Television Taught Me Everything I Know

One of my earliest happy memories is of watching television on a late-afternoon winter day—Sesame Street to be exact. The show must have been in its infancy then, long before Elmo’s World took over half of each episode, stealing some of Sesame Street’s joy. I remember sitting in the dark living room of our parsonage, wrapped in an afghan, noise from the kitchen a comforting reminder that mom was nearby, making dinner. Our parsonage was next to the Mennonite church, alongside busy Kedzie Avenue in a south suburb of Chicago, so traffic was no doubt zipping by our living room windows. But all I remember of that moment was the warmth I felt, both literally and figuratively, a sense that all was well, that few things in life were better than an hour of Sesame Street, followed by 30 minutes of Mister Rogers.

So began my love affair with television, a relationship that’s been going strong for over 45 years now.

Admitting my life-long adoration of TV might seem like some kind of weird contradiction, given that I am vocationally a professor of English at a Christian university, teaching young minds to love the written word. It’s easy to assume that academics like me decry TV for its corrupting influences, for the ways TV creates passive consumers of knowledge, distracting people from the books we are supposed to read voraciously. Study after study tell us that television makes us less active and less healthy and less inquisitive. Hand-wringing about screen time is the birthright of nearly every parent I know; I spent my sons’ early years carefully apportioning the hour or so each day I allowed them to watch television, hoping to give them a positive viewing experience at the exact time when I most needed a break.

And still, I want to argue that everything—or, at least, almost everything—I learned has been from watching television. By television I mean, these days, all the streaming services that make watching so much easier, though the three major networks, funneled through rabbit ears on our giant Zenith, taught me plenty growing up; and when I was in high school, and we finally got cable TV, my world expanded even more. But few people watch network programs now, and most network shows can be found online. Streaming has also made watching far more difficult, at least for indecisive people like me; the flood of options for how to spend my viewing time means scrolling through my different streaming services, Hulu and Netflix and Amazon, looking for the perfect program for the vagaries of the moment: Is this something I could watch while cooking dinner or grading papers, when my attention is limited? Is this something I will want to binge, meaning I need far more time than 30 minutes before bed?

More importantly, what will the show I choose tell me about my world, and my place in it?

For me, television has been and continues to be good entertainment, but also a vital information delivery system. Watching Sesame Street as a child helped me learn my letters and numbers, sure, but also established early groundwork for what it meant to recognize human (and Muppet) diversity, and to navigate a world where everyone did not look like me. The shows I watch now might not be so explicitly instructive—I already know the alphabet and can count to 10, after all—but they still help me see and understand people differently, providing me with a unique, if filtered and carefully constructed, perspective of those whose lived experiences are drastically unlike my own. Watching Real Housewives of Orange County, now in its 13 season (and trust me, I’ve seen them all!), is a guilty pleasure, but the show has also afforded me the opportunity to wonder at the opulence in some women’s lives, the ways their existence seems almost otherworldly to me, what with their millions-of-dollar mansions, their boob jobs, their dress-up parties and extravagant trips. And still, when they are filmed during arguments with their teen children, or wondering about their purpose as middle-aged women, or even expressing their desire to know Jesus (a surprisingly prevalent theme for the RHOC franchise), I realize we share a human connection, a deep and persistent longing for acceptance and love, despite our vast differences.

Although I am fundamentally a fan of reality television, in all its iterations, this same humanizing influence draws me to plenty of scripted shows as well. Despite the goofball humor in a comedy like The Office, the Michael Scott character seems wholly human to me, as does his minions at Dunder Mifflin, and over nine seasons, the show conveyed the realness of its characters. Because I had only a brief stint as a temporary worker in corporate America during graduate school, the show both taught me about a culture that is unfamiliar to me, while also reflecting many of the experiences I have interacting with people in my own vocation as a college professor. Even though The Office characters are awkward and self-centered, they are still endearing (except maybe for Creed). They want what we all fundamentally want: that is, to be seen and appreciated. A far different show, Orange is the New Black, gave me insight into a culture I hope never, ever to experience; set in a women’s federal prison, the program follows a number of characters who are craven and conniving, but still evoke empathy, because we see as well their brokenness, their tragic backstories, their longing to find love and human connection. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, having just concluded its run after four seasons, reflects this longing in stark terms, the entire narrative arc premised on the protagonist’s move to West Covina, California, in search of the connected life she craves, a craving complicated by her dysfunctional relationships and her mental health diagnosis.

I could go on and on. My relationship with television runs deep, as does my appreciation for what television has taught me, about people and places, about morality and faith and God, and even about the idea of information itself.

My students at George Fox University often conflate information with facts, a problem that no doubt gives rise to a common faith in Wikipedia as the Fount of All Knowledge, a place that will supply the information one needs to navigate the world—or, at least, complete a thousand-word essay. Like many writing instructors, I’ve nixed Wikipedia as a primary source for students’ academic work, well aware that the site offers a plentitude of downloadable information, devoid of the texture, the moral complexity, the essence of what makes us human and connects us to each other. On Wikipedia, I can read facts about The Office: that it ran from 2005 to 2013, that Michael Scott was played by the actor Steve Carrell, that it was filmed documentary style, in a cinéma vérité. But the long Wikipedia entry can convey little—nothing, actually—about what the program might teach its viewers, about the cupidity of corporate America, the potentially prosaic life of middle management, the ways imperfect humans relate imperfectly, at work and at home. That humanness, it seems to me, is what really made the show brilliant, even though it was about essentially nothing more than everyday life.

That humanness also reflects to me the difference between merely absorbing facts for later recall; and internalizing information, then using what’s been internalized to act, think, live differently. I must credit the librarians at George Fox University for helping me understand this distinction, and not only helping me understand, but also giving me the tools to shape how my students interface with information. For decades (or perhaps millennia, even), our first-year students received an orientation that simply told them how to use the library, its stacks and its databases, to research facts. Students often completed a scavenger hunt that asked them to navigate searches on some kind of topic, generally not of their devising. They would faithfully—and begrudgingly—write down their answers, knowing that correct answers carried them one step closer to a completed project, and one step closer to the semester’s end.

This past year, though, the GFU librarian staff revised this assignment. Instead, students were asked to explore research databases looking for articles about technology, and about how millennials and Gen Z students interact with technology: a topic that piques the interest of just about every student I have. Rather than write a summary of articles they found, or fill out a worksheet asking them to restate the arguments of what they’d read, students were required to use technology to share what they learned: creating a series of Instagram or Twitter posts, writing a blog entry, or filming a YouTube video to show how they interacted with the what they read. In essence, students needed to carry their humanness to the project, transforming facts on a page into living information, using the language of technology. Although initially discombobulated by an assignment that asked so much of their personal investment and perspective, students ultimately excelled, because they were learning that the technology they use matters, that information matters, that technology and information can have very human implications, with the potential and power to shape how they see the world.

Perhaps good television—heck, maybe even mediocre television—can be such a profound information delivery system because it acts in ways similar to this simple library assignment. Television has the ability to show us what it truly means to be human, transforming the basic contours of facts into living, layered stories that have the potential to change how we understand our world and the people who populate it. Certainly this is not true of ever program, and I imagine a steady diet of one show, or even one station, might limit television’s instructive quality. I can think, for example, that those who watch a particular conspiracy-minded news channel might not learn much about empathy and compassion, and a whole lot about why people with privilege and power deserve all our attention. But this potential limitation is true of any information delivery system, and someone who reads only a specific type of book, or who consults only a narrow range of academic articles, or who follows only a certain kind of social media posts will also fail to learn much about the entire range of human experience, and about those universal qualities that inextricably tie us to each other.

These days, I’ve been binge-watching The Act on Hulu, a limited-run series based on true events, about a mother with Munchausen by proxy, and the daughter who conspires to kill her. I’m also following Barry, a show on HBO about a hit-man who stumbles into an acting class, taught by a self-absorbed thespian played brilliantly by Henry Winkler (aka The Fonz). In the last month, I watched television documentaries about musician Lady Gaga; one about Larry Nassar, the athletic doctor who assaulted hundreds of girls; and one about Scientology. Oh, and of course, I’ve started in on the latest season of Real Housewives of Orange County. Each program has opened a new world to me, allowing me to understand more about the vast diversity of human experience, about the many ways people walk through their cultures, contend with their brokenness, inflict pain on others. But the shows also reveal to me those universal concerns that tie us together: our shared longing to know and be known, to feel love and acceptance.

Television gives me this information, in all kinds of contexts, and asks me to assimilate what I see into my own world, my own way of being. Of course, television is not the only medium that delivers information this way, not even for me; I am an inveterate reader of books and online news and Twitter posts, all which have conveyed information to me in a way that has shaped and reshaped my worldview. And yet it’s television that has been a constant in my life over the last 45 years, a steady companion that has shifted and changed with the times, yet still delivered content that gives me a richer, deeper, more complex understanding of this world I inhabit.

So of course, the younger me would remember the warmth of sitting in a darkened parsonage living room, watching Kermit and Oscar and Big Bird relating to each other on their street corner. Even then, I sensed that those Muppets were like me, trying to comprehend not only the letter of the day, but what it meant to be human (or, well, human-adjacent). In the intervening 45 years, I’ve returned again and again to a medium that has not only delivered information, but helped me use that information to navigate the world. And for that reason, I can safely say, television has taught me (almost) everything I know. For that, I am grateful.

About the Author

Melanie Springer Mock

Melanie Springer Mock is a Professor of English at George Fox University, Newberg, Ore. In 2009, she won the GFU Undergraduate Faculty of the Year award, and in 2015, she received the GFU Undergraduate Researcher of the Year award. She is the author or co-author of five books, including most recently Worthy: Finding Yourself in a World Expecting Someone Else (Herald Press, 2018). Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Nation, Christian Feminism Today, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Mennonite World Review, among other places. She lives in Dundee, Ore., with her husband and two teen sons.