Learning from a Little House

by Mr. Sheehy

My wife and I lived starkly different childhoods. She watched MacGyver and Little House on the Prairie with her entire family, and that was practically it. I watched MacGyver and basically everything else, from Knight Rider, The Dukes of Hazard, and the A-Team, to every episode of Transformers and G.I. Joe (and I don’t need an Internet flashback to remind me that “Knowing is half the battle”). I remember getting cable television – it meant that 1) to get a clear-ish signal, we didn’t have to crank that little directional knob that turned the antenna, and that 2) we got great channels like the USA Network, which played mostly cartoons, and Nickelodeon, which had You Can’t Do That on Television and Double Dare.

With all that action to watch, it’s no wonder I completely missed Little House on the Prairie, a show about girls and with relatively few gunfights. It’s also a wonder our family has taken such a drastic veer away from the TV. In contrast to my life, our girls can watch one “movie” every other day, and not until we discovered the Little House DVD’s at the library did their length stretch past 30 minutes. Yes, the girls are little, and I doubt I watched much more than they when I was their age, but we have no plans to increase the frequency as they grow.

It’s a change from my life, but it’s a change in favor of my girls. What good is TV for their souls? How is exposing my children to the onslaught of pornography that is  broadcast television in 2008 going to help them? And, I might ask, how is it going to help me?

If one doubts whether TV’s content is pornography, Jason Byassee’s test might make it more obvious. He suggests in the January 2008 issue of First Things that we will notice more clearly the prevalence of pornography by turning off our TVs for a month and then turning them back on. What we see then would shock us. Maybe I’ve turned into an old moralist, but it’s probably because I’ve taken on a longer version of Mr. Byassee’s experiment: apart from the Red Sox World Series runs and a Tour de France, I have now had the TV off for seven years. By now, I see no reason to flip it back on.

I won’t unplug that DVD player, though, because I’m having a great time with Little House. We’re getting a kick out of family situations and no indecent commercials, and we’re learning quite a bit about frontier life, even if it is a television-adapted version of it.

Take the other night as an example. While watching the Ingalls family eat dinner, I reminded Ellen that we have a lamp just like the one they use to light their house, and I suggested that we light ours at dinner. She thought it was a great idea, of course, and we gathered ourselves around the table with an oil lamp as the centerpiece.

Mommy made the first mistake as far as Ellen was concerned, because she clicked on the light above the table. At Ellen’s respectful protest (we’re working on the respectful part – she gets it when prompted) she agreed to turn it off, but she did ask Ellen to let us leave the kitchen light on so she could see what she was eating and so she could feed Annie.  Ellen agreed but asked numerous times through the meal for the other lights to be turned off. As the meal progressed, we gave her more and more of what she wanted, and by the end, the only source of light was the oil lamp.

We did it because Ellen wanted to do it, but you know, if we hadn’t done it, I never would have realized fully how dark a house is when all you have is an oil light. Mommy and Daddy sat at the table and discussed the finer points of living the frontier life: how the summer wouldn’t be so dark, how the fire in the winter would surely give off light, but how we’d still likely head to bed at an early hour.  Had we stuck with the uninvolved perspective, we never would have learned what it really might have been like. We would have stayed spectators, thinking we’d learned what life was like in another time because we’d seen it on a movie, but we’d have never implanted in our own episodic memories what the experience could be.

To generalize, then: How often do I take the easier, spectator position? More than I care to count, I’m sure. It’s easier to think I’ve learned than to throw myself into a learning experience and discover first hand. Each assignment I do half-heartedly, each time I pass by the opportunity to test something out or try it myself, I choose a spectator position.

Maybe worse, of course, is each time I fail to provide for my students anything more than the spectator’s position, at least when more is possible. I think Ellen has it right, though, and it’s a challenge worth taking on – creating experiences and seizing them when the opportunity arises. I’d probably be surprised how much we could all learn.

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Image Attribution:

Original image: ‘Oil Lamp‘  by: Cindy Seigle

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