Thursday, February 6, 2014

TV in Taiwan—Part II

As promised, the conclusion to my 2004 article: 

"I am a teacher and the school where I teach began as a Montessori school. One of Montessori’s fundamental tenets is to prepare an environment that will stimulate the child’s aptitudes and deepest needs. An inspired Montessori classroom is a joy to observe—the children need little supervision for they are happily working away with materials that keep their fingers busy and their minds alert. Whether counting beads, chopping carrots, building towers or piecing together puzzles, they explore and experiment, discover causes and effects, enjoy both the sensuality and the practical skills of their own hands, find out what their own minds and bodies can do working within the limits of the material world. They are engaged. 

One Montessori tenet is to provide a rich and varied cornucopia of materials carefully chosen by adults. That's our job. Another is to let the child choose what to take from the shelves. That's their job.  Montessori believed that each child has an intuitive blueprint and unspoken knowledge about what he or she needs to be working on. Though adults sometimes gently guide and suggest, mostly they trust that the child will follow what feels right at the moment.

But that inner guide can easily be overpowered by influences outside of the child’s control. Children hungry for sensory involvement and sensation can be seduced by strangers selling candy and forget to eat their vegetables. Responsible adults will provide balanced diets on the dinner table, the classroom shelves and the world at large. But two cardinal truths of the human experience suggest that this might not always happen.

1)    Adults will not always do responsible things.
2)    Given a choice between walking up the stairs and taking the escalator, most of us will take the escalator—even on the way to the gym!

Humans come with a built-in foible. Though everything worthy that we do, think or create comes from a willful effort, there is an alternate program in the system. Evolutionarily speaking, when we crawled out of the sea and began the journey from fins to feet, eggs outside the body to eggs inside, four legs to two legs, each evolutionary advance carried a characteristic of its former self into its new mutation. For example, our brains. Each new layer did not replace the former one, but added on to it. Our brain stem is sometimes called our Reptilian brain because it does what the reptile’s brain does—it reacts instinctively to the world. This function comes for free—that is to say, since it is reactionary and instinctive, no effort is needed to bring it into play. When presented with an alarming stimulus, it is this part of our brain that reacts with flight or fight.

The next layer is often called the mammalian brain and here is where the world of emotion enters. Your pet lizard in its cage will mostly give you the same unchanging stare while the dog at your feet yelps, pleads, whines or barks according to it mood. And the dog part of our brain does as well. But humans have yet another layer, the neo-cortex, the place where conscious thought takes place. Though still connected to—and often at the mercy of—emotion and instinct, this part of the brain has the greatest plasticity (an odd word, since most plastic is solid and rigid, but here it means flexibility and choice). What we experience, what we observe, what we do, what we eat, read, listen to, all make for the unprecedented uniqueness of the human species. The pigeon in Taiwan lives pretty much the same life as the pigeon in San Francisco, but the human beings in each place are made different by their cultural and personal experiences.

Evolution must be trying to tell us something here. “Human beings, embrace your uniqueness, enlarge your brain (or rather, connections in the brain) through conscious effort, bring your instinctive drives up to their higher counterparts—transform food for the body into food for the soul, sexual lust for human love, the outer power of conquering others to the inner power of conquering self. “ Well, that’s easy enough for evolution to say, but we seem to be having some trouble. And it has a lot to do with the fact that our neo-cortex gives us the luxury—and terrifying responsibility of— choice.

 John Steinbeck’s epic novel East of Eden has a remarkable passage about this. Lee, the venerable, wise and eloquent Chinese servant, is discussing a Bible passage with his neighboring Irish farmer friend, Samuel. One translation of the passage has Jehovah telling Cain, “Thus shalt rule over him.” “Him” in this passage is a metaphor for sin. This passage disturbs Lee for it reeks of predestination. If God had ordained “Thou shalt,” then there is no choice or effort on the part of Man. Another translation says, “Do thou rule over him.” This also fails to satisfy Lee, implying that Man need only be obedient, follow rules, do what authority demands without thinking about the deeper reasons for why or how. With the help of Chinese scholars and Hebrew rabbis (a sterling example of the value of multicultural dialogue), they dig deeper and discover the Hebrew word “timshal,” which translates as “Thou mayest.” Lee says:

’Thou mayest’ gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on man.”

So back to the Montessori classroom, the hotel room and the foibles of humankind. Choice carries a responsibility, both personal as to what we choose to do and social as to what we choose to lay before others. Given a choice between effortless Reptilian brain activity and conscious neo-cortical effort, the odds are stacked to the Reptilian side—and all the advertisers and corporations know it. Put video games as one of the choices in the Montessori classroom and the materials will lie neglected on the shelves. Equip every hotel room with a TV and the blank journal will remain unmarked. Put a fast-food joint in every town, with commercials on every kids show and the slow pleasures of talk around the home dinner table will suffer. Amp up the volume, increase the action and the rate of image change, load on the artificial flavors and the capacity to appreciate subtlety and nuance will diminish. This is no mere conjecture—it is irrefutable fact.

For those like me who spend sleepless night worrying about this, there are only two solutions and they are the same in Taiwan, Texas or Timbuktoo. The first is to take collective action to impose limits, to tether economic profit-driven freedom to reduce the range of harm. It can be as simple as Iceland once having one night a week with no television being broadcast or Sweden prohibiting advertisers to prey on children under 8 years old or a town in Minnesota deciding to collectively reduce homework, television and after-school activities to give their children the freedom to play without imposed structures. All of this has already been done, with noticeable results.

But let’s not stop here. What if hotel associations agreed to put the TV’s on roll-away carts in closets and blank journals on desks encouraging submissions to their annual poetry contests? First prize—a week’s free stay. What if all the children who didn’t watch TV on a given school night were asked to stand like flight attendants on Eva Air while their classmates applauded. What if all billboards had the world’s greatest short poems on them? What if there was one pop music radio station and 10 jazz stations?

The details are incidental. Once a family or school or neighborhood or culture decides that life is richer when ‘Thou mayest’ is given some support and institutional structure, the ideas will pour forth. And having moved amongst people put to sleep by corporate media and people perpetually awake, I can testify that the effort is well-worth making—the difference is profound.

The second solution—and of course, my no means, exclusive—is to encourage the wise personal choice, hard as that may be. In my Taiwan hotel room, I surfed through the 72 channels twice, lingering just long enough at the soft porn channel to grow disappointed in myself, and finally shut it off and got to work. But even for someone who has enjoyed a lifetime of self-generated activity, reflective thought and creative endeavors, I still find it hard to resist. But that is what choice is—a determination and enough backbone to resist as appropriate. And of course, there are times when there’s no reason to resist and plopping down in front of an old movie on TV in a strange hotel room is just what the soul needs at the moment!

But the fact is that children plugged in early in life to addictive technologies will have no choice. The corporate psychologists know this and now the war cry is, “Get ‘em while they’re young!” Studies show that children hit unawares before three years old become lifelong, loyal product consumers—that means guaranteed profits for the corporation and a guaranteed loss of human health and happiness.

H.G Wells once wrote, “We are in a race between education and catastrophe.” Education here means directed thought, imaginative dreaming and skillful making. Catastrophe means capitulating to our lowest possibilities, giving ourselves over to the dreams (or nightmares) of others. Corporate mentality did not invent this collective, imposed nightmare—we had the church and the state before that—but it is certainly where the action is taking place today. It is armed with enormous money, powerful technologies and a poisonous mind-set of bottom line profit and constant sensation. Keep hitting the food-sex-power nerves and the people won’t even notice that they are no longer themselves. It’s a David and Goliath battle and everyone tells me it’s hopeless—why fight it? But aren’t these precisely the stories we love? David slaying Goliath, the turtle winning the race against the hare, the winning against all odds? And “winning” occurs at many levels—sometimes the effort alone is a victory.

My sleepless night is suddenly a Taiwan dawn. I flick through the channels once more, noting that the porn channel is now a 6 am boxing match—from sex to power without missing a beat. Outside, the trains in the Metro station begin to flow. Taxis pull up, people start to stream into the station. They move with a purpose and an intention—the work day has begun and they are making an effort to contribute. (Or at least to pay the rent.) Behind the station, the river flows at its steady pace, doing its own kind of work in its place. Above the river are the Kuan Yin mountains shrouded in mist, peeking out at the scene in Buddha-like patience. Kuan Yin (Kannon in Japan, Avalokitesvara in India) is the goddess of compassion. What is she thinking as she looks down at the frenetic hustle and bustle?

I’ve moved from the bed to the writing desk and here’s another institutional horror. There’s a huge mirror running it length and against my better instincts, I look up to see the grizzled old face that has surprisingly become my own. Phones, mirrors and TV’s, the narcissistic artifacts of modern life, placed in every available space in every hotel room.

I defy it all, arranging some pillows on the floor and cross my legs for some Zen meditation, a practice learned in an old boy scout camp in the San Gabriel mountains, the ultimate practice of removing all distracting stimuli and sitting face-to-face with one’s primary self, no intermediaries. Then a shower, breakfast and meet my ride down to Hsin-Yin, ready to teach through the old uniting technologies of hands on skin and bare feet on wood floor. 50 teachers with a translator, trying to find a common ground in drums, recorders, xylophones and our avowed passion to teach children. We indeed are larger than the electronic tools we use. It’s a marvelous world indeed.”

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