Are You Asking Why?

By | Thursday, May 14, 2020 1 comment
About a decade ago, I watched a documentary called Digital Media: New Learners of the 21st Century. It went about showing some of the schools out there that are really progressively and aggressively finding new ways to teach that are far more effective and applicable that the wildly out-of-date traditional model that most of us learned under. They showcased several different groups taking some pretty different, but all innovative, approaches and, they all seemed to be doing well. Certainly a lot better than traditional models.

Not to say they weren't without problems, of course, but they were addressing learning as it pertains to the early 21st century, not learning as it pertained to the early 20th century. That had me excited, since I've long thought that the education model I was instructed under was tremendously inappropriate for the time. But, towards the end of the documentary, one of the commentators (whose name I no longer recall) noted that we really have two options going forward: we can see the country divide into two groups, the poor following along with the same outdated teaching models that leave them functionally illiterate (as defined in the 21st century) and the rich who are able to afford these more "avante garde" programs that actually teach their children how to successfully navigate the world; or we could scrap the whole current system and start over with something closer to these new models that are being developed and raise the bar for everyone.

The National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS) provides easy access to summary tables and time series of population, housing, agriculture, and economic data, along with GIS-compatible boundary files, for years from 1790 through the present and for all levels of U.S. census geography, including states, counties, tracts, and blocks. This means you can look up all sorts of data about the US population, and how it's changed over the generations. Including Americans' level of formal education. Not surprisingly, the numbers increase over time, most dramatically in areas with denser populations. But I did notice that, as of 2009, the percentage of Americans with college degrees is only 27.5%. Barely over a quarter of the country. Now, I'm the first to admit that a college degree definitely does NOT correlate with intelligence, and there are a lot of brilliant people out there who either can't or simply won't go to school after it's no longer mandatory. But what I do find equally striking is that, if you study the numbers over time, the rate at which degreed individuals increases slows down dramatically after 1990.

Nielsen (the people who monitor TV ratings) released the following chart back in 2018, showing a lot of statistics about TV and media usage...
Nielsen media chart

The largest amount of time an average American spends with any media is about about 4.5 hours on TV. Per day. I understand that work can be draining and you might not have much energy for much beyond vegetating in front of the idiot box after a hard day of work, but... for four and a half hours?!? Really? That's coming home from work at 5:30/6:00, sitting in front of the TV while you eat dinner and not doing anything else until you're ready to go to bed after the evening news. I honestly have trouble processing that. And although not included in this chart, that's actually down from five hours per day back in 2011!

"Yes, Sean, we get it! You're a cynical bastard, Americans are all idiots and you hate everyone. Get to your point!"

Hang on a moment. Let me throw this quote at you...
Healthy people — who know how to deal with disappointment, who have given up on the idea of magic bullets, who don’t watch TV indiscriminately, who are fulfilled by things that don’t cost money — are poor consumers, and so the very-high-level marketers have nurtured a culture which produces the exact opposite.

You are being encouraged, from virtually every angle, to become or remain unhealthy and unfulfilled, because then you will buy more. Not to make you paranoid, but that’s the primary purpose of the glowing rectangle in your living room — to encourage poor (but not quite failing) health, general complacency, and an unconscious reflex for parting with money.
It's from this Raptitude post. His blog, subtitled "Getting better at being human", is about trying to achieve a higher quality of life, about recognizing what does and doesn't further that end and why, and how to live a happy life. But not in the "quick fix" methodology that lines the self-help sections of bookstores, but about asking hard questions about yourself.

No. Not the hard questions. The hard question. Singular. Why?

That's the question that most people don't ask. Not seriously. Why they distract themselves with four and a half hours of television every night. Why they don't further their education after high school. Why those new models of education won't be implemented nationally.

"It's always been done this way," is not an answer. Ever.

"But that guy does it like this," is not an answer. Ever.

"I don't know," is not an answer. Ever.

Why has it always been done that way? Even if it was the best method once, have things changed that warrant a new approach? Why does he do things like that? Do you have different resources, abilities or goals that might suggest a different method? Why don't you know, and why can't you find out?

There are WAAAAAAY too many people on this planet who don't think about what they're doing or why. Those are the people you see today, flouting stay-at-home orders without wearing a mask. Those are the people who are demanding businesses open fully right now, regardless of whether it's safe or not. Those are the people you see today, demanding that all of comics cater to them, and that anyone who isn't like them (i.e. women, Black people, heterosexuals, etc.) gets doxxed and/or threatened.

You see the hypocrisy in them -- it's usually blindingly obvious -- and you wonder about the mental gymnastics they must be able to do think like that. And while there's certainly a lot of mental acrobatics going on, it ultimately boils down to them not really thinking about what they're doing or why. They've been instructed -- by television, by movies, by our education system, by our government -- that they shouldn't think. That makes them bad consumers, and runs counter to America's particular brand of hyper-capitalism.

Don't be like them. Ask "why?"

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Matt K said...

In the past year-ish I have begun to conclude that broadcast television is kind of the elephant in the room for so much conversation about media, politics and culture.

The power and influence of the outdated passé old "idiot box" is not trendy or exciting in an era of streaming and Facebook and microtargeting.

That does not, I think, actually diminish its disturbing role in shaping basic perceptions of what's real and important.