Government has long claimed that education is the key to a prosperous future for our country. Whether they’re doing their part is debatable, but it’s clear that the rest of us don’t believe that education is important. If we did, would we tolerate the drek that passes for kids’ TV?
Our apartheid past made it a virtue to keep in line, and avoid thinking or asking questions. Lack of education was a major tool in the subjugation of black South Africans. One would think, then, that having awoken from our stupor, we would fling off our dull shackles and breathe deeply of the fresh air of free thought. Given our past, it is surprising that education has not become a banner of triumph in our democracy, but it is thoroughly disturbing that South Africans seem more interested in the warmth and gloom of their old blankets.
We’re in need of thinkers who can steer the country wisely, and we’re in need of entrepreneurs, artisans and problem solvers who can create jobs and combat poverty. We know this, but what are we doing to nurture future leaders? South African kids’ media reveals what we think they ought to enjoy, and how we’re training our kids to play and learn. Consider this brief sample from our national broadcaster’s morning line-ups:
A kids’ craft show is an ideal place to teach kids to work with their hands and think entrepreneurially, so it was with some interest that I sat with my daughter watching one. The episode we saw featured a photograph holder made from a mug, plastic greenery and pipe-cleaners. The item was badly conceived and unattractive to start with, but the child demonstrating its manufacture could neither replicate it in appearance or in its dubious functionality. The programme showed no evidence of rehearsal or editing that would hint at an interest in quality.
Soon after, we watched a show called ‘PJ Party’, a half-hearted game show modelled on a girls’ sleepover. Two guests compete in a handful of games for points and prizes. The programme is interspersed with song requests, music videos and incessant repetition of the show’s jingle. The music videos last only a minute or two, presumably because kids are not supposed to have an attention span to cope with a full song. But this, it turns out, is merciful. The song featured was ‘Lip Gloss’ by Lil Mama. It is a song about how better-quality lip-gloss attracts more male crushes and female jealousy. It’s worth reading the lyrics in order to witness for yourself the benchmark of cultural vacuity.
Having had my fill of ‘PJ Party’ theme music and brain-dead kids’ hip-hop, my hopes were raised as a good-natured game was next on the menu. The premise was simple: the two competitors were tasked with creating a poster with ‘PJ Party’ written on it using glitter glue and breakfast cereal, and the kids were given an example prepared beforehand. The game seemed like a good idea. It had a breakfast theme, it made room for creativity, elaboration, skill… If only. Instead of running the competition while we listened to another three or four of Lil Mama’s formidable oeuvre, the contestants were given one minute to complete their task. One minute. Time was nearly up before the children had managed even to plot the letters on the page and the presenters realised that the game was impossible. In order to cover up the shambles, and with 15 seconds left, they changed the rules, and announced that the winner would be the girl who managed to glue the most cereal to her page. One had a few fruit loops swimming on her paper by the end, and earned a desperately unsatisfying victory.
The next game was a make-up contest. The girls had all of 30 seconds to replicate the make-up worn by a certain celebrity, with the best approximation earning the win. Once again, the expectation seems to be that children all have ADHD, or if they don’t, that they ideally ought to be developing it. But if only the game were destroyed by the absurd time restriction alone! With masterful lack of care and sensitivity, the producers of the show decided that two lovely young black South Africans should attempt to copy the look of Avril Lavigne. Avril Lavigne, the whitest-of-white grunge-pop princesses. And this show is by no means the exception to the South African TV rule.
We pay lip service to the importance of education, but the quality and kind of entertainment that we produce for our children reveals some stark facts about our culture and how we actually view childhood development.
Firstly, the absence of genuine educational content in morning programming, and the hollowness that operates in its place, demonstrates that we ourselves cannot conceive of education as enjoyable. Education is something that must be undertaken out of necessity, whereas entertainment is only for fun, and never, it seems, the twain shall meet. For all its merits, our outcomes-based education system feeds into the perception that education serves only practical ends. The thinking proceeds as follows: We all need money to live; jobs earn us money; qualified people are more likely to get jobs; passing exams earns you qualifications; therefore education must be directed at passing exams. Increasingly, our children are reaching adulthood having never voluntarily read a book. In our school curricula and in our culture at large, we are rapidly losing a love of knowledge for its own sake and we’re losing the ability to think deeply and creatively. Education is a difficulty, endured because we have to; it is no longer seen as inherently valuable and enriching.
Secondly, our kids’ entertainment TV reveals that we expect our children to be inattentive and bored. Rather than attempting to transcend these characteristics, we’re entrenching them. We need to give kids more credit than that. If we want thoughtful, creative children, then we need to encourage creativity and thinking. For example, psychologists have long maintained a link between creativity and a mind that is able to elaborate. Imagery-based elaboration is used as a test for child creativity. However, for elaboration to take place, time is needed to make room for it. All possibilities for creativity in the PJ Party breakfast-poster project were eradicated by making it a minute-long race aimed at the Ritalin generation.
Of course, television programming is dependant upon viewer ratings, that is, what people will tolerate and enjoy. But it is equally a decision of the station as to what people ought to enjoy, and kids are especially open to such guidance. If we want to be instrumental in building a better South Africa, then we need to be more responsible and intentional about what we feed into the development of children. We must model the character that we’re aiming to produce.
Firstly, if our country desperately needs thinkers and entrepreneurs, then our schooling also needs to priorities those skills. Why can’t our schools incorporate classes that teach reasoning and logic? Why can’t they teach lateral thinking? Edward de Bono, who coined the term lateral thinking, has developed a ‘thinking course’ aimed at schools, and for children of all ages. In his course, he draws a very helpful distinction between intelligence and thinking. We might not all be geniuses, he says, but we can all train ourselves to think creatively. In his experience, giving students of all intelligence quotients the skills to be thinkers has proved to be liberating for them. Such a course would be a positive step in moving South Africans away from being imitators and towards being innovators.
But secondly, we can’t expect education to remain exclusively within school walls. Educational goals need to permeate all areas of our culture. If quality, creativity and problem solving skills are all virtues that we hope to germinate, then there is no excuse for feeding our children with the TV equivalent of styrene packaging material: TV that is made to fill a timeslot, rather than being designed to serve a worthy goal. If we can’t create entertainment products that exhibit quality and creativity, even on a low budget, where do we think our children will pick up the skills?
The obvious defeatist solution to complaints about our entertainment will be to tell me to avoid watching TV. My daughter and I will do so. But given that most children will be watching today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, shouldn’t our broadcasting at least aim at positive change?