual knowledge (science, history, literature, politics, economics) as well as critical thinking, interest in learning, and the ability to make thoughtful moral choices. However, it’s not the only, or even the primary factor in this decline. As I have suggested in other blogs, essays, and a book – Inequity, Iniquity and Debt – it’s causally linked to the power and influence of those who control the money system, and thus to governmental laws and media views as well, which dominate most citizens’ everyday lives with little regard for the ‘public good’.

Now that we’re well into the 21st Century, I recommend going back to a 2002 BBC documentary called The Century of the Self, showing how Edward Bernays changed marketing techniques from ‘what you need‘, to ‘what you want‘, using Freud’s knowledge of our subconscious motivators. Bernays’ influence is increasingly felt throughout American society, and other lands as well who have bought into the American Dream.

I taught in classrooms for over 45 years, mostly to community college students in and around Chicago. Since retiring 10 years ago I’ve continued research and observation – here and abroad – about educational theories, methods and outcomes. If I were a betting person (as are the tech and media giants, and the government agencies they influence), I’d wager that the negative trends will continue. But then, how would we determine what are ‘negative trends’, and what ‘the facts’ are? Who would be a fair judge? Objective arguments seldom win convincingly today. Or to put it differently, most people believe what makes them feel good to believe – myself included. So I’ll just predict.

It’s possible I’m guilty of the ‘anecdotal fallacy’, basing my big generalities about education on limited experience.  I accept that (as should every ‘academic’ researcher). Even so, I still claim American education – both private and public – has been ‘dumbing down’ for a long time. Allan Bloom’s 1987 The Closing of the American Mind had much to say about it. The book was, and 35 years later still is controversial.

Ten years ago, almost half of undergraduates showed no improvement in knowledge after the first two years of college! Such was the conclusion of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s study Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campus. The situation has not improved since; it’s part of a long trend. The reasons for it can be seen in this summary section copied by NPR news.

In a lighter vein, this sarcastic recent cartoon suggests what knowing has come to mean today. But its humor can only be seen by those knowing something about Socrates – readers of this blog included of course.

Does screen time generally influence learning for good or for ill? The studies don’t provide a clear answer to the question. That’s not surprising. The safe answer is ‘It depends’ – on the age level, demographics, desires and goals of students, on costs, etc.

It’s perfectly understandable that many people are not ‘academically inclined’ or even capable of a university education, and would prefer a job skill to a degree. This difference has long been seen in many countries – all over Europe included – where ‘aptitude tests’ at the end of secondary school determine whether to encourage (and support) pursuing a University degree, or a vocational and trades option. It has be suggested also that general humanities has lost students because of increased demand for STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) – all of which provide much greater chance for high income. But that sales pitch is is not true for many students, hopeful as they may be. Education is more Devolution than Evolution. Teachers will appreciate this bit of humor too, though what is shows is not funny.

The cartoon above underscores what I see as a paradoxical trend in Western history, since the ‘Age of Enlightenment’. It involves the obvious “revolutions” of democracy, capitalism and industrial technology, and the social consequences of all of them. I realize that scholars spend lifetimes on these huge changes; but allow me a few general thoughts about them to encourage interest and reaction.

(1) The last entry of the cartoon 2018 – “Color the rectangle with the color you prefer” focuses on the sales pitch that Bernays started, “You can have what you want”. It’s pitifully ludicrous. (2) If high tech knowledge is truly a key to material success, the knowledge can’t be just whatever you think it is, much less what you prefer it to be. (3) Democracy is not ‘normal’ for any society; it needs constant work. In America today it has devolved from a system that requires careful thinking, open discussion, and acceptable compromise into a mindless bi-polar warfare between two parties. And these parties claim to represent their constituents’ best interests, while manipulating them with advertising trickery.

(4) Hypocritical talk and memes about the importance of ‘self’ and ‘individuality’ are contradicted by the reality, where true individuality and responsible membership in a group or community have been perverted or lost. (5) Men who once were happy to have special skills they could pass on to their children became ‘cogs in the wheels’ of industry, dominated by a few capitalist owners. (6) And women, who could do anything men could do, plus bearing children, were forced to support the system that abused them, in the name of ‘liberation’.

(7) Finally, I would remind readers of the harm done to their mental health by addiction to high technology. This topic is covered in Adam Alter’s 2017 book, Irresistible – The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Other research (2013) shows cell phones damage conversations even between strangers. “They’re distracting because they remind us of the world beyond the immediate conversation, and the only solution is to remove them completely.” And another (2018) study shows the ill effects on students of just having cell phones present. Need I say cell phones are ubiquitous? 40% of the world’s population uses them. Not all for ill, of course.