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 soul.”

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. Jones?”

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 logically.”

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 vice president.

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 pay.”

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.