In October my composition class read Bill McKibben's The Age of Missing Information, a book in which McKibben compares watching 24 hours of all 99 channels of a cable television station to one day spent in the Adirondack Mountains. In our class discussions, we compared the type of knowledge you can learn from direct experience in the outdoors to the knowledge you can learn from television.
Of course, we had to do the experiment ourselves. Half of the class took a bus to Pretty Colour Lakes, a beautiful natural area, and spent two hours hiking, writing in journals, admiring the foliage. The other half of the class spend two hours watching television and taking notes. All of the students, I think, would have preferred the field trip, but the division was dictated by which students had lab that afternoon. It is impossible to schedule a field trip that involves all of my students because they have so many afternoon labs and studios.
Each student wrote two pages detailing what they learned from the experience. In class, we read these aloud. The television students sat on one side of the room. The Pretty Colour Lakes students sat on the other side of the room.
The television papers were funny, filled with all kinds of bizarre and random bits of information. Soon, though, they began to all sound alike. Mostly what the students said they learned was pretty superficial and trivial. One student wrote a paper about all he learned about relationships from watching daytime television, and it was bizarrely absurd.
The papers about Pretty Colour Lakes were filled with all kinds of things: detailed observations, philosophical musings, memories, sensory details, lyrical descriptions, and emotional reflections. Often the papers reflecting the writer's personality, some of them touching on profound thoughts while others made funny observations about the way their classmates interacted with the landscape. Students studying science tended to include descriptions of wildlife while the architect students analyzed the design of the park.
The experiment worked to help get the students thinking about some of the overarching ideas of the book. What the students liked best, though, was the opportunity to get out of the city to spend a few hours outside hiking through bright-coloured leaves on a gorgeous fall day.