Know your enemy - it's television-induced passivity

I once helped to run a course for that much-reviled breed, the health service manager. This was back in the mid-1980s before they attracted so much political disdain. The main point of contention then was what the shift from "administrator" to "manager" actually signified. The message from the employers was that they expected pro-activity, not just the turning of wheels.

My colleagues in the business school put on an impressive range of units, covering accountancy techniques, public sector industrial relations, operations management and the like ("operations" here being of the managerial rather than the clinical kind). My job was to ensure some coherence and to offer pastoral assistance to students (much-needed after the three-day outdoor management training spell).

At one point we had a visit from the former director of the Health Education Authority, later sacked almost certainly because his views on sex education did not accord with those of his political masters - or, rather, mistress. His message to the aspirant managers was bracingly simple: if your goal is to improve the nation's health, attack the drinks industry; attack the tobacco industry; and (this was pre-BSE) attack the food industry.

Effective warfare on these three ogres, he argued, would vastly outweigh any increases in bed management efficiency, throughput of patients and all the rest of the management techniques which formed the bulk of the course. Our students were left a trifle disconcerted, as were we.

So is there an equivalent set of targets for those of us whose goal is a learning society? Are we wasting our time promoting educational opportunities, refining some courses and innovating with others, increasing student numbers, developing outreach work and so on, when the real challenge lies elsewhere?

At least one political scientist has no doubts about the answer. I have referred previously to the work of Robert Putnam on social capital. Putnam points the finger at TV as the villain of the piece, eroding social capital because of the passivity it induces.

Some of the many hours spent watching are of course informative but, even on a fairly catholic estimate this is only a small proportion of the total. Much of it positively discourages learning, especially as a social activity. It is TV, not the mass media, which faces the charge; reading newspapers, Putnam finds, is positively associated with greater social exchange.

Now no one could seriously suggest closing down television - though I believe the Finns used to maintain one day a week free of the eye - just as few would suggest closing down the drinks industry.

The challenge is to raise genuine questions about programme quality and the impact of TV on our learning, questions which are aware of possible charges of elitism and paternalism but which nevertheless reject the notion that the market alone will decide.

I am almost wholly persuaded that Rupert Murdoch's impending grip on digital programming will be one of the most anti-educational developments of the decade, if not century. But it has been good to see a debate opening up about the impact of violence on screen, which suggests that public opinion can be mobilised against the moguls who simply shrug their shoulders and say they are giving people what they want. We may be in urgent need of a campaign for real television. Otherwise the meretricious will drive out the mentally stretching.

Since I am voicing such doubts about the tube, let me report another. How much of the increased "training" we hear about is video-based? Well and good if it is actively structured. But research in the retail industry which I was hearing about recently reported high levels of training, yet most of it was induction training (because of the high turnover of staff) and much of this consisted in placing staff in front of a screen and playing a video to them, often in their first lunch hour. The statistics won't show it, but it's worth asking.

I have a sense of guilt about not keeping up with the tube takeovers. Most of us are probably too fascinated with the power of the Internet and the access it provides to reflect on how quickly information-richness might become dependency of a very dangerous kind.

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