Tocqueville and the Tube

Tocqueville And the Tube
by Ben Berger @ NRO

The hunger for stimuli may result in our favoring visual media over print, and spectacle over depth. Print makes us translate words into mental imagery and sounds, which exercises our minds. Television is less taxing; it does all of the work for us. The late media theorist Neil Postman found in TV an inherent bias toward the shallow, and not just for sit-coms and the like. Eventually, programmers feel pressure to make even the news and other serious programming more entertaining, if only to compete with alternatives. When we are constantly bombarded with spectacular images, we find it harder than ever to face the weighty and comparatively dull issues of public life.

My students definitely struggle with this effect. They’ve had more “screen time” than any other generation, and their competencies in reading and writing have suffered as a result.


I just watched “Rudy” again (probably my third viewing, though I cannot be certain)…perhaps because after a week of setbacks in my research and a frustrating argument I got caught in that left me feeling a bit out of place. Perhaps I needed a little motivation – and anyone who’s seen this movie knows that unless you have no soul, you cannot possibly view it and not feel motivated, at least for a short while.

But it’s left me thinking, where has the desire gone in this country? In an era when more of us are told from the earliest of ages that we can literally do anything here if we put our minds to it, how have so many of us become bitter, apathetic and unmotivated? This country used to be known as the land of opportunity. People used to flock here because they dreamed of something better and this was the place they could reach for those dreams. Young children used to grow up yearning for some impossible goal – passionate about things other than the latest teen pop star or the last episode of Glee (which, BTW, is absolute CRAP as TV goes…sorry…unwatchable cultural sewage IMO…and I’ve tried to watch it and understand what the hubbub was about). How exactly did a generation (now two generations) of parents scream nothing but promises of unlimited potential freedom to choose and wind up producing legions of kids who just don’t care…or worse…who think it’s all a lie? When was the last time you heard any young person (and I still count myself as one of the young people, though that will soon cease to be true…LOL) utter Rudy’s famous plea, “Have I done everything I can?”

Despite cries from the Tea Party that government overcrowding of our daily lives is stifling creativity and invention (and they’re not entirely wrong here)…this is still a free nation, and we are still free to pursue our dreams. So why do so few of us seem to spend any time actually thinking about what those dreams might be and how we can try to achieve them?

I don’t have the answer to my own question, but I am in a philosophical mood and I think sometimes it’s good to just ask the big questions. I could speculate, for example, that today’s children are sold (by parents and educators alike) on the promise that America provides opportunity, but not taught that opportunity doesn’t bear fruit without commitment and sacrifice and dedication. I could wonder whether hope is fading as faith disappears from public education because knowledge without context loses its’ meaning (why should a twelve year old care what happened in the Civil War if the issues that provoked it aren’t placed in historically accurate context and given larger meaning?). I could question whether public education has become too much about producing good little worker bees and not focused enough on fostering the individual strengths of each child. But I doubt any of these suggestions is 100% accurate in all cases. All I know is that when I look into the faces of the undergraduates (and even the graduates!) here at Stony Brook, I see mostly people leading lives of quiet desperation…caring not for anything of great personal consequence, but only for the next distraction. I see despair and apathy. And I don’t see many of these kids entering school with a dream, let alone doing everything they can to achieve it.