In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I should begin by confessing that I belong to an organization called TV-Free America because I find television so dangerous and corrupting an influence that the best solution I can think of is to do away with it entirely. I’m also aware that the chance this will happen any time soon is zero.
Before I became a schoolteacher, I hardly thought about television at all, but a short time after I started teaching, I discovered that the kids in class who drove me crazy were always big TV-watchers. TV-addicted kids, I found, were irresponsible and childish, malicious to each other and chronically bored. They whined a lot, ratted constantly on other students, and seemed unusually dishonest.
Above all, these kids lacked any sustaining purpose. This emptiness, I theorized, was related in some way to consuming too many other people’s stories, watching too many men and women pretending to be who they weren’t, listening to too many talking hamburgers and too many news shows sponsored by oil companies or dairy councils. It was almost as if, by stealing the time children needed to write their own stories, television had dwarfed their spirits.
I knew I couldn’t tolerate being a schoolteacher for very long with such wretched kids, unlike any I’d grown up knowing around Pittsburgh in those long-gone days before TV. So, mainly for my own selfish reasons and only incidentally out of any altruistic motive, I decided to help these kids voluntarily cut back on the time they spent staring at that lighted box. You see, I had a strong hunch the real problems came not from the degraded images and stories, but from the fatal arithmetic by which real experience was being subtracted from young lives and replaced with imitation experience.
Acting on this theory, I decided to replace the school’s standard curriculum of low-level abstractions with one of intellectual rigor, risk-taking, and real-world experience. I sought to shock my students into discovering that face-to-face engagement with reality was more interesting and rewarding than watching the packaged world of television, where curiosity, thoughtfulness, and exploration weren’t required. In short, I decided to lead kids into lives as players rather than spectators, even if I had to trick them into taking hold by making them think I was helping them cut school.
Discretion won’t allow me to tell you how many laws I had to break to put this new curriculum into effect, but from the first, it delivered results. Plunging kids into the dangerous, heady waters of life — and keeping them there long enough to have them recognize how much of their time was customarily wasted sitting in the dark — caused a dramatic diminution in their dependence on the electronic doll house.
My first inspiration for this transformational curriculum was a medieval pilgrimage road across northern Spain called the Camino de Santiago. Every year, thousands of well-educated middle- and upper-middle-class people from all over the world walk hundreds of miles along that road to the burial place of the Apostle James. This pilgrimage isn’t religious in the usual sense, but is undertaken by modern estranged people as a way to build a new relationship with themselves, feel self-reliant, be close to nature, enjoy culture and history, and give themselves time to reflect. If TV had estranged my kids from their real selves, then maybe a similar pilgrimage could help them find their way back.
So, always acting in conspiracy with the kids’ parents (who were as desperate as I was), I sent my thirteen-year-old students out to journey alone on foot through the five boroughs of New York City. Some walked the circumference of Manhattan, a distance of about twenty-eight miles. Others walked through different neighborhoods, comparing and contrasting them and constructing profiles of the people who lived in each from clues of dress, speech, and architecture, coupled with interviews and library research. Some mapped Central Park, great university campuses, churches, businesses, or museums. A few invaded such government departments as the board of education or the courts, describing and analyzing what they saw there.
I didn’t force my students to do this, but I made a standing offer that any of them could get a day or two or ten away from school to explore part of the city — as long as she or he was willing to walk alone.
Another inspiration for my new curriculum was a weird and wonderful guidebook called A Visitor’s Key to Iceland. This peculiar book follows every road in that country, step by step, and makes dead facts come to vigorous life with such colorful details as these: Two chests of silver are believed to be hidden in this hill. Here a collapsing bridge allowed a murderer to escape — and proved his innocence! In this hot spring, a famous outlaw boiled his meat. That farm refused a pregnant woman shelter, and its owners were buried alive by a landslide the same night.
This is history at its best, history as a guide that animates everything. With that book as an example, my kids produced visitor’s keys to the best places for playing hooky, the great pizza parlors of the West Side (and the rotten ones), the architecture of brownstones, the neighborhood swimming pools of New York, and the hidden knowledge of the old men and women who sat on the benches in Riverside Park.
Once the project was up and running, the radiant glow of TV had a hard time keeping up. Reality, coupled with hard intellectual work, proved so compelling to kids year after year that I came to expect that the moral and behavioral cripples who walked through my classroom door in the fall would be exciting and interesting young people by December. But then, haven’t we always known that meaningful work is the key to self-mastery?
The biggest surprise was how easy this was to accomplish. It took neither talent nor money. Anyone could duplicate my results. Lecturing kids about the evils of TV would likely have done no good at all, but making life more interesting than its pale video shadow succeeded splendidly.
Over the years, my students launched many useful projects, did valuable independent studies, and earned an abundance of opportunities and prizes. But most of all, they found self-confidence and purposes of their own. And I found myself showered with awards by school authorities who had no idea how I got such results. The irony is that my guerrilla curriculum was designed to sabotage exactly the kind of passive attitudes that government schooling, like television, depends upon.
Mortality sings its song always. Some inner clock ticks in all of us, warning that we have appointments to keep with reality — real work to do, real people to meet, real battles to fight, real adventures to experience, real risks to take, real subjects to learn. For the past fifty years, a variety of influences — television and government schooling chief among them — have conspired to break children of their natural need to be out and about. The end result has been a nation of angry, frightened, and, most of all, incomplete boys and girls, men and women, who resent their fear and ignorance and find ways to take vengeance on their neighbors while they slowly die, minute by minute, in front of the television.
Since the advent of TV, many of us never grow up, because too much of our precious trial-and-error period has been wasted sitting in the dark. Being a mature human being means living with purpose, welcoming responsibility, acting as a citizen, building strengths, wrestling with weaknesses, and developing the heart, mind, and spirit. None of this can be accomplished as a spectator.
Television reduces children’s attention span to quick takes and creates a craving for continual stimulation that reality cannot satisfy. Violence is the easiest way to still that gnawing hunger. The Russian émigré Pitirim Sorokin, founder of Harvard’s sociology department, identified cultures of violence as the late stages of a civilization in terminal decline. In all failing societies, he argued, respect for obligations evaporates and is replaced by a preoccupation with amusement and diversion. Despite the calculated hype about a steadily declining crime rate in recent years, we had four times the rate of violent crime in 1999 that we did in 1959, and four times the number of men and women in jail. These astounding increases in crime immediately followed the penetration of television into the culture. Is TV the culprit? I don’t know, but it’s high on my list of suspects.
As deeply as we seem to be mired in this stupid addiction, ending it is as simple as pulling the plug. Show a TV-addicted kid that life is more interesting than its television substitute, and nature itself will do the rest.
John Taylor Gatto
John Taylor Gatto’s “Sitting in the Dark” [April 2000] was a pleasant and thoroughly unexpected surprise: a teacher who pries his students away from the TV and sends them on a walking tour of New York City. I kept waiting for the punch line.
They say the pain of regret is the worst pain of all. As I look back at my first thirty-odd years, my deepest regret is the mindless hours I wasted sitting in the dark with Gilligan, Jethro, and George Jetson. I’d give anything to have that squandered time back.
It took a move deep into the mountains, where even Ted Turner’s SuperStation can’t reach us, to finally break the mind-numbing stranglehold television had on my family. My wife, our two little boys, and I have not regularly watched television for three years now. As my personal mental reception has cleared, I am profoundly saddened to see the grip that this medium has on those around me. I can see very clearly the unrealistic dreams, the aching desire, and the emptiness it breeds.