Reflections on America's
First T.V. Generation
English Professor Harvey Beutner (above) was a guiding force in The Argus newsroom, encouraging students to find their own journalistic voices.
Known for inspiring dozens of alumni to pursue writing careers, English Professor
Emeritus Harvey F. Beutner died April 4, 2003, in Indianapolis, Ind. He was 80.
During his 24 years on IWU’s faculty, Beutner taught 10 different journalism courses,
expository writing, and a variety of literature classes. But it was his role as faculty
advisor to the student newspaper, The Argus, that was recalled most fondly by former students.
Eric Gardner, an associate professor in the Department of English at Saginaw Valley
State University, wrote that “Harvey taught generations of Argus folks about what a free press was and about why the eyes of The Argus really needed to be everywhere ... He cared deeply about the truth and he had a kind
In 1977, Beutner was given Illinois Wesleyan’s highest teaching distinction as a Century
Club honoree. Accepting the honor, Beutner spoke of his pride in his former students,
but said, “I take no credit in their accomplishments except that I encouraged them
and tried to help them develop their unique talents. ... I urged them to look upon
learning as an adventure and stressed the importance of their learning how to express
their own ideas effectively." The entire speech, entitled "Emotion Recollected in
Tranquility," appears below.
I humbly and proudly accept this honor on behalf of the journalists among us. Rudyard
Kipling observed: “Once a journalist, always and forever a journalist.” We know who we are. We have kept the faith, and as Henry David Thoreau said, “If a man has faith, he
will cooperate with equal faith everywhere…”
Since 1964, when I taught my first journalism class at Illinois Wesleyan, I have seen
many fellow student journalists enter the profession where today they are serving
with distinction. ... I take no credit for the accomplishments of IWU journalists
except that I encouraged them and tried to help them develop their unique talents.
I insisted upon correct spelling and an adherence to traditional rules of grammar
and syntax. I urged them to look upon learning as an adventure and stressed the importance
of their learning how to express their own ideas effectively. I never demanded that
they learn how to express my ideas.
I accept this honor on behalf of the English teachers among us. We know who we are.
We know why Johnny can’t write, and why, sometimes, Mary can’t write either. We know
who is responsibly for functional illiteracy in America. We have identified those
“blind guides who strain for a gnat and allow the camel to pass through.” We know
a failure in written English shows everywhere. We also recognize friends such as Effie
Howarth Sutton, a member of the class of 1913 and a charter member of the Century
Club. In a letter of congratulation to me, she wrote: “We need on the high school
and college levels more and more dedicated men, who are vitally interested in developing
all the many, many facets of English. It is a subject, when rightly presented, that
touches upon every other subject in the curriculum. The more you study English, the
more it obsesses you…”
I accept this honor on behalf of the bachelors among us. We know who we are. As Thoreau
said, “The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must
wait till that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off.” My
selection shows there is no reverse sexist discrimination at Illinois Wesleyan. I,
of course, reserve the right to join the ranks of the married at any time. [Editor's Note: Beautner did just that, marrying Allaire Schlicher, who was a Spanish professor at
Illinois Wesleyan from 1971-78. After leaving IWU, the Beutners moved to Indianapolis,
where he taught part-time at the University of Indianapolis, and where she continues
to teach at Marian College.]
I accept this honor on behalf of the Harveys of America. Parents no longer name their
male offspring “Harvey.” That’s great. It makes those of us who have this moniker
rare and distinguishable – that is when we are visible. Jimmy Stewart and I have had a lot of fun with Harvey, and Harvey Firestone has done
all right too. At Stetson University, I shared an office with four other Freshmen
English instructors. Each morning one of my colleagues – without looking at me – would
enter the office and stare at the ceiling, the wall, or the palm trees outside the
window, and say, “Harvey, Harvey, Harvey. Where are you? Are you here? Are you out
there? Where are you?” When one starts his day in such a manner, how can he be pessimistic
about his own future?
I accept this honor as a teacher of English and journalism at Illinois Wesleyan. I
am a teacher at Illinois Wesleyan, or at least I regularly meet classes here. I am
not one of the three other persons with whom I am often confused: a lineman for Gen
Tel, a local bank employee, or an administrator in the public schools of McLean County.
Since I came to Bloomington-Normal I have frequently been identified as one of these
gentlemen who I trust have lived lives at least as exemplary as my own. I hope you
appreciate my remarks; but if you do not, please do not blame my doubles for them.
I accept this honor, and I thank the previous honorees for their spoken and written
words of encouragement and for the inspiration I gained from rereading and reflecting
upon their work through the medium of print. They have left a record of their vision
– for all to read who can and will.
In the summer of 1967 – a time when I was trying to overcome the depression and ennui
that often follows receipt of a late-in-life Ph.D. – I felt – to paraphrase William
Wordsworth – a presence which disturbed me. That presence was Marshall McLuhan, the
messiah of the media, and his enthusiastic disciples bent on mass conversion to McLuhancy,
an aberration which print advocates equated with lunacy. If I thought that I could
rest on my dissertation in the old style of some of my college teachers, the advent
of McLuhanism told me I was mistaken.
It was in 1967 that I first read Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and it was in 1967 that McLuhan began popularizing McLuhan. Ironically, since he
envisioned the decline and eventual death of the print medium, McLuhan made effective
use of that medium to communicate his message. The fervor and rapture of the McLuhan
converts is best recaptured in the printed word. The ecstatic McLuhanites who compared
their seer to Socrates would have been well advised to heed Socrates’ admonition to
Crito: “Your zeal is invaluable, if a right one; but if wrong, the greater zeal the
greater the danger.”
Ten years and countless books and articles later, McLuhan, who admits that he does
not necessarily agree with everything he says, is still the best authority on McLuhanism.
The essence of his message was and is: Every major new technology – currently TV,
the computer and other electric circuitry – alters the “sensory ratios” of mankind
and thereby causes changes so overwhelming that individuals, nations, and civilizations
are powerless to resist. They are also blind to changes until after they have taken
place, because man always looks at the present through “the rear-view mirror” of the
previous technology. In The Medium is the Massage (not to be confused with McLuhan’s other work The Medium is the Message), McLuhan illustrated the dilemma of his contemporaries by quoting lines from a song
by Bob Dylan: “…something is happening. But you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr.
Many of the “probes” advanced by McLuhan in his writings led me to reexamine my own
attitudes toward the educational process in general and my teaching techniques in
particular. “The family circle has widened,” the oracle said. “The world pool of information
fathered by electric media – movies, Telestar, flight – far surpasses any possible
influence mom and dad can now bring to bear. Character no longer is shaped by only
two earnest, fumbling experts. Now all the world’s a sage.”
The oracle continued: “Innumerable confusions and a profound feeling of despair invariably
emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transitions. Our ‘Age of Anxiety’
is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools –
with yesterday’s concepts. A new form of ‘politics’ is emerging and in ways we haven’t
yet noticed. The living room has become a voting booth. Participation, via television,
in Freedom Marches, war, revolution, pollution, and other events is changing everything.
Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge
of the way media work as environments.”
In 1988, in an article entitled “All the Candidates Are Asleep,” McLuhan recognized
a truth which William Godwin, the British philosopher, saw long before the advent
of the electronic media: It is not affluence but the flaunting of affluence which
disturbs the underprivileged. McLuhan wrote: “Moral concern over poverty and injustice
and stupidity is not new. What is new is that the victims of poverty and stupidity
are now steeped…in affluent images. The discrepancy between the old and the new images
enrages the victims. The child standing in his crib wallows in TV images of adult
life as much as the poor are enveloped in images of physical splendor. The result
is that the young TV watcher decides to bypass childhood and adolescence. The poor
quite naturally decide to bypass the bureaucratic maze that denies them cornflakes.”
In the late sixties, many high school and college students took McLuhan seriously
when he suggested that the most meaningful learning might be in the outside world
rather than in the classroom. One high school dropout asked, “Why should I go back
to school and interrupt my education?” Another young disciple of McLuhan evidently
intent on bypassing adolescence – addressed his father: “You see, Dad, Professor McLuhan
says the environment that man creates becomes his medium for defining his role in
it. The invention of type created linear, or sequential, thought, thus separating
thought from action. Now, with TV and folk singing, thought and action are closer
and social involvement is great. We again live in a village. Get it?”
An older disciple – charged no doubt with electric circuitry – wrote: “My children
have lived several lifetimes compared to their grandparents when they began grade
one.” Another said, “Fixed positions become as impossible as fixed targets when all
information is instantaneous.” A young activist said, “Naturally, being unintelligible
is a virtue in an oracle, academic or otherwise. It is part of his charisma. We love
Marshall McLuhan because he makes it impossible, and therefore unnecessary, to think
Writers, teachers, and scholars – angered by what they saw as the uncritical acceptance
of McLuhan’s “probes” as truths – spoke out. Novelist Herbert Gold observed: “Some
young literary types have been so influenced by McLuhan that they take his claim that
print is obsolescent literally – they don’t write. Because of McLuhan there has developed
a whole literary scene in San Francisco where there are no writers. They live in tribes
and communicate orally – all very McLuhanistic.” A critic wrote: “McLuhan is the first
to extol inarticulateness and illiteracy as the virtues of a dawning new day. And
that is transvaluating values with a vengeance.”
It is too early to assess the long-range effects and implications of McLuhanism on
those of us fated to teach basic English and logic to America’s first TV generation.
However, the influence of McLuhanism upon the writing and thinking of college students
was quickly noted. Professor George Williamson of the University of Chicago lamented:
“I can’t really insist on anything that could be called a ‘standard.’ I’m happy if
I can find essays which show some kind of connection between the conclusions and the
evidence offered.” Professor Wayne C. Booth cautioned: “To gloss over our need for
defenses against irrationality with such phrases as ‘the medium is the message’ is
to sell our humanity. We must do exactly what McLuhan deplores: continue to think
in what he calls the old, fragmented space and time patterns of the pre-electric age.”
In my own classes during the last ten years, I have noted the effects of cradle-to-college
television. Often I write comments similar to this in the margins of student papers:
“Your essay reminds me of a neon sign flashing in the night. The images, pictures,
and ideas are often fresh and graphic and even beautiful, but there are no connecting
links.” The point is that the student educated on TV expects me – the reader – to
make the connections, to make the transitions, and to fill in the meaning. As McLuhan
would say, “This is all very McLuhanistic.”
The psychological impact of television viewing upon the minds of the young is cause
for concern among parents and teachers. The National Association for better Broadcasting
estimates that the average child between ages 5 and 15 watches the violent destruction
of more than 13,400 persons on TV according to Frank Orme, the association’s executive
Orme fears this mass mayhem is destroying children’s natural capacity for sympathy
and impressing them with the need for a powerful totalitarian figure to protect them.
“Today’s television,” Orme says, “teaches children that violence is fun, evil is powerful,
and the world around and beyond us is full of unknown terrors. Our cherished institutions
and concepts are weak and subject to imminent destruction by callous brutes. To survive
we must delegate the job of protection to powerful, single dimension individuals who
disregard the non-violent, democratic processes.”
Beutner was a guiding presence in The Argus newsroom (above), but always encouraged students to find their own voices.
Morry Roth, who admits he has been wandering through the groves of TV as a paid observer
for eleven years, also expresses concern. In "Gutenberg, goodbye,” he writes, “Violence
on television makes me so mad I could kill. That’s exactly what the Surgeon General’s
report said and what any number of other studies have shown: TV violence provokes
real violence. It isn’t getting any better: the most popular hour-long shows on TV
in recent years have consisted of 35 minutes of chase, five minutes of shoot-‘em up,
and 20 minutes of commercials.”
Roth points out that children are cruelly treated by television. “Even worse than
Caesar’s ‘bread and circuses,’ children are fed a diet of programming selling violence
and commercials selling refined sugar in various forms. With a minimum of distractions
outside the aura of the tube, it is the children of the poor and the uneducated who
In my vision, I see a ten-year-old boy watching TV in a mobile home parked in a trailer
court that has sprung up near the farm where I was raised. (We are raised in Indiana
– not reared.) It is 5:30 p.m. Lenny has been home from school for an hour after being
bussed 30 miles roundtrip to a consolidated school in a nearby city. Lenny’s parents
are not home. Both hold low-paying jobs and drink heavily. In fact, the television
set Lenny is watching was obtained by his parents from a fence who specializes in
stolen TV’s. The TV set represents Lenny’s parents’ attempt to provide him with a
means of entertainment comparable to that possessed by other boys in the trailer compound.
The fact that the set is stolen merchandise does not disturb me as much as the reality
of what television is doing to the mind of Lenny. Bernard DeMott rightly asks: “How
much can be said for an intellectual vision whose effect is to encourage abdication
from all responsibility of mind?” I find it extremely difficult to communicate with
Lenny. I feel he is being robbed of his identity by a mechanism no one fully understands.
He is being denied a vision, which may be found in the printed word. He is being denied
direct and frequent contact with the great out-of-doors, which is within walking distance
of his mobile home. He is being denied an opportunity to develop an awareness of his
skills and talents and to exercise creative imagination. No one takes the time to
introduce him to worlds beyond TV.
Since my early education was essentially Rousseauistic and Wordsworthian, the emotions
I recollect in tranquility must be vastly different than Lenny’s. Contrary to what
McLuhanism teaches, I believe I and others of my generation were more directly involved
with our environment than young people have an opportunity to be today.
I lived in a world of true sensation – not synthetic sensation. I milked cows by hand;
I fed chickens; I gathered eggs from beneath pecking Leghorn hens; I pitched hay;
I drove horses; I cleaned barns; I cut wood; I filled wood-boxes. I picked wildflowers;
I collected leaves; I skated on a pond. I felt life; I cut my fingers; I stubbed my
toes; I slid from a barn peak – collecting wood shingle slivers all the way and stopped
miraculously at the eaves – or I would not be here today. I itched from hayseeds and
muck soil. I went barefoot; I was bitten by mosquitoes, stung by yellow jackets, and
scared by garter snakes, blue racers, and rattle-snakes.
I read Uncle Wiggily’s Puzzlebook, Black Beauty, and Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, and I recollected in tranquility while perched on the seat of a three-horse riding
plow. How can I communicate with Lenny? One of the few places in America where one
can still receive a natural education similar to mine is among the Amish. If it were
feasible, I would recommend an Amish internship for young people, but this would not
prepare them for the world in which we and they have to live.
My teachers were not forced to compete with television in order to enlist my interest.
For the first five years I attended a two-room rural school. I recall Charles Boniface
– a great teacher – who taught the third, fourth, and firth grades in one room. He
put down the two fifteen-year-old bullies who were terrorizing the younger children,
so the rest of us had time for emotion recollected in the tranquility of an orderly
classroom. He was a man who took country kids on nature hikes and walked the boys
to a nearby farmhouse so they could listen to a broadcast of one of the 1932 World
Series games over a battery radio. Of course, the Cubs lost to the Yankees! He put
a hoop in a basement room adjacent to a coal bin, so we boys could learn to shoot
baskets “good like all Hoosiers should.” I cried if I had to miss school; I didn’t
cry because I had to go to school. The minds and emotions of the pupils who studied
under Charles Boniface were being educated. Learning was an adventure. Unlike Lenny,
we were not trapped by an image-set. Our imaginations were being stimulated and our
intellects were being challenged.
I conclude with words of vision from Thoreau, whose Walden and “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” I have explored with more than 500 college
freshmen over a twenty-year period.
The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us.
Only that day dawns to which we are awake.
I have faith that ultimately television shall speak, and not lie, but this will not surely come if you and I sit idly by. If the Philistines should eventually triumph in this world,
let it never be written that our bodies were found by the TV set.