On Reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Chapter 10

In Chapter 10, “Teaching as an Amusing Activity,” Postman looks at another area of social life that has been transformed by television — education.

He starts with an apt subject: the long-running “Sesame Street,” an educational television program, designed by the Children’s Television Workshop, with colorful puppets, celebrities, sing-alongs and fast-paced editing.

Readers of Amusing Ourselves to Death at this point will not be surprised by Postman’s dour view of this sunny show. He compares it to children being taught by a series of television commercials.

He writes: “We now know that ‘Sesame Street’ encourages children to love school only if school is like ‘Sesame Street.’ Which is to say, we now know that ‘Sesame Street’ undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents” (143).

Postman’s preliminary objections: Television does not allow interactions, questions or discussion.

His broader objection goes to the heart of his book:

“As a television show, and a good one, ‘Sesame Street’ does not encourage children to love school or anything about school. It encourages them to love television,” Postman writes (144). Television is always about television.

He adds, “like the alphabet or the printing press, television has by its power to control the time, attention and cognitive habits of our youth gained the power to control their education” (145).

And television, Postman reminds us, makes everything into entertainment. He writes acidly, “Television’s principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable” (146).

He then offers three satirical commandments of education on television (147–48):

Thou shalt have no prerequisites.

Thou shalt induce no perplexity.

Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt.

Postman hates television when it is at its most serious. He spends pages deploring, “The Voyage of the Mimi,” a PBS science series of 26 episodes focused on whaling, funded with millions of dollars in grants (149–52).

Although the show included a 12-year-old Ben Affleck, who would be a star years later, Postman was not impressed in the least. In a lengthy takedown, he writes:

“I would suggest that ‘The Voyage of the Mimi’ was conceived by someone asking the question. What is television good for?, not What is education good for? Television is good for dramatizations, shipwrecks, seafaring adventures, crusty old sea captains, and physicists being interviewed by actor-celebrities. And that, of course, is what we have got in ‘The Voyage of the Mimi’” (153).

It is a fine argument: The content of curriculum is being determined by the character of television. Students raised on television will come to expect education in this form.

“Indeed,” Postman writes gloomily in conclusion, “they will expect it and thus will be well prepared to receive their politics, their religion, their news and their commerce in the same delightful way” (154).

Professor of Journalism, Lehigh University. Reader. Writer. I write about what I read.

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