relevance:the vinyl paradox
going forward by looking backward
"How many of you remember September 11th?" About twenty hands go up, while another fifteen look around.
"What can you tell me about it? What can you explain about that day?"
Each kid begins telling the story of being in school and watching the planes crash into the World Trade Center. For some, the school is in Mexico. For others, they saw it at home when their parents pulled them out of school. The most common factor shared among all students involved the method of storytelling. It was the notion that our collective memory was a shared video of jets flying into towers while CNN and Fox News refused to stand silent and allowed guests to provide chatty background noise.
I suggest to them that one definition of religion is where you go to in order to find truth and where you turn to when something goes wrong. "If that's the case, then is TV our nation's religion?" I ask. Anthropologists search homes to see the focal point of what's important. They study the culture's highest structure to find what a people group values and they look to the most revered figures to examine the gatekeepers of a culture's narratives.
Students arrive at the conclusion that satellites and skyscrapers are our buildings, so on some level entertainment and capitalism are our religion. The television is the focal point and the essential medium in most homes. “So, who is the gatekeeper of the stories?”
“Oprah. She's like the pope of entertainment. She tells people what to eat and what to wear and how to act and what to read. She decides if a book is important. Yeah, it's definitely Oprah,” a child explains.
Kids engage in this dialogue for awhile. Many of them mention that every year on 9-11 teachers run videos instead of talking about it. "It starts to feel like it was just a movie," a boy explains.
“Yeah, it's like it's just pretend now. Sometimes I start wondering if it ever happened. I mean, I know it did, but it really doesn't feel real.”
One boy speaks up, “Why do we have to learn about this? We already know what happened. We've learned it every year. Besides, we have it all recorded on video. How could we possibly forget?”
Later in the class period, our school counselor comes in to share her story (as mentioned before). I turn it into an impromptu lesson on cultural mythology and the students write reflections about the concept of public memory and the power of television as the gatekeeper of our shared stories. Students begin to wonder, not just how to move forward, but what we lost.
* * *
I rarely watch television. I know it's super-trendy to say that, but for me it's our lack of cable and the virtual monopoly (if there are two of them does that make it an oligopoly?) that little children have on making household entertainment decisions. Still, I catch shows in fragments. Sometimes it's silently, when I am running on a treadmill in the gym or it's in the background at a friend's house.
Despite my lack of expertise in all things TV related, I am aware that the television is the icon of our culture. It is the language that we speak, explaining the myths that we believe, the legends that we retell and the fairy tales we hope for. Oprah plays the role of sage and prophet to millions of soccer moms every day while Bill O'Reilley explains the world to middle aged men who feel disenfranchised. Scary? Perhaps. But it is our collective filter on public memory.
The television is how most children will first learn letter recognition and where most of the elderly will find company before they die. And in between it will be where couples find respite after a fight and where families gather to watch three hundred pound linemen pound quarterbacks into the ground on our most American of all holidays. (Which I find odd, given the fact that it is a show that relies on men in tights and shoulder pads, positions including “tight ends” and a song and dance number in the middle)
For many people, the shows they watch become a lens to use in processing the reality of life. True, people might describe their TV sets as an escape mechanism (“I don't really pay attention to themes and characters. I just enjoy watching it.”) but it shapes their world view nonetheless. Thus, someone makes a comment on Africa and it becomes very clear that they formulated their view of Africa from commercials, news shows, PBS documentaries and the National Geographic channel. Oh, and well-intentioned “awareness” concerts created by best-selling recording artists. After all, the number one export from Africa is awareness, followed closely by white liberal guilt.
I once thought that Americans took television too seriously. After the dialog with my class, I'm thinking that we take it too lightly. Sure, we criticize the content, but we rarely criticize the mythology of the machine itself.
* * *
Brad doesn't want to own a television. He chooses to own one so that he can have movie nights with soldiers and discuss the themes of our cultural mythology.
“Sometimes I wonder if it's a wise decision,” he explains. He first quotes Neil Postman, but then admits that it has more to do with the Tower of Babel. Call it Babel 2.0.
“In the original story, they tried to conquer the Heavens with a huge tower. The end result was a loss of international, communication. We've gone past towers. We still use them. Radio towers and cell phone towers. But we now have satellites.”
“Do you think God's punishing us?”
“I'm not God, so I have no idea. I'll say this, though. People are losing the ability to talk with one another.”
* * *
Brad's thoughts on Babel aren't very popular in the 21st Century Education community. People constantly offer grand predictions of innovative new solutions. After awhile, I tire of the hype. Perhaps we need Plato, not PowerPoint in our efforts to find a relevant voice.
In other segments of society, people seem to embrace the vintage ideas. I have friends who have abandoned portable music in favor of record players. I know quite a few people who garden and crochet and make home-made bread. It's as if we woke up with a whiplash from the “Digital Revolution,” and like all other revolutions, we are now handling the carnage and asking what we missed. I call it the Vinyl Paradox – the notion that what is older might be more relevant than what is new and shiny and trendy.
It's the notion that perhaps Postmodern Pinocchio needs something a little pre-modern.
Educrats would do well to think of the Greek mythology or even the American folklore of John Henry or the story of Babel. In another century the computer will be a relic and Plato will still be around. I know poetry and wisdom and philosophy are slower than Google, but for what it's worth, I'll take the tortoise over the hare. For this reason, I often go back to the ancient mythology to make sense out of the contemporary context.
* * *
I hated the stories of Greek gods when I was a child. The stories were illustrated with a style of art that were vaguely reminiscent of Jehovah's Witness illustrations. Or we looked at naked people on pottery and surprisingly, they managed to make naked people look ugly, even to a high school boy. Then we answered comprehension questions. Incidentally, I loved superhero stories and had no idea that they were simply the American retelling of the Greeks myths and legends.
I fell in love with Greek writing in community college when Dr. Calhoun spoke about the stories with the same fervor as an excited evangelist. We talked about the stories in a way that eventually changed how I teach. The following is a short description of some of the stories and how they shaped my approach to teaching:
1.Icarus - When we obsess about achievement, set kids on islands and then create Elmer's glue wings for them, a simple warning not to "push toward the sun" seems irresponsible. When we ignore the meaning of the myth and tell kids to "reach for the stars" we're in even more dangerous waters.
2.Sisyphus - I cannot fix the broken system. I cannot make things work that will never work.
3.Atlas - It's not my job to change the world. It's not my job to mend broken lives. I don't agree with the solution of Atlas Shrugged. Selfish objectivism isn't the answer. Instead, I want to live among the earth, within community, engaging in a dialog with my students. I go to the Atlas story every time I start trying to play savior with my students.
4.Sirens - We're kidding ourselves when we believe music is neutral. The Greeks understood the notion of sirens and for me, I'll apply it to all media. The warning about sirens has helped me to criticize each medium I use.
5.Trojan Horse - More resources sounds great. Free help sounds nice. But I'm not fooled by Odysseus in a shirt and tie. Sometimes it's best to keep the walls up and protect students minds from those who wish to kill learning for the sake of money.
6.Prometheus - Much like Sirens, the story of Prometheus is why I am careful about implementing new technology. It's why I am able to see that technology is not a tool. It's fire and fate might very well dictate that we are stuck perpetually eating out our insides as a result.
7.Hydra - Changes can be great, but they can create their own new issues when I try and hack at all the problems with sheer power.
8.Achilles - I'm arrogant, way too arrogant. Sometimes I'll hit a point where lessons are going really smoothly and the class is great and I'll forget how easy it is to toss an arrow at my heel.
9.Jason - I could just as easily look at the story of Atreus and Thyestes. But what the story speaks to me is the reality of retaliation and the danger of not pursuing reconciliation. Staff can be mean to one another. Kids can be awful to teachers. Yet, this story reminds me of the sometimes deadly consequences of broken relationships. If I get so stuck on justice, I'll miss the need for forgiveness.
10.Theseus - This story reminds me of the need for courage (a sword) and wisdom (the string) in how I teach. I'm not sure there are minotaurs, but the system can be a monster and I can easily find myself lost in a labyrinth.
* * *
I begin our documentary unit, not with a sample documentary or a tutorial on how to use video, but with ancient Greek literature. Using a jigsaw approach, students read about The Sirens, Pandora, Sisyphus and a few short conversations from Socrates. I walk around and listen to the small groups debrief their stories. “I think that the Sirens are like the TV. We are addicted to them. Haven't you ever just sat in front of the TV for a few hours and lost track of time?”
I share my thoughts, “I've always thought about the dangers of recorded music. Music is so free and we capture it like a butterfly and put it in a jar and by the time we listen to it, the effect is a little dead.” He looks at my as though I'm crazy.
“I think the story of the Trojan Horse is like nuclear technology. We have this thing that looks like it's a huge gift, but it can be stolen by terrorists and used against us. Or maybe we are using it against myself. I don't know. I just think it's a Trojan Horse.” Sometimes it's right to look a gift horse in the mouth.
I have no evidence that this has a lasting effect. I doubt that many of my students will think of the Sirens when hooked up to an iPod or that they'll consider the dangers of stealing fire from the gods. Still, if they simply look back over their shoulders, even if only for a minute, I will have made a difference.