In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Three Cultures and Children's Television
  • Richard J. McGowan (bio)

In October, 1950, Alan Turing's marvelously provocative paper, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," appeared in the philosophical journal, Mind. That article marked the introduction, in print, of Turing's operational definition of thinking or "intelligence," and made the further suggestion that machines could think. Turing's definition depended on what is now known as the imitation principle: "if a computer, on the basis of written replies to questions, could not be distinguished from a human respondent, then 'fair play' would oblige one to say that it must be 'thinking'" (415). The upshot of Turing's article was controversy combined with a certain suspicion that his claims, if allowed to stand, meant that human beings were no different from machines. It seems to me that Turing may have exacted his revenge on his adversaries, for instance, Michael Polyani, in the form of children's television programming.

Turing's revenge, so-called, has occurred through an evolution in children's programming that began in about 1959, the year C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures appeared in print. This evolution has involved a shift from the natural to the technological as a focal point for the images children receive. In his 1963 essay, The Two Cultures: A Second Look, C. P. Snow wrote that "it is probably too early to speak of a third culture already in existence. But I am convinced that this is coming" (70-71). If we allow such distinctions to be made as between cultures, we have seen the third culture emerge in children's programming. The first two cultures are those of the artist and the natural scientist; the third is that of the technologist, as Porush says.1 I will suggest that children's programming shows these three cultures, that currently preeminence is given the technological culture,2 and that the technological imagery ultimately restricts children's perceptions of the world.

Among the messages of children's television is the lesson that tools—for that is what machines are—have a life and independence of their own. This elevation of tools to the status of living beings ignores and tramples upon a distinction germane to the three cultures made by St. Thomas Aquinas. He spoke of the liberales artes, the "free arts," and the mechanicae artes, the "mechanical arts."3 The free arts point [End Page 87] beyond themselves and do not necessarily serve human ends. The mechanicae artes serve human ends and their objects "borrow" their way of being from human invention. The technological imagery of children's programming misrepresents that distinction so that children see human beings as constrained by their own inventions. Reason and responsibility are presented as the domain of machines, not human beings.

The Technological Culture Emerges

If we accept Snow's claims, prior to 1963, there were two predominant cultural modalities. The artist and the natural scientist were both seekers in a liberalis artes. The mystery of life, the power of discovery, a sense of wonder characterized their pursuits. They explicitly and implicitly recognized both the importance of reason and its limits, standing in awe of the forces which defy being human. Command of nature was not the goal of these two cultures; knowledge was never only or primarily instrumental to human ends.

According to Snow, the original two cultures could trade riposte, but they were not antagonistic nor openly contemptuous of one another. But this situation no longer prevails. Originally, children's programming maintained the harmony of the two cultures. The long history of animal naturalism could be found in such programs as Lassie. The soft scientific narratives and documentaries of Disney, such as The Incredible Journey, used animals as purveyors of scientific knowledge. These shows were staples of an age without a technological culture. They blended the efforts of the scientist and the artist.

Fantasy and natural science were allies in children's shows. Fantastic naturalism, fantasy given a natural explanation, gave rise to children's heroes such as Superman and the Fantastic Four. Superman came from another planet and the differences between Krypton and Earth accounted for his super powers. The Fantastic Four were wonderfully gifted...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 87-95
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.