Some Thoughts on "The Media"

Eugene Schwartz
Sunbridge College

Eugene Schwartz of Sunbridge College originally wrote the following article as a letter to a parent in the Shining Mountain Waldorf School, in Boulder, Colorado. We believe he as done an excellent job of articulating, from the perspective of Waldorf education, the fundamental viewpoints and approaches to the question of the effects of electronic media on the developing child. As such, it is our hope that this article will serve to clarify an area of concern that is currently burdened with a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding. If you have comments or questions, you may contact Eugene at e-mail

Bob and Nancy

Note: This document is available in Microsoft Word format (38K) and as a ZIP compressed file (15K).

You have made many points in your letter, but I want to address only the one which I believe is most important - the image of electronic media as "a set of tools to enhance the imagination and provide new methods for expression and learning." You suggest that Waldorf practitioners should be more open to "properly applying these tools to daily living." I should mention at the outset that I am the proud owner of a Pentium desktop PC with multimedia capabilities and a modem, as well as a notebook computer, and work quite happily with a variety of Windows-compatible software. I have worked as a film editor and written film criticism, and I listen to the radio and now and then watch TV (my older son has cable). Along with many other colleagues in the Waldorf movement, I have no objection to adults immersing themselves in the world of technological wonders.

However, I do want to address one particular point that you made: the image of electronic media as "a set of tools to enhance the imagination and provide new methods for expression and learning."

I remember well that in the early 1950s when I entered grade school, the "visual aids" approach which utilized a film strip projector was going to revolutionize our educational experience. Sometime after that, "Sunrise Semester" debuted on television, as a first step in the "video revolution" that was going to transform education in America. Several years later, I was part of one of the first Advanced Placement Physics classes in the nation, and our education was going to be revolutionized through the utilization of videotaped lectures by great physicists broadcast over closed circuit television. I have already lived through several of these "electronic revolutions" and I've yet to see anything happening in main-stream American education except for a steady decline in quality and morale among students and teachers. I have no idea where all of the old slide projectors went when they were replaced by closed circuit televisions, or where the televisions went when they were replaced by computers, or where the old 386 PCs will go when they are replaced by multimedia Pentium models, etc. - but a lot of corporate marketing departments are undoubtedly very happy about the brisk sales that every new "revolution" brings about. I don't think that I'm alone in these concerns. In a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, Todd Oppenheimer recounts that:

In 1922 Thomas Edison predicted that "the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and ... in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks." Twenty-three years later, in 1945, William Levenson, the director of the Cleveland public schools' radio station, claimed that "the time may come when a portable radio receiver will be as common in the classroom as is the blackboard." Forty years after that the noted psychologist B. F. Skinner, referring to the first days of his "teaching machines," in the late 1950s and early 1960s, wrote, "I was soon saying that, with the help of teaching machines and programmed instruction, students could learn twice as much in the same time and with the same effort as in a standard classroom." Ten years after Skinner's recollections were published, President Bill Clinton campaigned for "a bridge to the twenty-first century ... where computers are as much a part of the classroom as blackboards." 1
The substance of these prophetic statements might have been best summed up by H. L. Mencken in 1918:
...there is no sure-cure so idiotic that some superintendent of schools will not swallow it. The aim seems to be to reduce the whole teaching process to a sort of automatic reaction, to discover some master formula that will not only take the place of competence and resourcefulness in the teacher but that will also create an artificial receptivity in the child.
I have taught students from kindergarten to college level, and I served as a consultant for Waldorf and inner city public schools, and I have yet to see any "learning tool" that can replace a human teacher. Please remember, from K through 8, the Waldorf school doesn't only reject computers as learning tools - Waldorf teachers also do without textbooks, basal readers, ditto sheets, bulletin boards, motivational posters and Junior Scholastic magazine. There are times of day when we even turn off the incandescent lights and illumine the room with a candle: one couldn't go much farther than that in doing without all the modern accouterments of "educational enhancement"!

We have two basic reasons for this approach. Number one, as I noted before, is that we ascribe to a human-centered method of education. The teacher's living and warm presence, and the unfolding of content in the immediacy of the moment are what convey knowledge - and wisdom - most powerfully to the child. Anything that "mediates" between the child and teacher will, in some sense, dampen down this living quality. We need only recall the remarkable powers of memory retained by people who lived in an oral tradition and compare them to the weak memories of those of us who depend upon memos and Filofaxes - and computer PIMs - to recognize that something is lost when person-to-person pedagogy disappears. The fact that the teacher has worked to study sources, to distill them into a quintessence which is customized for her particular class and is ready to patiently present, and, if necessary, to repeat what she has presented - none of this is lost on the child, for whom the living teacher is a model of the "life-long learner."

No matter how sophisticated the graphics and how "life-like" the synthesized voice presented on the CD-ROM, a very impersonal element creeps into the child's educational experience: a subtle sense arises that machines, rather than people, are the "good" teachers. If a living teacher is the child's role model for learning, the child will naturally strive to become more of a human being; if software and the ghostly images of people on TV screens are the role models, the child will (through her inherently imitative nature) slowly become ever more "machine-like," impersonal and "cool." The tragic loss of human values and conscience among the young in America may be symptomatic of the malaise of a generation raised by, entertained by, and increasingly educated by the non-human, conscience-neutral and bloodless media. We need not be surprised by the report in Wired magazine that of "the ten most accessed links from the Whole Internet Catalog's GNN Select," seven are sexual in nature.2

Intellectual explanations may temporarily satisfy a child's curiosity, but it is no less essential for answers to awaken the child's sense of wonder. Curiosity is a quality notorious for its insatiability: questions born out of mere curiosity, once answered, lead only to more questions. How many fairy tales commence with the one door that is not to be opened, the one room that is not meant to be entered, etc., which proves to be the undoing of the curious protagonist? We know that we have evoked wonder in the soul of the child when, instead of questioning us further, the child pauses and breathes deeply; we can sense that the child has been fed and nourished, not just stuffed with mental junk food. Instead of being battered by an endless stream of external sense-impressions, the child takes on a mood of "active contemplation."3 When asked, in the 1950s, how children could become more attuned to their surroundings and grow into adults who could reverse the inexorable ecological crises that were leading to a "Silent Spring," the environmentalist Rachel Carson wrote,

A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.4
Even more to the point for the today's child, such anthropomorphic stories depict beings (godly or human or otherwise) who are intentionally active in creating phenomena. The fact that particles, light rays, and water vapor interact to make the sun "appear" to be red may be perfectly satisfactory to a modern, intellectually-educated adult. To the child, however, the random interaction of these chemical and physical entities is lifeless. The world becomes a complex collection of passive phenomena, brought about randomly, with no particular plan or goal motivating its action. Such lifeless pictures gradually inculcate passivity in the child's soul. The enthusiasm of public television science specials, the bells and whistles of CD-ROMs and science Web Sites, even the impressive technology of "virtual reality" software, cannot revivify a worldview that is, in the eyes of a primary school child, virtually dead.5

The CCNY psychologist William Crain cites a study by Gary Nabhan and Sara St. Antoine, who in 1992 interviewed 52 eight-to-fourteen year-olds living in the Sonaoran desert in the US/Mexico borderlands:

The children were from two Indian tribes (the Yaqui and O'odham) as well as Latino and Anglo children; they lived in mixtures of urban and rural settings, but all had access to the desert. The desert had once been very rich in animal and plant life, with many lizards, turtles, hares, porcupines, and so on, but the variety had diminished in recent years due to development and overgrazing.

Nabhan was surprised to find that most of the children reported that they had seen more wild animals on television and in the movies than in the wild. This was even true of the children in one Indian tribe (the Yaqui). Only a minority in each group had ever spent a half hour alone in a wild place, and most of the children had never collected natural treasures such as feathers, bones, insects, or rocks from their surroundings. When one boy was asked whether he had learned more about animals from books or from his family, he said, "Neither. Discovery Channel." The children were missing out on first-hand experience with nature. Nabhan notes that if nature experience is impoverished in this relatively wild area of the country, we can imagine what it is like in most of today's urban and suburban centers.6

Given the prevalence of such separation from direct experience of nature among today's elementary school children, their widespread passivity in the face of environmental problems should not be a surprise. Yet the most recent efforts made to rectify this distressing situation may only serve to exacerbate it. An article in the September, 1996, Internet World, relates the following:
Fourth- and fifth-grade students and teachers at Murphy Elementary in Haslett, Mich., are not in the classroom today. They are tiptoeing around in rubber boots in a bog near the school. Their aim is to investigate the fragile wetlands that abound in Meridian Township but that are increasingly at risk because of the rapid commercial development in their area.7
It sounds promising -- here are students who are being given the chance to encounter the nature world in an unmediated way. But read on...
The students are laden with notebooks, pens, pencils, a tape recorder, video recorder, and a pocket camera. They are "multimedia detectives," part of an ongoing program in Okemos, Haslett and East Lansing schools.

The program, now almost two years old, enables teachers in the three school districts to explore ways in which multimedia and telecommunications technology can help their students learn how to engage in publishing.8

Only two paragraphs before, the students' aim was to "investigate the fragile wetlands," but now we learn that behind this charade is a more important goal -- getting the children engaged in desktop publishing, for which they will certainly need to purchase more hardware and software than for their innocent jaunts in the bogs! One paragraph later, and the children's separation from their immediate natural surroundings is made clearer still:
To help the students become more competent as Web explorers, we use two-way cable TV as a control and viewing mechanism...

TCI Cable and Michigan State University have installed a high-speed ChannelWorks cable modem at the Multi-Media Classrooms site. The modem, made by Digital Equipment Corp., is the size of a small VCR. The ChannelWorks box is attached to an IBM PC via an internal LANtastic Ethernet card and a standard Ethernet cable. A second connection on the back of the box is attached to a normal coaxial cable just like the kind on the back of a TV or VCR.9

The pretense that all of this had anything to do with exploring nature is dropped; it is clear that the hidden agenda here is "exploring the Web," pulling children away from the immediacy of their experience of nature and into a forest of corporate logos and high tech wiring. Where, in all of this, is anything asked of the imaginative capacities of the young person as she apprehends nature? Where is the possibility for a meaningful encounter between the growing sensibility of the child and the wonders of life and growth? It is not surprising that such an insensitive replacement of active life experience with passive transmission of information leads even computer specialists to urge educators to exercise some caution. As Sherry Turkle, a professor of the sociology of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a longtime observer of children's use of computers, told Todd Oppenheimer, "The possibilities of using this thing poorly so outweigh the chance of using it well, it makes people like us, who are fundamentally optimistic about computers, very reticent."10

The second reason is based on our conviction that children are not "little adults," who in essence perceive the world and think about much the way adults do, but rather that the consciousness of the child is radically different from that of the adult. Rather than impose all of the technological wonders of today's world upon the child - much as the zealous missionaries of the 19th century set about imposing the "virtues" of modern life onto the "deprived" South Sea islanders (and thereby decimated the indigenous population in the course of a generation) - we should be learning more about the world of childhood and creating a space in which that world can manifest.

It is obvious, for example, that a five-year-old has no business sitting behind the wheel of an automobile. The power and weight of the vehicle and the complex judgments that must be made at any moment would overwhelm the physically weak and mentally dreamy child: the situation could be fatal. Yet children of that age, or younger, are let loose on the "Information Superhighway" with hardly a driving lesson! I would contend that a television set, a movie or a computer are no less overwhelming (and no more appropriate) to a child than is a car. Only because the child is sitting in one place do we fail to see the deleterious consequences of the technological assault of the media on our child's senses and psyches. As a recent (1996) observer notes:

Currently more than a million youngsters under the age of eighteen go on line regularly, and the number is expected to climb to 15 million by the end of the century. Advertisers are now using cyberspace to leverage [youngsters' huge] buying power, because they know that the medium has a mesmerizing effect on children, who are usually not accompanied online by adults.11
There are far too many children who are "mesmerized" by electronic media, whose only experience of nature comes from television shows, whose only experience of the legacy of storytelling comes from software - will such youngsters have any basis by which to judge what is "real" and what is semblance, what is true and what is false? We believe that it takes a number of years for a child to become a truly "modern person," and that in the course of those years the child needs to be surrounded with an environment that is not completely "modern" and certainly not "technological." Indeed, a child who can live in an unmediated connection with nature, and then in an unmediated connection with the world of stories (told by parents, and then by teachers), who is allowed to actually hold a paintbrush or a crayon, or to model in beeswax and to sing and play a real instrument - rather than all of the animated and digitized substitutes for such experiences offered by software - such a child will have the healthiest foundation for valuing technology in later life.

It is important for us all to realize that, in spite of the widely advertised advantages that computer-literate students are said to have over students learning the old ways, there is as yet no conclusive evidence that this is so. The hoopla with which politicians and corporations have surrounded the computer issue serves as a smokescreen for the lack of substantive research that has actually been done concerning technology in the classroom. As Todd Oppenheimer writes:

Unfortunately, many of these studies [concerning computers in the classroom] are more anecdotal than conclusive. Some, including a giant, oft-cited meta-analysis of 254 studies, lack the necessary scientific controls to make solid conclusions possible. The circumstances are artificial and not easily repeated, results aren't statistically reliable, or, most frequently, the studies did not control for other influences, such as differences between teaching methods. This last factor is critical, because computerized learning inevitably forces teachers to adjust their style -- only sometimes for the better. Some studies were industry-funded, and thus tended to publicize mostly positive findings. "The research is set up in a way to find benefits that aren't really there," Edward Miller, a former editor of the Harvard Education Letter, says. "Most knowledgeable people agree that most of the research isn't valid. It's so flawed it shouldn't even be called research. Essentially, it's just worthless." Once the faulty studies are weeded out, Miller says, the ones that remain "are inconclusive" -- that is, they show no significant change in either direction. Even Esther Dyson admits the studies are undependable. "I don't think those studies amount to much either way," she says. "In this area there is little proof."12
I would not term our reasons "dogma," for dogma is a truth that someone cites without understanding it; I think that most Waldorf teachers understand perfectly well why they feel that television and other media are so antithetical to the Waldorf approach to education. I believe that a strong and assertive media policy would provide a foundation for a healthy Waldorf school. What the child receives in a Waldorf classroom in the early grades is delicate, as matters of the imagination always are; exposure to the powerful and usually ugly images of the mass media can easily overpower what is living in a germinal state in the child's soul. Given time, these seeds will ripen and the child will be able to face the modern world well-armed and armored. I would hope that every Waldorf student will be an adult who can use a computer or a TV (or their future equivalents) and value them for what they are and not be enslaved to them, or idolize them as an expression of superhuman intelligence.

It is not unusual for Waldorf high schools to use videotapes on occasion in classes (I am using them in my high school "Media" course, which your son is attending), and, in most Waldorf high schools, students work with computers in eleventh grade, after they have learned about the mathematical, scientific and historical bases upon which the computer is formulated. It is not a matter of rejecting the media, but recognizing when a given medium is appropriate, and under what circumstances. The foundation for understanding the approach of the Waldorf schools to this matter lies in an understanding of the nature of the changes that occur in our consciousness throughout human life, and especially in childhood. If you are interested in pursuing this matter further, I would suggest a short book by Rudolf Steiner entitled The Education of the Child or a book that I have written entitled Rhythms and Turning Points in the Life of the Child. Other books that parents have found helpful, written by authors not involved with the Waldorf school movement, include: Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It, by Jane Healy; A is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word, by Barry Sanders; Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, by Jerry Mander, and Evolution's End, by Joseph Chilton Pearce.

And let me conclude, not with my own words, but with excerpts from an interview with Apple founder Steve Jobs in the cutting edge computer magazine Wired (February, 1996):

I used to think that technology could help education. I've probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment than anybody else on the planet. But I've had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve... Historical precedent shows that we can turn out amazing human beings without technology. Precedent also shows that we can turn out very uninteresting human beings with technology.

[ Note: If you are new to these ideas, you may find it helpful to take a look at the descriptions of the six books we have in the Children's Literature section of our Bookshop. We think that these descriptions collectively will give you a good, concrete example of true, living approaches to the natural world that are appropriate for young children. - Bob and Nancy ]

1  Todd Oppenheimner, "The Computer Delusion," Atlantic Monthly, July, 1997.
2  "The Top Ten," Wired, June, 1996.
3  For these thoughts I am indebted to the insights of John Gardner.
4  Rachel Carson, "Help Your Child to Wonder," Woman's Home Companion, July, 1956.
5  In his recent review of Daniel Dennett's book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, in the New York Review of Books of November 30, 1995, the biologist John Maynard Smith writes:
Dennett's central thesis is that evolution by natural selection is an algorithmic process. An algorithm is defined in the OED as "a procedure or set of rules for calculation and problem-solving." The rules must be so simple and precise that it does not matter whether they are carried out by a machine or an intelligent agent; the results will be the same...
6  William Crain, The Child's Tie to Nature, (Unpublished paper, 1996), 11.
7  Fred D'Ignasio, "Multimedia Detectives," Internet World, September, 1996, 83.
8  Ibid.
9  Ibid. 83-84
10  Oppenheimer, op.cit.
11  Caught in the Web, January, 1997.
12  Oppenheimer, op.cit.

©1996 by Eugene Schwartz
274 Hungry Hollow Road
Spring Valley, NY 10977
Phone/Fax: 914-356-9302