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  • The Troubling Lessons of Arthur's Teacher Trouble:Old Stereotypes in a New Commodity
  • Matt Jackson (bio)

In a 1995 television commercial, a father strikes a bargain with his young daughter. If the little girl brushes her teeth, the father will read her a bedtime story. After brushing her teeth, the girl jumps affectionately into her father's lap. Instead of pulling out a book, the father places a CD in the CD-ROM drive of his computer. Both father and daughter stare at the computer screen as the story unfolds.

The recent success of CD-ROM children's stories suggests that the above scene is becoming more common in middle-class homes across America. CD-ROM computer stories are part of a rapidly growing market in educational software designed for personal computers. In the first six months of 1993, sales of educational software grew by 77 percent, more than any other type of computer program (Taylor 65). Parents can choose from math programs, language instruction, encyclopedias, and more. Among young children, CD-ROM fiction is particularly popular, as the large storage capacity of CD-ROM disks allows the inclusion of high-quality sound and animation. The computer can "read" the story from beginning to end, or children can click on (select) any part of the scene using a mouse. Certain objects and characters become animated and display sound effects when they are selected, a feature that serves as the main selling point of these programs. In short, CD-ROM stories, marketed and praised for their ability to teach reading skills, computer skills, and wholesome values, are on the leading edge of the "edutainment" craze. The companies that produce these CD-ROMs market them as interactive books, an analogy that many parents and educators accept uncritically. These electronic texts supposedly combine the traditional allure of books as an intellectual medium with the technological mystique of computers as an interactive medium.

As this new technology gains popularity in the home and classroom, it is important to scrutinize the assumptions underlying its adoption as a developmental tool. One of the most important of these as yet underexamined premises regarding CD-ROMs is that they are affiliated with books and "high culture" rather than with television and "low culture," an artificial distinction that is used to frame these products within a consumer culture. But in fact their "interactive" aspects are more physical than mental, and the stories themselves rarely break the structural and conceptual stereotypes for which much mass-market children's literature is criticized. Because the marketing of these products stresses their seemingly innovative form, this form may conceal a disturbing lack of innovation in content. Beneath the surface of these high-tech disks, other lessons are being taught as well—lessons about learning and consumption.

This article will examine in detail one CD-ROM children's story, Arthur's Teacher Trouble (1992), in order to investigate the ideology at work behind both the narrative and its marketing as a CD-ROM. Originally created by Marc Brown in 1986 as a book forming part of a popular series called "Arthur's Adventures," Arthur's Teacher Trouble has proven itself well suited to cross-media adaptation. The CD-ROM version has won eleven awards since its release, including a Gold Award from Parenting magazine, a Top Ten award from Parent's Choice magazine, and a Children's Top 10 award from MacWorld magazine. While I do not contend that Arthur's Teacher Trouble is representative of all children's CD-ROMs, it is an important case study precisely because it is a standard-bearer for this type of product. Much of the discussion in the first part of this article regarding how CD-ROMs are marketed to a mass audience can be applied to the genre as a whole. The critique of the story content in the latter half of this article obviously applies to this particular CD-ROM. But that this particular CD-ROM has been singled out for so much praise in the mainstream press reinforces the thesis that the allure of new technology diverts critical attention away from content.

Arthur's Teacher Trouble is part of the Living Books series...


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pp. 30-36
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