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The Alternate Life
The alternate life is the consequence of the communications revolution of the last 30 years or so. There is another, highly competitive educational system, opposed in almost every essential way to traditional schooling, that operates on the child and youth from the age of 2. It takes up as much of his time as the school does, and it works on him with far greater effectiveness.
That system is the linked structure of which television is the heart and which numbers among its constituents film, radio, comic books, pop music, sports—and the life styles (including the drug culture, permissive sex, and systematized antisocial conduct) which this structure either automatically or deliberately produces.
This alternative life is a life; it is not a diversion, a hobby, an amusement. It offers its own disciplines, its own curriculum, its own ethical and cultural values, its own style and language. It works on children and youths every day, year after year, teaching them, forming them, conditioning them. And it is profoundly opposed to traditional education. There is no way of reconciling the values of literature or science with the values of the TV commercial. There is no way of reconciling the vision offered by Shakespeare or Newton with the vision of life offered by the “Gong Show”. Two systems of thought and feeling stand opposed to each other.
This has never before been the case. The idea of education was never before opposed by a competitor. It was taken for granted because no alternative appeared on the horizon. But today there is a complete alternative life to which children submit themselves. This alternative life offers them heroes, slogans, images, forms of conduct, and content of a sort—and all run counter to the message given in the classroom.
For the first time in history, the child is required to be a citizen of two cultures: the tradition and the alternate life. Is it any wonder that such a division of loyalties should result in the chaos we observe? In a deep sense, all our children (and, to a degree, our teachers, our parents, and ourselves) are schizophrenics. On the one hand is the reality-system expounded in a book, the idea, the cultural past; on the other hand is the far more vivid and comprehensible reality-system expounded by television, the rock star, the religion of instantaneous sensation, gratification and consumption.
Good teachers, when you question them inexorably, almost always finally admit that their difficulties stem from the competition of the alternate life. And this competition they are not trained to meet. The alternate life has one special psychological effect that handicaps the teacher—any teacher, whether of writing or any other basic subject. That effect is a decline in the faculty of attention, and therefore a decline in the capacity to learn—not the innate capacity, but the capacity as it is conditioned by the media.
This conception of the alternate life is probably debatable, and it certainly will not be accepted by everyone. Its claim to the interest of others, if not their agreement, lies in the fact that it goes beyond the present educational system and tries to locate the ultimate source of our troubles in the changes now agitating our entire Western culture.
（节选自The Short Prose Reader (second edition) by Gilbert H. Muller and Harvey S. Wiener, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1982。题目为本刊所加。）