The Plug-In Syllabus

Whatever happened to educational television? Scott McLemee revisits his alma mater.

July 22, 2009

Whether or not it still makes sense to call PBS “educational television” (some of us are still bitter about “Yanni at the Acropolis”) but there was once a time when didacticism was indeed its mandate. And for my part, it’s impossible not to think of KERA, the network’s affiliate in Dallas, as an alma mater of sorts.

KERA had the distinction of being the station that introduced American viewers to "Monty Python’s Flying Circus." In a more serious vein of absurdism (but still with some humor) it also broadcast “Waiting for Godot” in the late 1970s, which sent my teenage existentialism up to a new plateau. It also used to show, quite frequently in fact, "The Naked Civil Servant," which can’t have met with approval from the Southern Baptist Convention.

I remember watching a documentary about Salvador Dali at least two or three times – mind suitably boggled by its clips from Un Chien Andalou. And late at night on the weekends there was a program called "One Star Theater," a home for low-budget movies that were surrealist by default. In one of them, as I recall, the human survivors of some disaster were attacked by giant shrews, played by dogs dressed in shrew costumes. (Even calling them “costumes” may be an overstatement.)

Exposure to Samuel Beckett, art-appreciation documentaries, "Masterpiece Theatre," and grade Z film gave me the rudiments of an aesthetic education. And a good thing, too, because nobody in the local school system would have used the expression “aesthetic education,” or considered it worth offering.

But my TV curriculum was broader still. There were dueling series on economics hosted by Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith. I seem to recall a program where Henry Steele Commager talked about Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America at some length. And on each episode of a series called "Connections," the wry host, James Burke, covered the interaction of technology and culture by tracing improbable chains of cause and effect down the course of four or five centuries.

There was Dick Cavett’s program, which has migrated from network to network over the decades but called PBS home from 1977 to 1982. On it, Allen Ginsberg answered questions (sort of) and tried to sing (this was just bearable), and Truman Capote mumbled through the barbiturates. Susan Sontag stopped by to radiate the dark glamor that lets you get away with anything. Other guests talked about their films and books, and gave a glimpse of whatever serious adults in New York were serious about, back then. It was always a revelation.

Meanwhile there was "Firing Line," where William F. Buckley made conservative arguments against his guests without yelling at them. Evidently his approach was too subtle even by the standards of the day. One of my classmates was sure that Buckley must be a liberal because of the way he talked – the accent, the polysyllables, the sneer. (Not to mention the way his tongue darted out from time to time, like that of a Komodo dragon about to devour a goat.) I explained that Buckley was in fact an ardent supporter of not-yet-president Ronald Reagan. My friend decided that he would try "Firing Line" again.

Politics aside, the show was good for the vocabulary. I probably owed my National Merit Scholarship to William F. Buckley.

KERA's programming tended (apart from "One Star Theater") to be earnestly and even aggressively middlebrow in spirit.Just what happened to that spirit over the next few years is a puzzling question, and can't be divorced from the issue of what happened to the cultural apparatus at large.

Many of the changes were structural, which is another way of saying that they involved money. It was not just that funding for public broadcasting was always being trimmed and challenged. At the same time, new television channels were created by the scores and then the hundreds. Some of the fare that had distinguished educational broadcasting (pop history, talking-heads shows, book chat) was now found elsewhere, spread broadly throughout the cable universe. Which in some ways meant more thinly: the audience dispersed across the dial, the critical mass of nerd concentration harder to reach.

At the same time, PBS itself had -- in the interest of ratings and continuing support -- to take on more and more programming with no didactic intent at all: soporific smooth jazz, antiques shows, concerts in which Pavarotti and Sting joined forces, etc.

Now, to be honest, I was not paying attention while most of these changes were taking place. Educational broadcasting had done its work only too well. I spent the 1980s reading Husserl and whatnot. When the impulse to watch TV kicked in, it involved a craving for something to cool down the brain -- including late-night reruns of shows my teenage self would have scorned with all due high-mindedness.

One of my professors had commented in passing that “Love Boat” was an example of Bakhtinian carnival, albeit in debased form. This sounded plausible. By day, I thought about the epoché’s suspension of judgment regarding the ontological status of the objects within experience. At two in the morning, I suspended all judgment whatsoever and went slumming on the tube. It was a license to consume garbage.

Which all just goes to show that bildung can take some strange turns. But over the past decade or so, I started to think back on my debt to PBS in its starchier and more strenuously uplifting era -- and started to miss it.

A program like “Meeting of the Minds” -- in which Steve Allen sat at a table with actors dressed up like famous artists, scientists, and leaders throughout history -- is something you outgrow, sooner or later. But at the right age, it gives you something that enables you to outgrow it. I’m not persuaded that even the most rigorous semiotic approach to Aaron Spelling’s oeuvre will yield anything like that benefit.

But now the point is moot, right? Public broadcasting has been on blood-thinning drugs for a long time. Even the categories of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow are quaint. Ten years ago John Seabrook coined the term “nobrow” to describe the prevalent cultural mode; it still seems applicable. And you can’t go back to the old didacticism because nobody knows how to pull it off anymore.

So I assumed, anyway, until coming across an interesting development at the website of my alma mater, KERA.

It offered a podcast covering an exhibit at the student gallery of the University of Texas at Arlington devoted to Fluxus – an international avant garde cultural movement from the early 1960s, inspired by Dadaism, but also looking ahead to conceptual and performance art. Another recent segment there (this one available on video) features an interview with the director Philip Haas about his work on a series of film installations at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.

At first blush, this seems like a flashback to what was available on KERA 30 years ago – solid and informative, enjoyable in its way but also downright educational. At the same time, the fact that it is available on the internet gives it a much broader potential audience. The story on “Fluxus in Texas,” for example, has drawn comments from Paris and Brussels.

So what’s happening? How is it that old-school cultural earnestness has been revived in a new-media environment? We’ll look into that with next week’s column.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top