By Donella Meadows
–August 25, 1994–
Scores on the Scholastic Achievement Tests — the SATs that determine which of our high-school seniors go to college — have been going down so steadily that the College Board has shifted the scale. Now you can get a higher score with fewer right answers.
Only one out of five U.S. students can write a logical, well-developed essay. “Mediocrity is the norm and quality is the exception,” says one teacher.
Those are just two recent reports about the decline of the American mind. New ones come out every month or so. Every study shows a direct correlation between poor intellectual performance and frequent television-watching. No surprise.
There are roughly as many studies showing that television rots the mind as there are studies showing that junk food rots the body or that cigarette smoking rots the lungs — as if we needed studies. What could be more obvious than the fact that our lungs get coated with whatever we draw through them? That our bodies are made of what we eat? That our minds accumulate what we put into them? We hate these inevitabilities, we try to forget them, cigarette executives deny them, but every child knows them. The interesting question is not whether they’re true, but whether we act accordingly.
As a society we’re doing more and more to deglamorize and control tobacco products. Enough of us are intent on healthy diets that even the junk makers are cutting back (a little) on fat, sugar, salt, and chemicals. But so far we’re doing no more than griping about inane ads, violent movies, obscene pop songs, vitriolic talk-shows, stupid sitcoms, though they degrade our minds, our families, and our nation.
Why can’t our children write? Have you ever looked at the script of a TV show, even a news show, even a sober PBS documentary? There is no logical flow. The words are there as commentary on the pictures. The pictures are chosen not to build up a sequence of thought, but to engage the emotions. Sustained intelligence is hard enough in a visual medium even if that were the intent of the producers, which it rarely is.
Why do families fall apart? We spend more time with the smart-talking families on TV than with the real ones next door or even in our own house. Media families are not known for their patience, compassion, productivity, or thinking. How often do you see sitcom characters working with a sense of commitment? Or reacting to an idea with anything other than a wisecrack? How often do you catch them in an act of civic responsibility?
Why are our politics venal and divisive? On the talk shows everything is black and white, our side and their side. Facts are twisted to ridicule one side and make the other look good. How can a child listening to these steady streams of distortion learn to be open to ideas and to test them for truth?
Why does our nation lead the world in materialism, irresponsible sex, and violence? Hundreds of times a day the ads tell us how to solve every problem by buying something. Between the ads the shows have one purpose — to hold our attention until the next ad. The surest way to do that is to grab us by the gonads, to trigger lust, fear, rage, sorrow, envy, anything that makes us feel alive while in fact deadening us so we go on sitting there, absorbing high-energy violence and sexual imagery.
Media messages are repeated and repeated and repeated, to lodge them in our minds. When I watch, listen to, or read junk media, I’m horrified to find, days later, bits of idiotic slogan or image resurfacing in my consciousness. I feel polluted, as if I had run smoke through my lungs or pesticides through my liver.
Poisoning by media is even more harmful than poisoning by cigarettes or saturated fats, because it destroys not just individuals, but culture. Culture is shared consciousness, the common experience, the small things we all know, the characters in our stories, the morals those stories carry. Culture is what we absorb as we grow up, what we see and hear so often that we call it reality. Out of culture comes behavior.
Our culture used to be derived from experience with land, tools, materials, family, neighbors, nature. Now it is invented in the fantasy-shops of New York and California by people who only want to keep us dazzled and watching. Visitors from abroad are shocked by the brutality, stupidity, and artificiality of what we let these people broadcast into our heads.
Suppose we decide to do something about this cultural assault. At first glance it isn’t clear what to do, since our blasted minds have lost the distinction between free political speech, which is essential to democracy, and free commercial speech, which can undermine democracy along with everything else worthwhile. If we keep the two straight, we can come up with as many ways to restore our culture as ways to protect our lungs. We can start with the disposition of our multi-billion-dollar gift of the public airways to private profitmakers.
In the meantime, there’s the “off” switch. It’s hard to turn, I know, I know, because, like tobacco and junk food, junk culture is addictive. It fills us with illusion to the point where we don’t know how to lead real lives. It sedates our kids so we don’t have to spend time with them. But, as with other addictions, the price of that cheap comfort is way too high.
The government could help us stay clean, by keeping pushers off the streets and out of our living rooms. But ultimately, it’s up to us to decide what goes into our own and our children’s lungs, mouths, eyes, ears, and minds.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994