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On the Camino de Santiago With A Visitor's Key to Iceland
By John Taylor Gatto
Like many people reading this, personal experience convinced me that regular television viewing is such a dangerous and corrupting phenomenon that the best solution I could think of to combat its inroad into my own life was to do away with it entirely. Yes, I sneak out to watch football, but as the Amish discovered with the telephone, if you put some distance between yourself and the poison, the incidence of its use declines dramatically.

I'm realistic enough to know that mass T.V. disposal is a long way off, but because I was often driven crazy by television victims as a classroom-trapped schoolteacher, I found myself searching for anti-T.V. strategies (apart from preaching) which might help my kids voluntarily cut back on the time they spent staring at the lighted box Marie Winn has called "the plug-in drug."

You might think that discriminating T.V.-frenzied children from other varieties of young people is just a flight of fancy; that it can't be done. But you would be wrong. T.V. addicts show obvious signs of being radically incomplete as human beings, like stunted trees near the frost line or a breed of deliberately-stunted monkey whose growth has been artificially retarded for some experimental purpose, T.V.-addicted kids--even if the addiction is to public broadcasting--are childish and irresponsible far out of normal limits.

They are sunk in chronic boredom much of the time; they surrender to malice in relationships; they whine a lot; they rat on one another constantly; and they seemed to me unusually dishonest.

Above everything, they looked to me like people who lacked any compelling purposes. It was as if T.V. created a deadly chemistry in which those attacked had trouble writing their own stories, a by-product perhaps of consuming too many stories, explanations, analyses, created by others, and given an impossibly perfect polish - impossible to compete with - by still other invisible strangers.

Staring at too many talking hamburgers, or supposed news shows sponsored by oil companies, watching too many men and women pretend to be somebody they weren't, seemed to steal the time children needed to build their own stories. As I taught I came to believe that television had created a race of dwarf spirits. It was creepy and it bothered me; I knew I couldn't last long in the school business surrounded by a mass of wretched kids utterly unlike any I'd known growing up in those bygone days without TV.

For my own selfish peace of mind and only incidentally for any altruistic motive, I decided to find a way to help these kids. But how? I needed a working hypothesis out of which I could generate curriculum. I needed to deduce the specific aspect of television, which produced the personal characteristics, boredom before anything, which I found it so hard to endure.

Conventional wisdom held that the bad effects were coming primarily from the degraded images and the simplified presentation of human behavior in both narrative and advertising, but I had a hunch the effects of those things were minor compared with the fatal calculus of subtracting real experience from young lives, the palette of real conflict that seasons us, and replacing it with phony, second-hand experience, compounded out of cartoon fantasy and mechanical melodrama.

If I was even partially correct that the denial of raw experience was to blame for the childishness that disturbed me, then it was impossible to ignore that the standard school curriculum of confinement and low-level abstraction was locked in a reciprocating equation with television programming. Both selected the focus of attention, both held that focus arbitrarily, neither allowed significant participation in questioning reality, and both actually told their subjects what to think about this or that, although only school ran periodic tests to be certain the indoctrination was being honored sufficiently.

Could relief be achieved by replacing the school curriculum of habit-training with a heavy-duty action curriculum of intellectual rigor, genuine risk-taking, and abundant real-world experience. I presumed that if kids could be shocked into discovering that engagement and involvement was truly satisfying, that it might be possible to have them voluntarily set aside any appetite for the ready-packaged presentations of T.V., in which curiosity, mind, and exploration weren't required.

In brief, I decided to gamble that by breaking a few laws I could lead these young people to lives more rewarding than that of spectator, that I could trick them into becoming players instead of ticket-buyers.

From the first this new order delivered the goods. Plunging kids into the dangerous, heady waters of reality and keeping them there long enough to recognize what a large share of their power was customarily wasted by sitting in the dark watching T.V., caused a profound diminution in dependence on the electronic doll house.

I took my first inspiration for a transformational action curriculum from the medieval pilgrim road across the top of Spain called "The Camino de Santiago". On this road every year, thousands of well-educated middle- and upper-middle-class folk from all over the world walk hundred of miles - without television - to the burial place of the apostle James.

The Camino isn't religious in the customary sense, instead, it is meant to offer a way for estranged people to discover a new relationship with themselves, to feel self-reliant, to be in nature, to enjoy culture and history (but incidentally), and to have time to reflect. T.V. had estranged my kids from their own real selves, perhaps the act of pilgrimage, some domestic analogue to Santiago, might be the spring to reclaim those selves.

So by ones and twos, always acting in conspiracy with the parents who were as desperate as I was myself, I send thirteen-year-olds on foot through the five boroughs of New York City, on foot and alone.

Some walked the circumference of Manhattan, a distance of about 28 miles, some walked through different Zip Code zones, comparing and contrasting, constructing profiles of the people who lived there from various clues of dress, speech, architecture, interview, book research, or simply by looking in shop windows; some mapped - Central Park, the great universities, churches, businesses, museums; some invaded government departments like the Board of Education or the courts, describing and analyzing what they saw and heard.

I kept a standing offer open that anybody could get a day or two or three or ten, away from school to make discoveries anywhere in the city - as long as she or he was willing to walk alone.

In class, although my license was as an English teacher, I taught the kids how to process primary data statistically and narratively, I taught them what to do with it and how to challenge it. In this way my 8th -grade classes were able to predict that a politician named Dinkins would win the New York mayoralty race even though the New York Times pronounced him a 17-point underdog. The difference was the Times had sampled 400 respondents and we had sampled 3280.

Once, as a class field project, we sampled attitudes toward the death penalty correlated with consumer taste for such products as whole-bean vs. pre-ground packaged coffee. I can report that the whole bean crowd is a murderous one entirely.

Another inspiration that helped me construct a curriculum to combat the passive mindlessness of television was a wonderfully weird guidebook called "A Visitor's Key to Iceland". This peculiar book follows every road in the country step by step and makes dead facts come to vigorous life.

'Two chests of silver are believed hidden in this hill; here a collapsing bridge allowed a murderer to escape - and that proved his innocence!; in this hot spring a famous outlaw boiled his meat; this farm refused a pregnant woman shelter and its owners were buried alive in a landslide that very night.'

This is history at its best, history as a guide to animate everything. My kids produced visitor's keys to the best hide-outs for playing hooky; to the great pizza parlors of the Westside and the rotten ones; to the architecture of brownstones; to the swimming pools of New York and their neighborhood contexts. We did visitor's keys to the hidden knowledge of old men and women who sat on the park benches of Riverside Park. It took neither talent nor money to set this creative energy in motion, but once it was running the radiant energy of T.V. had a hard time keeping up.

Always working in a deliberate conspiracy with parents against school constraints, I created a guerrilla curriculum that anybody reading this could duplicate. Reality, coupled with hard intellectual work, proved so compelling to kids year after year that I came to expect that by December the moral and behavioral cripples who had walked through the door in September would be exciting and interesting young people. Does that surprise you? Haven't we always known that work is the key to self-mastery…and that the devil finds work for idle hands?

Always a big believer in child labor, I encouraged children to start little businesses on school time or to trade their labor for valuable training as Ben Franklin had done. Over the years we launched so many useful projects and did so much valuable independent study that my kids won an abundance of opportunities and prizes, but most of all self-confidence and purposes of their own. And I found myself showered with awards by school authorities who had no idea how I got the results from children that I did.

The greatest irony was that the guerrilla project was designed to sabotage the kind of passive attitudes that both television and government schooling depend upon. Lecturing about the evils of T.V. wouldn't have been likely to do any good at all, but making life more interesting than its pale, video shadow succeeded splendidly. The biggest surprise was how easy this was to accomplish.

Mortal as we are, some inner clock ticks in all of us warning that we have appointments to keep with reality - real work to do, real people to meet, real fights to fight, real adventures to experience, real risks to take, real things to learn. For the past 50 years a variety of influences - television and government schooling principal among them -have conspired to break the natural need of children to be out and about. The end result has been angry, partial people or frightened, partial people, fractional boys and girls, men and women, who resent their fear and ignorance and find ways to take vengeance on their neighbors while they slowly die by inches sitting in the dark.

Since the advent of T.V., for many of us, growing up never happens because too much of our precious trial and error time was wasted in darkness. Being mature means living with purpose, welcoming responsibility, acting as a citizen, building strengths, wrestling with weaknesses, and developing the heart, the mind, and the spirit. None of this can be done as a spectator.

Television reduces children's attention to quick takes -- impossible to sustain. It creates a craving for continual stimulation, which in the nature of reality cannot be satisfied. Do I have to beat you over the head with the obvious? Violence is the easiest way to still that gnawing hunger.

The Russian émigré Sorokin, founder of Harvard's Department of Sociology, identified cultures of violence and sensationalism as late stages of a civilization in terminal decline. In all failing societies, respect for obligations evaporated, replaced by a preoccupation with amusement and diversion in the here-and-now. In spite of the calculated hype about a steadily declining crime rate we have four times the rate of violent crime in 1999 than we did in 1959 and four times the number of men and women in jail. Stupendous increases in crime followed the penetration of television into the culture. Is it the culprit? I don't know, but unless you live in fairyland, it's high up on the list of suspects.

Deep as we seem to be mired in this stupid addiction, ending it is as simple as pulling the plug. Making life more interesting than its television substitute is how you get kids to do that for themselves. Jump-start a TV-addicted kid and nature itself will do the rest. Good luck.

P.S. Years ago, my wife, Janet, and I bought an ocean view apartment on a high hill in a lovely small oceanfront city, not an impossible drive from the Camino de Santiago. It has three bedrooms, new beds. It's near fantastic shopping, mountains, and Spanish adventures. I'll be there myself in January, February, but rent it out (sometimes). The rest of the year I'll offer fantastic deals, by the month or more, only. If interested, fax me at 212/721-6124. J.T.G.