by M. Stewart
Last night I tried to watch network commercial television again, but I couldn’t pull it off. Instead I did what I usually do when confronted with the stunning banality of modern American life: stick in my ear plugs and reach for a book, which prompted my housemate to ask, “Why can’t you just be a normal person?”
Apparently a “normal person” in America is someone who wants to spend his life watching an endless stream of commercial “messages” interrupted by game shows, talk shows, cops shows and sitcoms.
We send our young people to die in wars to preserve our “way of life,” but all we do is watch TV and drive to cinder-block shopping centers to retrieve the Chinese-made products our TV tells us to buy. This is what passes for American “culture.” This is what we’ve done with freedom. Is it any wonder the terrorists want to wipe us out?
Have you ever noticed that the people on TV never watch TV? We sit in our living rooms watching fantasies about people who actually do things. And what is it they do? Mostly they kill, cheat and steal. We’re supposed to be gratified when good-looking fantasy cops track down the killers and punish them within the span of an hour (minus commercials). Good triumphs over evil again (and again and again). Now we can go to bed with our brains wiped clean.
It used to be that our colleges and universities represented an alternative to the idiotic prattle of popular culture. Well, believe it or not, they still do.
Throughout most of human history, people respected learning for its own sake. The idea was that an educated person had an opportunity to live a richer, fuller, more interesting life because he or she had access to the difficult texts, advanced thinking, and ancient wisdom carefully preserved and passed from one generation to the next.
Nowadays, it’s tempting to assume that higher education is only about job training, that people go to college so they can get better jobs and make more money. It is true that the so-called liberal arts education is seen more and more as an antiquated hobby for elitists, and a lot of students resent having to take classes outside their major. But there's more to it.
Yes, we do “teach” pop culture to students who proudly announce that they “don’t like to read”; whose sole knowledge of history comes from video games and movies; who have never heard of Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf or Aristotle; who have never been asked to think about anything at all.
But we do so only to help them understand how to navigate our media-soaked world and how to avoid becoming passive victims of consumer culture. We do so to show them that even the shallowness of modern American life can be studied and understood in a larger context, that even contemporary culture has a history.
Yes, there is more to modern university study than reading, but as long as I’m on the job, reading will remain the primary means of acquiring knowledge, and it won’t be comic books or “graphic novels.”
You might say I’m old-school. I’m not about to give up thousands of years of scholarly tradition merely because I happen to live in a time when student-consumers think attending a university is just another shopping experience. I’m not going to spend a lot of time justifying teaching Homer to a student whose sole purpose for entering the university is to become a dental assistant.
Having said that, I accept the dual role of the contemporary university, and I understand that everybody wants and needs a good job. As much as I sometimes wax nostalgic about the old learning, I am comfortable knowing that university study still is about acquiring advanced knowledge for a variety of purposes.
We have no choice but to understand our own times, but to do so we must realize that we live on the continuum of history that stretches deep into the dark past and into the uncharted future. Entire civilizations come and go—some without leaving a trace. We now understand that given enough time, entire planets and star systems come and go as well. Nothing stands still.
Science, art, music, literature, history, philosophy. So much to learn and so little time!
Aha! I’ve finally come full circle: What bothers me so much about commercial television is that it represents the ultimate waste of valuable time. Hey, I’m 53 years old. If I’m not “normal” by now, I never will be. And how much time do I have left? Am I going to spend my remaining years watching Entertainment Tonight, Everybody Loves Raymond, CSI,
or Cold Case?
If not, get free of the Cult of Normalcy and attend classes at a college or university near you for no other reason than to acquire knowledge. It doesn’t have to be about earning a degree or getting a job. It can be about reading great books, exposing yourself to new ideas, meeting interesting people. And you don’t have to be 18-22 years old. Trust me, professors love having older students in class.
If nothing else, think of it as an alternative to killing yourself with TV.