Film Studies: How I learnt to start worrying and fear TV

I had fallen asleep early and dropped into this nightmare. My two sons - nine and four - were doing a circus high-wire act, but then the ring became a city at war with the wire unwinding and a pit of cobras waiting for their fall. Suddenly I woke, and it was "all right after all" - or was it? There they were, side by side on the sofa, surfing through the cable system, laughing out loud at the collisions they could summon on the remote.

Twenty years ago, at Dartmouth College, in New England, I introduced the first course on television the school had ever had. I had to defend the course before the Curriculum Committee, headed by the school's provost, Leonard Reiser, a veteran from the atom-bomb development project, and, for years, the person who appeared on TV with a clock at so many minutes to midnight to indicate our proximity to nuclear disaster.

I tried to say that TV was the largest influence on 18-year-old American lives.

"More than the Bomb?" he asked, looking up, almost - as if we all felt it there above us.

"Every day we survive the Bomb," I said, "is another day for TV to do its damage."

The course passed - and it got a high enrolment. And I want to re-submit a version of it. For if the official Bomb has receded a few minutes (unofficial bombs are more alarming), TV - with cable, the Net, and so on - looms larger every day. Now, I am not suggesting that our education system takes up a duty it has hitherto flirted with - of what you might call film appreciation, trying to show how and why The Godfather is a "good" film. No, my target is more important, and its models are sitting on my sofa. And yours.

We teach our children to speak, to make the sounds properly, to use the right tenses. We write letters for them to copy, and at home or at school they learn to read. They are taught to write. They face grammar, clause analysis and sentence construction (or maybe they don't). We no longer take it for granted that we do an adequate job with these tasks. But still, we believe they are the central ground of education.

Meanwhile, we know from surveys - and we have known for 30 years - that even the "bright" kids entering university, even the most "literate", have spent more time watching moving imagery than reading and writing. For others, for people unaccountably graduated from high school in the US (or its equivalent elsewhere) without being able to read or write, the gulf between audio-visual and literary experience is many times greater.

Does that gap matter? Or could it begin to account for the failures of education we see in our young - and even for something I will call dismay or confusion - as if the fecundity of television stood for a world too tangled or diverse to be digested, or taken on? The urgency with which you judge this essay may be a measure of whether you are parents; or, if you are, how much you attend to your children.

Let me list a few causes for concern. Because violence is so prominent and immediate, we are accustomed to the argument that maybe its exaggeration on film and TV - and its separation from pain or damage, let alone responsibility - has made it easier for "impressionable" kids to copy screen outrages. Difficult to prove, of course, but how much proof would you require before being persuaded to take action?

And if violence and cruelty can be copied, what has the screen's influence been on knowing when we are in love, and how to behave, judging what happiness and honesty are, assessing the merits of ideology and patriotism? And so on.

A hundred years of film has created a culture - a set of examples - that has affected us all. To take but one issue from it: what does "good- looking" mean, and how does the concept link appearance and virtue?

Yet these are superficial things, compared to the nature of imagery itself. What do close-ups do, next to long shots? If I say that the non- movie-makers to consider such questions in our history have been advertisers and political leaders (and tyrants more than democrats), you may begin to sniff the danger. How do cuts alter the context of reality?

Oh, you "broadly" grasp those things, do you, inasmuch as you've seen a lot of film in your time? Then consider this new riddle: how can you tell a photograph from a computer-generated image? What happens to context and ethics when the two are mixed?

Every hour, our children are victims of our reluctance to pursue such questions. You're sighing. You say that life is hard enough, education scores are already dismal - why add this new load?

But could our failings have anything to do with kids' dismay when their central experience is ignored? Is it possible that their command of words might improve if they could use it to describe or combat moving imagery? I don't know the answers, but the neglect is reckless.

Of course, there's a reason for that. I have spoken so far as if nine- year-olds today were the first generation with the problem. They are not. We came first, and no one ever sought to guide us as we turned on the television for something like five, six, seven, or eight or nine, or 13 hours a day. So why not start at age five, by which time some Teletubbies have already averaged five hours a day tanning themselves in the glow and the shining?