William Bennett’s latest book, The Educated Child, earned a prominent place on my shelves the day I caught a glimpse of just how difficult it must be for people who wish to raise educated childrenindeed, how difficult it must be to wish to be an educated child. While making my occasional and usually fruitless troll through my cable company’s 70-plus offerings the other night, I chanced upon a commercial for MTV, that youth-oriented, brain-free channel and bastion of everything Bill Bennett and his cultural allies disdain.
My thumb is trained to keep pushing the channel buttons past MTV, but an image and some unlikely music blocked my reflexes. A rather enthusiastic young man was jumping around while playing a bodhran (BO-rawn), an Irish drum that looks something like a large tambourine. Irish folk music, all fiddles and penny whistles, played in the background. Odd, I thought. Maybe MTV wasn’t so bad after all.
Ah, how wrong I was. The scene quickly shifted to the usual collection of semi-clothed female singers and dancers, and then a couple of strutting rappers, while an announcer informed viewers that they could tune in for a show that would teach them to dance, rap, sing and otherwise act and behave in a manner reminiscent of the channel’s flashy, attractive stars. Then the scene switched back to the Irish music and the poor lad with the bodhran, and the announcer said: "So don’t be a dork."
In the world according to MTV, as echoed in much of the mass media, a young person can face no worse fate than to be considered uncool, unhip, unchica dork, to use the vernacular. And in order to avoid dorkhood, one must be a full-fledged participant in pop culture. That means, of course, subscribing to the values of the witless, shallow, image-conscious and ultimately anti-intellectual nihilists who control the messages that seek to influence the behavior of children, adolescents and young adults. The values that Bill Bennett tries to impart in The Educated Childa sense of history, the ability to think and reason, familiarity with numbers and an overall love of knowledgeare exactly what the MTV generation abhors.
The MTV commercial could, on a certain level, be interpreted as a very politically incorrect attack on one ethnic group’s culture. But the message’s offense takes us far beyond ethnic sensibilities. Indeed, it goes to the heart of pop culture’s assault on universal values and virtues. It is, in fact, pop culture’s answer to Bill Bennett’s educated child. MTV and its ilk have only contempt for educated children; for what are they, with their facts and figures, but dorks? Pop culture demands not thought, but emotion; not originality, but conformity; not courage, but fearthe fear of being unpopular and left out.
If I seem overly sensitive on the subject, it could be because I know a fair number of young musicians who play folk music, Irish and otherwise, including one who actually does play the bodhran. I’ve often admired the courage and dedication it must take to apply one’s musical talents (would that I had any) to fields for which pop culture’s arbiters offer few rewards or little respectclassical, folk, bluegrass and some forms of jazz. These talented musicians may well be dorks in the eyes of the people at MTV, but one senses that they are happy with the choices they have made and may well contribute more to the art of music than the midriff-baring singers or naughty-mouthed rappers one sees in music videos.
Of course, in raising the specter of dorkdom, the MTV culture calls into question more than just musical taste. Under the guise of celebrating youthful rebellion, it seeks to dismiss the efforts of teachers, parents and other authority figures to guide young people through the storms of adolescence. MTV’s audience knows full well what a dork is: an educated child, adolescent or young adult who tries to follow the rules, who has a strong moral core, who delights in learning and who believes that he or she can help make the world better and not just prettier.
As a kid in the late 1960’s, I knew very little about the entertainers and pop culture figures who defined that decade, although I did develop an eccentric interest (which I have to this day) in old-time radio comedians. Needless to say, many of my friends considered this just a bit oddno Mick Jagger, but plenty of Jack Benny. Back then, however, there was no youth culture vehicle condemning me to a life of dorkdom if I didn’t conform. I had it easy.
Not so today’s children. The forces arrayed against the educated child are formidable, and the demand that children take pop culture’s values as their own is unavoidable. As I am discovering through the lives of my two small children, there is no shelter from the pernicious effects of popular culture. I was stunned recently to learn that one of my 4-year-old son’s acquaintances regularly watches music videos, and as a result has a vocabulary that one might describe as "advanced."
The notion of an educated child surely is not quite yet an oxymoron. But MTV and other purveyors of pop culture are trying as hard as they can to make it so.