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Television: The Cyclops That Eats Books

by Larry Woiwode


What is destroying America today is not the liberal breed of one-world politicians, or the IMF bankers, or the misguided educational elite, or the World Council of Churches; these are largely symptoms of a greater disorder. If there is any single institution to blame, it is, to use the cozy diminutive, “TV”.


TV is more than a medium; it has become a full-fledged institution, backed by billions of dollars each season.  Its producers want us to sit in front of its glazed-over electronic screen, press our clutch of discernment through the floorboards, and sit in a spangled, zoned-out state (“couch potatoes,” in current parlance) while we are instructed in the proper liberal tone and attitude by our present-day Plato and Aristotle-Dan Rather and Tom Brokow. These television celebrities have more temporal power than the teachings of Aristotle and Plato have built up over the centuries.  Television, in fact, has greater power over the lives of most Americans than any educational system or government or church.  Children are particularly susceptible.  They are mesmerized, hypnotized and tranquilized by TV.  It is often the center of their world; even when the set is turned off, they continue to tell stories about what they’ve seen on it.  No wonder, then, that as adults they are not prepared for the frontline of life; they simply have no mental defenses to confront the reality of the world.


The Truth About TV

One of the most disturbing truths about TV is that it eats books.  Once out of school, nearly 60 percent of all adult Americans have never read a single book, and most of the rest read only one book a year.  Alvin Kernan, author of The Death of Literature, says that reading books “is ceasing to be the primary way of knowing something in our society.” He also points out that bachelor’s degrees in English literature have declined by 33 percent in the last twenty years and that in many universities the courses are largely reduced to remedial reading. American libraries, he adds, are in crisis, with few patrons to support them.  Thousands of teachers at the elementary, secondary and college levels can testify that their students’ writing exhibits a tendency towards superficiality that wasn’t seen, say, ten or fifteen years ago. It shows up not only in the students’ lack of analytical skills but in their poor command of grammar and rhetoric.  I’ve been asked by a graduate student what a semicolon is. The mechanics of the English language have been tortured to pieces by TV.  Visual, moving images-which are the venue of television-can’t be held in the net of careful language. They want to break out. They really have nothing to do with language. So language, grammar and rhetoric have become fractured.


Recent surveys by dozens of organizations also suggest that up to forty percent of the American public is functionally illiterate; that is, our citizens’ reading and writing abilities, if they have any, are so seriously impaired as to render them, in that handy jargon of our times, “dysfunctional”. The problem isn’t just in our schools or in the way reading is taught: TV teaches people not to read. It renders them incapable of engaging in an art that is now perceived as strenuous, because it is an active art, not a passive hypnotized state.


Passive as it is, television has invaded our culture so completely that you see its effects in every quarter, even in the literary world. It shows up in supermarket paperbacks, from Stephen King (who has a certain clever skill) to pulp fiction.   These are really forms of verbal TV-literature that is so superficial that those who read it can revel in the same sensations they experience when they are watching TV.  Even more importantly, the growing influence of television has, Kernan says, changed people’s habits and values and affected their assumptions about the world. The sort of reflective, critical and value-laden thinking encouraged by books has been rendered obsolete. In this context, we would do well to recall the Cyclopes-the race of giants that, according to Greek myth, predated man.


Here is a passage from the well known classicist Edith Hamilton’s summary of the encounter between the mythic adventurer Odysseus and the Cyclops named Polyphemus, as Odysseus is on his way home from the Trojan Wars. Odysseus and his crew have found Polyphemus’ cave:

"At last he came, hideous and huge, tall as a great mountain crag.  Driving his flock before him he entered and closed the cave’s mouth with a ponderous slab of stone. Then looking around he caught sight of the strangers, and cried out in a dreadful booming voice, “Who are you who enter unbidden the house of Polyphemus? Traders or thieving pirates?” They were terror-stricken at the sight and sound of him, but Odysseus made shift to answer, and firmly too: “Shipwrecked warriors from Troy are we, and your supplicants, under the protection of Zeus, the supplicants’ god.” But Polyphemus roared out that he cared not for Zeus. He was bigger than any god and feared none of them. With that, he stretched out his mighty arms and in each great hand seized one of the men and dashed his brains out on the ground. Slowly he feasted off them to the last shred, and then, satisfied, stretched himself out across the cavern and slept. He was safe from attack. None but he could roll back the huge stone before the door, and if the horrified men had been able to summon courage and strength enough to kill him they would have been imprisoned there forever.”


To discover their fate, read the book. What I find particularly appropriate about this myth as it applies today is that first, the Cyclops imprisons these men in darkness, and that, second, he beats their brains out before he devours them. It doesn’t take much imagination to apply this to the effects of TV on us and our children.


TV’s Effect on Learning

Quite literally, TV affects the way people think. In Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1978), Jerry Mander quotes from the Emery Report, prepared by the Center for Continuing Education at the Australian National University, Canberra, that when we watch television “our usual processes of thinking and discernment are semi-functional at best.”  The study also argues “...that while television appears to have the potential to provide useful information to viewers-and is celebrated for its educational function-the technology of television and the inherent nature of the viewing experience actually inhibit learning as we usually think of it.” And its final judgment is: “The evidence is that television not only destroys the capacity of the viewer to attend, it also, by taking over a complex of direct and indirect neural pathways, decreases vigilance-the general state of arousal which prepares the organism for action should its attention be drawn to a specific stimulus.”


We have all experienced this last reaction:

  • “Dad, it’s time to-“
  • “Go on, get out of here!”
  • “But Dad, Mom just fell down the-“
  • “Leave me alone; can’t you see I’m watching the Super Bowl?”

How are our neural pathways taken over? We think we are looking at a picture, or an image of something, but what we are actually seeing is thousands of dots of light blinking on and off in a strobe effect that is calculated to happen rapidly enough to keep us from recognizing the phenomenon.  More than a decade ago, Mander and others pointed to instances of “TV epilepsy,” in which those watching this strobe effect overextended their capacities, and the New England Journal of Medicine recently honored this affliction with a medical classification: video game epilepsy.


Shadows on the Screen

Television also teaches that people aren’t quite real; they are images-grey-and-white shadows or technicolor little beings who move in a medium no thicker than a sliver of glass, created by this bombardment of electrons.


Unfortunately, the tendency is to start thinking of them in the way children think when they see too many cartoons: that people are merely objects that can be zapped.  Or that can fall over a cliff and be smashed to smithereens and pick themselves up again. This contentless violence of cartoons has no basis in reality. Actual people aren’t images but substantial, physical, corporeal beings with souls.  And, of course, the violence on television engenders violence; there have been too many studies substantiating this to suggest otherwise.  One that has been going on for thirty years, begun by the psychologist Leonard Eron, began research on 875 eight-year-olds in New York State. Analyzing parental childrearing practices and aggressiveness in school, Eron discovered that the determining factor is the amount of TV parents permit their children to watch.


Eron’s present partner in this extensive on-going study, University of Illinois professor of psychology Rowell Heusmann, has written:

“When the research was started in 1960, television viewing was not a major focus. But in 1970, in the ten-year follow-up, one of the best predictions we could find of aggressive behavior in a teenage boy was how much violence he watched as a child. In 1981, we found that the adults who had been convicted of the most serious crimes were those same ones who had been the more aggressive teenagers, and who had watched the most television violence as children.”


Where is this report? Buried in an alumni publication of the University of Illinois. In 1982, the National Institute of Mental Health published its own study: “Television and Behavior: Ten Years of Scientific Progress and Implications for the ‘80s.” This report stated that there is “overwhelming evidence” that violence on TV leads to aggressive behavior in children and teenagers. Those findings were duly reported by most of the major media in the early 80s and then were forgotten.


Why do such reports sink into oblivion? Because the American audience does not want to face the reality of TV.  They are too consumed by their love for it.



TV: Eating Out Our Substance

TV eats books.  It eats academic skills. It eats positive character traits.  It even eats family relationships. How many families do yo know that spend the dinner hour in front of the TV, seldom communicating with one another? How many have a television on while they have breakfast or prepare for work or school?

And what about school?  I’ve heard college professors say of their students, “Well, you have to entertain them.”   One I know recommends using TV and film clips instead of lecturing, “throwing in a commercial every ten minutes or so to keep them awake.” This is not only a patronizing attitude, it is an abdication of responsibility: A teacher should teach. But TV eats the principles of people who are supposed to be responsible, transforming them into passive servants of the Cyclops.


TV eats our substance. Mander calls this the mediation of experience: “[With TV] what we see, hear, touch, smell, feel and understand about the world has been processed for us.” And when we “cannot distinguish with certainty the natural from the interpreted, or the artificial from the organic, then all theories of the ideal organization of life become equal."


In other words, TV teaches that all life-styles and all values are equal, and that there is no clearly defined right and wrong. In the 1960s and 1970s, many of the traditional standards and mores of society came under heavy assault; indeed, they were blown apart, largely with the help of television which was just coming into its own. There was an air of unreality about many details of daily life. Even the “big” moral questions suffered distortion when they were reduced to TV images.  During the Vietnam conflict there was graphic violence-soldiers and civilians actually dying-on screen. One scene that shocked the nation was an execution in which the victim was shot in the head with a pistol on prime-time TV.  People “tuned in” to the war every night, and their opinions were largely formed by what they viewed, as if the highly complex and controversial issues about the causes, conduct and resolution of the war could be summed up in these superficial broadcasts.   You saw the same phenomenon again in the recent war in the Gulf. With stirring background music and sophisticated computer graphics, each network’s banner script read across the screen “War in the Gulf,” as if it were just another TV program. War isn’t a program. It is a dirty, bloody mess.  People are killed daily. Yet, television all but teaches that this carnage is merely another diversion, a form of blockbuster entertainment-the big show with all the international stars present.  In the last years of his life, Malcolm Muggeridge, a pragmatic and caustic TV personality and print journalist who embraced religion in later life, warned:

“From the first moment I was in the studio. I felt that it was far from being a good thing.  I felt that television [would] ultimately be inimical to what I most appreciate, which is the expression of truth, expressing your reactions to life in words. I think you’ll live to see the time when literature will be quite a rarity because, more and more, the presentation of images is preoccupying.”

Muggeridge concluded: “I don’t think people are going to be preoccupied with ideas. I think they are going to live in a fantasy world where you don’t need any ideas. The one thing that television can’t do is express ideas....There is a danger in translating life into an image, and that is what television is doing. In doing it, it is falsifying life. Far from the camera’s being an accurate recorder of what is going on, it is the exact opposite. It cannot convey reality, nor does it even want to.”



Larry Woiwode is one of America's leading novelists. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a John Dos Passos Prize winner, a recipient of awards from the William Faulkner Foundation and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a nominee for both the National Book Critics Circle and National Book Awards.



This article is reprinted by permission from the February, 1992 issue of IMPRIMIS, the national speech digest of Hillsdale College.