I belong to the last generation to experience childhood without television.
And I have often wondered what was lost when the children of that generation
deserted the playgrounds and moved indoors to watch the tube.
It is widely reported that many children today spend more time watching
television than they spend in a classroom. Thus as a child sits alone, hours
on end in his own private world, he fails to learn the fundamental rules of
social interaction – the necessity of compromise, accommodation, and
empathy, which is to say, the ability to see the world (oneself included)
from another’s perspective. Instead, his world is the world.
A library of books and articles has been devoted to the topic of the impact
of television on the developing brain, and upon society at large: the
consequences of watching, alone, millions of advertising messages and
thousands of simulated acts of murder and mayhem. I will not elaborate on
that subject here. Nor will I discuss here social-psychological-cultural
consequences of the dawning computer/internet revolution, which might well
prove to be even more profound than the impact of television, a half century
ago. Then, that new medium held great promise of social benefit, a promise
which, as we all know too well, was overwhelmed by commercialism. The
internet today now offers similar benefits and faces similar threats.
However, instead of examining the impact of television then, or the computer
today, I suggest that we ponder the psychological, social and moral
advantages of spontaneous play – advantages that may have largely been lost
to us with the advent of television.
When children rush on to a playground at the close of school or on weekends,
something wonderful happens, much more than is apparent to the casual eye.
If the children begin to play an informal game (a game without referees) –
touch football, soccer, or one-base baseball (we called it “one o’cat”) –
they immediately embark upon a competition in a context of cooperation.
Inevitably, disputes break out, disputes about which rules are to apply and
whether or not they are violated. Was the forward pass thrown behind
scrimmage, and was the runner tagged (“touched”)? Was the hit fair or foul?
Was the soccer ball intercepted in or out of bounds? Remember, there is no
referee to impose a ruling; it is up to the players themselves to settle the
If the dispute is severe and unresolved, the game ends and the children quit
and go home. Usually, the children tacitly agree that continuing the game is
more important than winning an argument. So the dispute is resolved, often
with a coin toss or by “taking turns” on yielding. Children who doggedly
refuse ever to yield soon find that they are not invited to play.
Eager to rejoin the play, they then agree to compromise and yield to the
consensus of the group.
Out of such activity, a sense of compromise and fair-play emerges,
sentiments essential both to democratic politics and to social morality.
Sadly, and inadvertently, some of these moral lessons may have been lost
with the advent of Little League football, as umpires and adult coaches, who
envision themselves as frustrated Vince Lombardis,
impose decisions and directions that might better be worked out
spontaneously by the children in their unsupervised play.
activities have also changed dramatically with the advent of television.
Card games and board games, like playground games, have given way to The
Tube. And pity it is, for such activities develop a capacity for empathy –
the ability to view the world from the perspective of an opposing player.
Military strategists since (and doubtlessly before) Sun Tzu, twenty-six
centuries ago, have insisted that the first rule of military engagement is
to know the mind of one’s opponent. Legend has it that the game of chess was
invented as a device to train military officers to do just that: think like
the other guy. And recall George Patton's remark (in the movie
biography) after his first victory in North Africa: "Rommel, you magnificent
bastard, I read your book!" Empathy -- “getting into the head” of one’s opponent -- is also,
paradoxically, essential to diplomacy and peacemaking.
But more fundamentally still, many moral philosophers including Adam Smith
and David Hume contend that moral behavior is founded in the “moral
sentiments” of empathy and benevolence. From these sentiments arise
"the moral point
of view:" the ability to adopt the perspective of a benevolent
spectator of oneself, one's companions, and one's society. This insight,
endorse, is reflected in The Golden Rule – a precept found in all the
However, this is not the approach of the neo-conservatives. Their
approach is never to talk with the “enemy,” but instead to crush the
opponent with overwhelming force. Knowledge of the mind of the “enemy” is
regarded by the neo-cons as irrelevant, or else it is
dogmatically assumed, with no attempt to examine and confirm that
As the leaders of my pre-TV generation retire, the TV generation – “the
baby-boomers” – take their place in Congress, and in top management
positions in the corporations. To the boomers, “winning” is more important
than the maintenance of what the framers of the Constitution called
“domestic tranquility.” The symbiotic relationship between workers,
entrepreneur and investors is being been
supplanted by parasitism, as the wealthy impoverish the
middle class which is, ultimately, the source of their wealth.
Uncompromising competition is eroding the context of cooperation which
allows the “games” of politics and commerce to continue and flourish.
is replacing citizenship, as we define ourselves less by
the ideals that we share and more by what we individually own or aspire to
own. As Robert Putnam points out in his book, Bowling Alone, "civil
society" -- voluntary participation in sporting teams, lodges, community
service organizations -- is declining, as more and more individuals withdraw
from their communities and migrate to the couch and the tube.
Such an aggregate of alienated and narcissistic individuals is, as we are
discovering, more easy for the wealthy and powerful, in control of the mass
media, to manipulate. And this disconnected aggregate is less inclined to
solidify into mass movements of dissent and reform.
Is all this happening, at least in some small part, because playgrounds and
board games have been supplanted by television?
Quite frankly, I just don’t know. But I have my suspicions.
Copyright 2007 by Ernest Partridge