A comment on Hardball, Chris Matthews’ show on MSNBC, last night struck a chord with me that I think I can connect to a comment I received in my e-mail yesterday. Someone raised a question that has long needed investigation: How much do Americans learn from school as opposed to how much they learn from radio and TV?
This is a crucial question since it bears on the issue of the importance of school, raised by the spread of online educational schools and universities. Assuming we can agree that traditional educational institutions are worth their growing cost, the answer to this question bears on the sempiternal question of what should we be teaching in them (no point in teaching what they are learning on TV) and how should be teaching it (in-class sitcoms? thrice-a-week soap operas?)
A writer that prefers to be unidentified wrote yesterday, “One word whose definition seems to be eroding (or broadening), is notoriety. Lately, I have heard it misused all over television and occasionally even in print. The misuse, of course, is attributing to the word it’s opposite meaning, ‘of note’, in a positive way, rather than its true negative slant, i.e., notorious. Must I swallow my disgust at this misuse as I hear it becoming an absurdly common substitution, or can we still scoff at people who consider the word ‘of note’ rather than ‘notorious’?”
The fact of the matter is, radio and TV have so ingrained themselves in our lives, once a misusage like this spreads through the media, there is little educators or anyone else can do about it. Language does change and we should be flexible enough to adapt to new usages. Still, I have written recently about other words, like reticent, a word that has lost the subtlety of its original meaning in news reporting. I could name a dozen more. In every case, words denoting subtle differences that lent depth to our conversations are being flattened out so as to become synonyms of words with broader meanings that we already have. Just as TV and radio flatten the news and most forms of entertainment into two dimensions, so it is flattening our language.
On a broader scale, we really need to know how much our children learn about politics from courses in political science and how much from campaign ads on TV. How much do they learn about the legal system from courses and how much from “Law and Order” or Rambo movies? My suspicion—maybe I should say ‘fear’—is that just as TV has converted the news, sports (football players who have to dance for the cameras), and religion into entertainment, it is now converting education into entertainment as well.