Ask any parent, and he or she will tell you that Children’s television falls into roughly three kinds of categories. In the largest, there is a wide swath of mediocre shows, with flashing lights and simple stories, which capture the attention of your children and allow you to clean your kitchen or take a nap. You don’t love letting your kids watch them, but you estimate the value of living in a clean house to exceed the relative inanity of the show.
Then, there is a group of shows which are actually really good television. They tell good stories, or have fun concepts, and they’re so good you find yourself watching those shows with your kids and enjoying them. These are shows (at the moment) like Odd Squad, and Peg+Cat. These shows make you feel better about being a lazy slob and letting your kids rot their brains watching the telly. If you didn’t have anything to do, you’d probably rot your brain alongside them.
Then there’s a set of shows which are so stupid, so canned, so awful, that you suddenly understand why people might go insane. They’ve got flashing lights, and colourful characters, and loud music, and your children (who don’t have a discerning bone in their bodies) love watching them in the same way they’ll eat anything made of sugar, no matter how revolting. They are the nightmare fuel of children’s television.
PBS’s Super Why is such a show. And yet, Super Why is even worse.
Super Why, in its most basic sense, is a storybook show which follows a precise pattern for each episode. A group of super friends encounter a problem in their world. This problem will require them to learn a lesson, and in order to learn their lesson they’ll have to “Look, in a book!” (The comma is there because they pause after saying ‘look’.) The super friends then suit up and dive into a classic fairy tale or storybook—Little Red Riding Hood, or Jack and the Beanstalk, or something else. The show progresses while they read through the storybook, reading the pages, looking for secret letter clues, and eventually solving the problem of the day. One character is a pig who digs up letters. One is a fairy who helps you spell. All well and good (apart from being mind-numbingly banal).
However, the critical dénouement of each episode is when the story reaches its crisis point. At that point, the hero (whose name is Whyatt) arrives with his special power, and “saves” the day. (Saves is in scare quotes for reasons which will be explicated shortly.) In the episode my children watched the other day, the real-world problem is that the main character wants to eat the same thing all the time. To solve this problem they look in a book called King Eddie Spaghetti, about a king, named Eddie, who only (as you might well guess) eats spaghetti. In the storybook page, displayed on screen, it read that Eddie only eats “spaghetti, and spaghetti, and spaghetti!”
Enter the hero, suited and ready to save the day. He announces, as a preamble to his actions, “With the power to read I can change the story!” (He says this each episode at this point.) He then proceeds to tap two of the three words, changing one spaghetti for beets, and another spaghetti for meatballs. The new sentence reads that Eddie ate, “spaghetti, beets, and meatballs!” Problem solved. Now we can return to the real world with our new secret word, Variety, and solve our problem. Yay!
Or not. Pause, for just a moment, and reflect on what has just happened. We are looking in books to find solutions to our real world problems. When we encounter a possible solution, we don’t actually read, and interpret the book, we’re going to re-write it. What is more, we’re going to sanction this re-writing process by calling it, “The power to read.”
What?! That’s not reading. That’s not what the word means. That’s not how we deal with texts. That’s not how we deal with the world, or people, or problems. That’s not how we manage data, or interpret information. On no account and in none of the possible worlds is that a proper way to deal with a set of data. In fact, it represents the absolute antithesis of what good reading is, and we’ve got a word for it: eisegesis.
Maybe you don’t know this word. It’s the process of reading what we want into a text, rather than drawing out what a text actually says. It’s the process of projecting our own fancies, desires, and needs onto a body of literature, reforming it into a more convenient package. It’s a bad word. It’s repulsive. You don’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. Think plague, Ebola, Chicken Pox.
And yet, eisegesis is the kind of reading being taught to children through the monotonous rhetoric of Super Why. Jack and the Beanstalk? Let’s change the words so that the giant is tired and wants a nap, so that we can teach a lesson about using music to relax. Hansel and Gretel? Let’s change the candy house to a house of vegetables so we can teach a lesson about balanced diets. Humpty Dumpty? Let’s “use the power to read” to get him down safely and change it to a story about encouragement. In each case, a perfectly good story is mangled so that it can communicate an inferior message. And this, really, is just salt to the wound, because rather than finding a story and drawing a lesson from that story, however awkwardly, whatever real value these stories have is pressed through the transforming matrix of banal moralization. In addition to not learning how to read, your child is also being fed a diet of thin and watery stupidity.
Texts challenge us. Texts expose us to other worlds. Texts give us insight into other mindsets, other human perspectives, other viewpoints. Occasionally those viewpoints are comfortable; occasionally they are not. But in either case, learning to read is the process of learning what it means to wrestle with that discomfort—of taking texts, as best we are able, at face value; of refusing at all points to edit or change them to our liking, to project on them our own desires or fantasies. And in the end, the way we treat texts is a great deal like the way we have to treat people—each with a perspective, a vantage point, a set of understandings that are different from our own. We are no more permitted to project our desires on other people than we are on texts, and yet the people who do so are considered the worst of us. Imagine speaking to someone about lunch plans. “What would you like to eat today?” “I’d like a cheeseburger.” And his response, “Okay, we’ll go for pie, then.” That’s not listening, that’s simple projection. And that’s the kind of person Super Why is training children to be. It’s abominable.