Author’s Note: This is intended as satire. The author considers himself neither old, cynical, technophobic, nor curmudgeonly—rather, he considers himself a normally pleasant guy who enjoys many modern conveniences.
In the 1980s and early 90s, the height of classroom technology was the TV trolley. A 19-27” TV monitor with a VCR stacked on a four-legged, one-shelf, rolling tray, just high enough so students in the back row can still see there’s a TV in the classroom. The point isn’t to help everyone see and learn from the shows on screen. The point is to show off that technology is happening. And everyone in the classroom should be able to see the technology, even from the back row, and even if the screen is too small to know what the heck is playing. If that’s a problem, well just move your desk to the front and sit with the teacher’s pets.
Our big black obelisk has evolved a great deal since the days of archaic apes moving to Strauss music. It now has moving pictures, and we, like educated orangutans, must use this tool to advance civilization into a whole new era.
Whenever the TV trolley came rolling in, cautious but excited hoots and hollers emanated from the classroom. Student’s smiled. Hearts leapt for joy. They knew they wouldn’t have to suffer boring lectures and worksheets that day. They were going to watch a video. Forget learning! We’re going to watch a show!
Teachers typically rolled in the TV trolley when they were too tired to teach, they didn’t have their real lesson ready, or, they just wanted to be liked.
On rare occasions, teachers employed the ubiquitous TV trolley because they believed the hype about technology in the classroom. Supposedly, TV’s will be the wave of the future, the next big thing, all education will funnel through television screens so we need to get used to video recording, television programming, and TV screens lining our halls and classrooms. Futurists foresaw TV’s everywhere, with home videos elaborating boring lessons into complex 3-dimensional interactive worlds. Homework assignments would no longer be limited to worksheets and notebook paper. Instead, they’d use video cameras, microphones, background music, and stage settings so kids could imitate game shows and nightly news programs. Most all of those student videos are painfully amateur, derivative, and cheesy. And they are about as entertaining as a dentist’s drill to everyone but the students in the video. But don’t tell them that. They worked hard on them.
Quite likely, teachers at the time knew that videos had limited value. They knew that students didn’t really learn better that way. But they understood that the TV could mix things up a bit, add some interest, and help add a visual element that the classroom lacked. TVs and videos didn’t solve the deeper or age-old problems of education. But they did help break up the monotony of classroom time, and it spared their voice a bit.
We can’t fault an overworked public school teacher for using the one thing, at the time, that was guaranteed to get students to sit down, shut up, and pay attention.
TV has value, but no teacher could reasonably believe that this technology is the New Moses, delivering students from the shackles of antiquated education. The “old school” tools of pen and paper, writing boards, and textbooks still worked fine. Even with TV, students needed their pencils and notebooks to work out some problems, collaborate with others, and interact with ideas. Plus, textbooks, pens, paper, and writing boards were just boring enough to help prevent distractions.
Also, old-fashioned writing technology leaves lots of room for imagination and exploration, instead of interpreting everything for the student into narrow ready-made images. One oft-stated complaint reflects this problem: “The book is better than the movie.” The director’s “voice” invariably distorts and limits the author’s words. Keen readers can usually pick up on this difference. TV and video layer their own voice on top of the stories. The effect invariably distorts and sometimes overrides the natural voice of the story. Even the best screen renderings are still limiting. Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) is a mainstay in middle-school classrooms. It’s regarded as a cinematic classic and a reasonably faithful rendering of the book. But students were still disappointed that the movie gave only a brief glimpse of Romeo’s butt and Juliet’s boobs, hardly befitting of the long steamy nude scenes in the book.
Seriously though, there’s an inborn translational issue between page and screen. Adding a visual element can easily transform romance into pornography. Realistic violence or real-world relationships on the page can descend into exploitation and propaganda when set on screen. TV imaging is a world apart, psychologically, from reading. It’s no wonder that movies are limiting to the stories they tell. They have to be limiting. The 30-60 minute block for shows, and 90-120 minute block for movies means all the overly-complicated or slow developing scenes are abandoned to the cutting room floor. And since the TV medium favors the language of sight, it selects for visceral, tawdry, and action-oriented images, often escalating tame book chapters into R-rated onscreen moments. There’s just no way to translate the whole book faithfully into a movie.
TV and videos are an interpretation, and not necessarily a faithful interpretation either. The medium of television is biased in favor of “screen-friendly” formatting, so it’s no surprise that TV programming, videos, and movies typically reduce the room for creativity and critical thinking. Viewers would have to make an extra effort to draw critical thinking applications from a movie; merely watching and enjoying the movie requires no such work. On rare occasion, the movie may be better than the book — but honestly I can’t think of any examples this way, even though a hundred examples of the reverse come to mind.
TV isn’t all bad, but it was always a supplement more than a substitute. TV never truly gave teachers the vacation they so desperately needed. At best, it gave teachers a class-long reprieve. But tomorrow, the teacher’s job remains, only now there’s one less class day to do it.
After a while, of course, the novelty of TV wore down. School TVs didn’t generally engage students like they used to. Students could find more entertaining shows at home, or at a friend’s house — if your parents didn’t allow you to watch The Simpsons. TVs were marginally more interesting than Ferris Bueller’s economics teachers, but students still fell asleep during TV time. There was no proof that students tested better or learned more through TV than through other, conventional methods. When the TV trolley rolled in, students would tune out or get distracted as dancing lights hopped across the screen. In a world of Atari, Nintendo, Sega, and NeoGeo — all gaming systems at the time — TV was strangely passive. It didn’t offer any engagement except to turn the dial to a different channel. But even that wasn’t allowed in class. Students had to watch the video assigned to them. Sure, we can learn about culture and society by studying TV shows. We can learn about current events from news programs. And we can learn history from the history channel — assuming we accept the notion that ancient space invaders built the pyramids. But television is still a passive medium. It doesn’t generally make us investigators, creators, or explorers. It makes us couch potatoes.
This couch-potato syndrome is the gist of Neil Postman’s 1985 classic Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman contends that television tends to trivialize information, translating ideas, data, and creativity into thin, fleeting images. Any knowledge is lost on screens unless it fits into easy visuals. Concepts that need ruminating thought are replaced with simplistic summaries. It’s the intellectual equivalent of microwave cookery instead of slow-roasting.
Postman continues by saying that television, as a medium of information and communication, does not just select and filter messages into a fleeting format; the medium is the message. Television “has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience.” In this way, television distorts whatever story it tells. Its effect on the viewer has thus, he argues, been overall negative. In the bleakest prophecies, TV makes us overindulged and inactive audiences of life, watching the world pass across the glaring window of our TV screens. Postman fears we are literally entertaining ourselves to death. We approach a dystopian fate, not like the intrusive authoritarianism of Orwell’s 1984, but instead like the pleasure-driven compliance of Huxley’s Brave New World. The screen-based future won’t burn all the books and control our every action. Instead, we’ll be so addicted to the bright and speedy entertainments of our TVs that we just don’t read books. We’re not denied our education. We just choose to neglect it. We are not controlled and pressed into submission, we are entertained into oblivion.
Well that got dark.
TV trolleys may have gone extinct, but the prophets of that era weren’t completely wrong. Our classrooms are filled with screens, more than people could have imagined in the 80s and early 90s. Any given classroom, nowadays, is liable to have a TV monitor, with DVD/BD player, a projector screen, the teacher’s desktop or laptop computer, and any number of cell phones, tablets, and laptops among the students. Postman’s warnings are well-placed, but the book could use a new chapter on the evolution from TVs to computers. The internet, portability, and interactivity of modern screen-based technology has changed everything.
Despite how screen-based technology has evolved over the years, it’s still not clear whether kids are any more likely to pay attention in class. TV and internet alike are deeply distracting but ever-shallowing influences. We do well to heed Postman’s warnings so we don’t surrender to screen addiction or couch-potato syndrome.
The TV trolley is now an antiquarian’s novelty, a vestige of yesteryear. She could not stay fresh and exciting forever, but whenever she came rolling in — back when she was young and attractive — every student who knew her can revel in the memories. All of us who were blessed to know her owe her a big debt of gratitude for interrupting our boring adolescent education with a bit of passive amusement. Thank you TV Trolly. #Nostalgia