O.J. Simpson and David Suzuki made headlines this week with rather startling admissions.
Simpson laid out the scenario in which he most likely killed his wife.
Suzuki confessed his Suzuki on Science and The Nature of Things failed to educate his audience.
Psychologists and prosecutors now believe Simpson’s constant need to be in the spotlight led him to live in a psyche simply ‘larger than life.’
He came to see himself as beyond reproach, untouchable by and unaccountable to ordinary reality.
In a moment of rage he took to the sky just as superhuman-television told us he could. From that lofty perch he lost sight of the ground below.
His latest publicity stunt, in which he lays out the details of the brutal murders he could have committed, is further evidence he is still up there somewhere floated by a psyche larger and more disturbed than most.
Suzuki’s 40-year career as our first tele-geneticist was a benign and well-meaning attempt to use television as a mirror-opposite to Simpson.
People, he thought, would learn to love life if only they could see it as it really was: pristine always, beautiful beyond compare.
He attempted to show us that natural systems were complex systems. They were hardy and fragile, balanced and chaotic.
And if we could only be made to understand this, we would begin designing cultural systems more in line with natural ones.
What went wrong?
How did we end up with televised murder?
Why has Suzuki failed to educate us about our natural world?
The fundamental issue here is television itself, that strangest of all media.
I owe a great debt of gratitude to the late Neil Postman — a peripheral friend and serious mentor — when it comes to my take on television.
He has convinced me television has no educational value, none. In fact the virtual world of the boob tube prohibits learning.
O.J. Simpson’s psychosis is a dangerous manifestation of a virtual world lived as real.
Simpson does not yet understand what has gone wrong for him.
Suzuki, now by his own admission, has begun to see the danger and counter-productiveness of television as an educational tool.
“I always thought our programs on nature would be different … but now I realize that I, too, am creating a virtual world, a fabricated version of the real thing.”
Because of that, Suzuki now laments the fact he has not made much of a difference.
Suzuki’s confession is a sincere one.
He has finally come around to Postman’s (initially put forward in his Amusing Ourselves to Death written in 1985) view of what television really it’s a vehicle that solely entertains, a medium without a hint of educational value.
Only now has Suzuki come to understand his attempt at ecological-education-via-television has failed.
What he has to admit, and must, is that his approach has been counterproductive.
The Nature of Things and Suzuki on Science have tried — unsuccessfully — to bring us into close contact with the real world of nature.
What they have done — successfully — is tie us up in a virtual world as divorced from the real one as possible.
Postman warned us 20 years ago that television-as-education will fail for three reasons:
First, each televised segment must be a complete package in itself.
According to Postman, “The learner must be allowed to enter at any point without prejudice. That is why you shall never hear or see a television program begin with the caption that if the viewer has not seen the previous program, this one will be meaningless.”
This, in Postman’s view, “undermines the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself.”
On this point, even as sincere as Suzuki was in trying to explain to us that all life is sequential, that there is a continuity to being alive, his message was undermined by the mechanics of television itself.
Second, if television is perplexing in the least, it will generate low ratings; viewers will simply switch channels.
“This means,” in Postman’s view, “there must be nothing that has to be remembered, studied, applied or, worst of all, endured,” in television.
“It is assumed that any information, story or idea can be made immediately accessible, since,” according to Postman, “the contentment, not the growth of the learner is paramount.”
The natural world Suzuki attempted to show us is, if anything, perplexing. Both its complexity and its wonder stem from its perplexity.
Nature confounds us all the time. It surrounds us, is in us and of us, and the only way to get at it is to study ourselves, intently and endlessly. This is not something television is well suited for.
And last, the real enemy of television is exposition.
Postman concludes, “Arguments, hypotheses, discussions, reasons, refutations or any kind of traditional instruments of reasoned discourse turn television into radio or, worse, third-rate printed matter.
“Nothing,” he insists, “will be taught on television that cannot be both visualized and placed in a theatrical context.”
Nature is not — but has been made out to be in programs like Suzuki produces — theatrical: Grizzly bears are made out to be teddy bears; dolphins have human-like speech patterns; ravens roll and tuck and play in the wind; penguins strut their stuff.
Even thought Suzuki tried as hard as anyone to remove fluff and hype from our understanding of nature, television production tied his hands.
Shows like The Nature of Things inadvertently sold us on the idea that education can, must be, entertaining; that it must unfold in a dramatic setting or a humorous one; that somehow audio-visual aids are critical to the cognitive process.
But the natural world (of which we are a part) is not high-drama or theatre or comedy.
Our natural world is perplexing, chaotic, sequential, and thoughtful — not necessarily entertaining.
What afflicts us now with our techno-education, according to Postman, is not that we are laughing instead of thinking, “but that we do not know what we are laughing about and why we have stopped thinking.”
Both the O.J. and Suzuki confessions give credence to Postman.
Education is best left unplugged.