I walked past a house today and saw what looked like two little angels, about four and five years old, sitting quietly in the pyjamas in a living room. The house was a Victorian residence with large bay windows in a well-to-do English suburb of Nottingham and the glimpse of the two children prompted me to turn my head to see with whom they were engaged.
They were certainly wide eyed but they were also very still, an unusual event for children so young. Was a parent reading them a story, or an older sibling showing them how to construct something? No, they were watching television. Suddenly, their pose meant something completely different. They were not transfixed on an amazing human adventure or patiently learning about something new. They were zombified.
I quickly took more of the scene in and compared it to my own children, whose rambunctiousness disturbs most adults. They play freely, bounce over chairs, run back and forth through the house on cold days; they are fire engines, planes, dinosaurs; then they are cooks, builders, astronauts ; each will freely flow into a different character and the other will follow suit until a complex story waxes and then collapses into something new. Then jigsaws come out — and both will sit quietly engaged in putting together relatively complex puzzles; and then onto Lego, then drawing, and then running around again, plonking on instruments, and off again into the imaginary worlds they create.
You see, we have no television.
"How can you live without television?" most of my pupils ask. "I'd die without one," some add, touching on a subconscious realization of addiction.
"How did we live for thousands of years before television?" I ask and usually get a puzzled face.
Where does one start? I grew up with television but when I lived by myself in my thirties I found it an increasingly annoying intrusion into my thinking and hence personal development. What could be learned from a news clip compared to the depth or analysis of a good history book or work of fiction? I threw it away one day. Into a skip. The release must be like when a smoker finally does have the mental strength to throw away the last pack. That was in 2001. Since then, I have watched about a half dozen movies on the laptop DVD, some of the Olympics, a few news clips and probably a few murder mysteries on holiday. Do I miss it? No. I enjoy films but literature provides so much more for the brain and in turn enhances my abilities to communicate and to critique the world around. I do not bury my head in a cultural wasteland, I do watch informational and educational videos on the internet but probably less than a hour's worth each week. Driving, I am a fan of audible.com, I can listen to hours of incredible books instead of having the banal pap of commercial radio to fill the cabin.
In 1999, the American Pediatrics Association recommend that children under two should not watch any tv at all. A decade later they softened their stance because of the reaction. Hmm. What is the principle here? If the APA see the zombifying effects of allowing children unlimited access to screens or the dulling mental effects of visual electronics, why should an angry chorus from parents and industry affect its judgment? I do not bat an eyelid when kids say to me, "How can you live without a tv?" because the principle is clear cut to me. My children can learn more through interaction, exploration, and their own imagination than they can from the pathetic superficial nonsense broadcast into their brains.
"Oh, but it surely keeps the little darlings quiet for a while!" Yep, so do drugs. They're the same. Reduce the brain to mush, and, yes, you can keep a clean house and do your chores or check your email, but mush is mush. Sit with me, I tell such adults, through forty-plus hours of one to one tuition and you'll see the effects; you too will be able to discern those children who are plugged in from those who are active and proactive in life.
It's not a necessary leap, but those plugged in tend to get into online gaming or playing with apps. And the imagination plummets, vocabulary evaporates or does not ascend with maturity, and the Will diminishes to slug level. "Don't mind…" is a common refrain. The Will to choose disappears. Sit with me while we try to encourage a teenager to write more than one sentence for a creative writing project. It's painful, it's shameful. It's embarrassing.
"Don't mind?" equals "don't care".
"Don't care" equals "no values."
"No values" equals hollow: empty of ambition, drive, and devoid of any sense of freedom.
Statists were probably so thrilled when tv came along and then proliferated. Now the greatest part of the population could pursue a dreadful utilitarian ethic of pursuing the lowest form of pleasure for the greatest number or the greatest dumbing down for the greatest number.
If you truly subscribe to a libertarian or anarchist philosophy, or even if you're a conservative keen to educate your children in the importance of family values and the principles of good living, allowing your little ones is akin to chaining them in gaol and saying how wonderful choice and freedom are. The box dumbs us, period. Go without it for a couple of months and you'll know what I'm talking about; plug yourself in and you'll continue to acquiesce in other people's views of life just like Plato's people in the cave who just could not understand what the wise man was on about. (And if you've not read the analogy, please do — it's in The Republic lines 508 onward, and then consider how prescient Plato was!)
Freedom begins with a healthy mind and body. And that means weaning ourselves and kids off the greatest u2018mind forg'd manacles' (William Blake) ever invented.
I do not know the context of the two little children I saw — the tv may have been a "treat." Hmm, just like a cigarette, I observe to my cynical tv-addicted young pupils, which wonderfully confuses them. But as I'm writing this I can observe the difference in my household; walk past our window and you'll see two children energetically expressing life. Later you'll see us tucked up with books or Lego.
They don't attend school and generally they eat paleo, but that's another story! They've built a den in the living room — I'd better go and explore!
Alexander Moseley [send him mail] is an educationalist and philosophy living in the English midlands; he is the author of several philosophy works including An A-Z of Philosophy and An Introduction to Political Philosophy as well as biographies of John Locke and Aristotle. He recently co-wrote Business Ethics with Jim Fieser of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and is director with his wife Moira of a private educational and tuition company Classical Foundations.