The statistics are famous and unnerving. Most high-school graduates have spent more time watching television than they’ve spent in school. That blight has been overtaking us for fifty years, but it’s only in the past two decades that I’ve begun to notice its greatest damage to us–the death of personal imagination.
In all the millennia before humans began to read, our imaginations were formed from first-hand experiences of the wide external world and especially from the endless flow of stories passed down in cultures founded on face-to-face narrative conversation. Most of those cultures were succeeded by widespread literacy; and the ensuing torrent of printed information, recordings, and films grew large in making our individual imaginations.
Among the blessings of my past, I’m especially grateful for that fact that I was twenty years old before my parents brought television into our home. Till then, I’d only glimpsed it in store windows and had never missed its brand of time-killing. Like millions in my generation, I was hardly unique in having spent hundreds of childhood hours reading a mountain of books and seeing one or two movies in a public theatre each week. Like our ancient ancestors, too, I had the big gift of a family who were steady sources of gripping and delightful stories told at every encounter.
I, and my lucky contemporaries then, had our imaginations fed by an external world, yet a world of nuance and suggestion that was intimately related to our early backgrounds of family and friends. That feeding left us free to remake those stories in accordance with our growing secret needs and natures. Only the movies offered us images and plots that tried to hypnotize us–to channel our fantasies in one direction only–but two to four hours of movies per week were hardly tyrannical.
To say that is not to claim that people who matured before the triumph of TV possessed imaginations that were inevitably free, rich, and healthy. It is to claim that...
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