Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Chapter 5. Visual Education—(I)

Today, said President Lyndon Johnson, “we rededicate a part of the airwaves—which belong to all the people—and we dedicate them for the enlightenment of all the people.”

Published onFeb 23, 2021
Chapter 5. Visual Education—(I)

Our age is known for violence. It has been marked by
alienation. It has spawned bureaucracy. It has embraced cynicism.

Yet human beings long for alternatives; they long to matter.

They hunger for a community of shared values reflecting the triumph of intelligence and the life of the spirit.

—From A Public Trust: The Report of the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Public Broadcasting (New York: Bantam Books, 1979)

The Carnegie Commission that MIT’s former president James Rhyne Killian assembled in 1966 was extraordinary by any measure. More than half a century ago, it included fifteen members—current and former university presidents, a novelist, a pianist, media titans, labor activists, government officials, businesspeople and inventors—on a roster that privileged white men but not only; women, people of color, foreign-born individuals, and religious denominations were represented. Strong—for 1967. And in the space of a year, the commission and its members held eight formal meetings over some twenty-eight meeting days and sought input from more than 225 people; its members visited ninety-two sites in thirty-five states and also seven foreign countries; and as a group they issued, at the end, twelve recommendations, all of them geared, as the landmark 1967 report stated, toward more firmly establishing what they called “an instrument for the free communication of ideas in a free society.”

“We have become aware of technology as an immense power,” their report stated. “What confronts our society is the obligation to bring that technology into the full service of man, so that its power to move image and sound is consistently coupled with a power to move mind and spirit.” The report went on: “Television should enable us not only to see and hear more vividly, but to understand more deeply.” And on: “Public television, elevating its own sights and those of its public, can help provide for the university a resource not unlike the university press, making its own contribution in terms it can freely honor. It is not merely a matter of calling upon the scholar for an account of his accomplishments, but of making for him a place within television to which he can repair as he is accustomed to turn to the printing press. . . . Great teachers should have opportunities to interpret the new math, the new physics, the new social sciences. . . . The unique opportunity is to bring before those who seek to understand, those who understand deeply.”


For its ending:

If we were to sum up our proposal with all the brevity at our command, we would say that what we recommend is freedom. We seek freedom from the constraints, however necessary in their contexts, of commercial television. We seek for educational television freedom from the pressures of inadequate funds. We seek for the artist, the technician, the journalist, the scholar, and the public servant freedom to create, freedom to innovate, freedom to be heard in this most far-reaching medium. We seek for the citizen freedom to view, to see programs that the present system, by its incompleteness, denies him.

Because this freedom is its principal burden, we submit our Report with confidence: to rally the American people in the name of freedom is to ask no more of them than they have always been willing to provide.1

The work of the commission resulted almost immediately in a bill (S. 1160) that quickly in turn became Public Law 90-129 (81 Stat. 365): the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. The funding of the commission, the political ability of the commissioners, the timing of its establishment—all resulted in a perfect flight that allowed for a bill and then a law and then a presidential signature.

At the signing ceremony, President Johnson spoke to say:

It was in 1844 that Congress authorized $30,000 for the first telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore. Soon afterward, Samuel Morse sent a stream of dots and dashes over that line to a friend who was waiting. His message was brief and prophetic and it read: “What hath God wrought?”

Every one of us should feel the same awe and wonderment here today.

For today, miracles in communication are our daily routine. Every minute, billions of telegraph messages chatter around the world. They interrupt law enforcement conferences and discussions of morality. Billions of signals rush over the ocean floor and fly above the clouds. Radio and television fill the air with sound. Satellites hurl messages thousands of miles in a matter of seconds.

Today our problem is not making miracles—but managing miracles. We might well ponder a different question: What hath man wrought—and how will man use his inventions?

Today, he said, “we rededicate a part of the airwaves—which belong to all the people—and we dedicate them for the enlightenment of all the people.”

“We must consider,” he said, “new ways to build a great network for knowledge—not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and storing information that the individual can use.”

Johnson continued:

Think of the lives that this would change:

The student in a small college could tap the resources of a great university. . . .

Yes, the student in a small college tapping the resources of the greatest university in the hemisphere.

The country doctor getting help from a distant laboratory or a teaching hospital;

A scholar in Atlanta might draw instantly on a library in New York;

A famous teacher could reach with ideas and inspirations into some far-off classroom, so that no child need be neglected.

Eventually, I think this electronic knowledge bank could be as valuable as the Federal Reserve Bank.

And such a system could involve other nations, too—it could involve them in a partnership to share knowledge and to thus enrich all mankind.

A wild and visionary idea? Not at all. Yesterday’s strangest dreams are today’s headlines and change is getting swifter every moment.

I have already asked my advisers to begin to explore the possibility of a network for knowledge—and then to draw up a suggested blueprint for it.2

The system he was signing into law, he said, “will be free, and it will be independent—and it will belong to all of our people.”

But today, scan the dial, the grid, the web. Where has this vision gone?

A more inspiring question: What brought us to this point of eloquence in 1967?

The answer to the second question—the prehistory of public media—is as extraordinary as the backstory of the Carnegie Commission itself.

The answer to the first is: the Monsterverse.

The founding “Constitution” of the Boston Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, published in 1829, reads:

A number of gentlemen who feel interested in the promotion and diffusion of useful knowledge, have held several meetings to consider the expediency of forming an Association for the purpose of advancing these objects; and the undersigned have been appointed a Committee to form such an Association, and to recommend it to the patronage of the friends of popular education.

From infancy to the age of seventeen, the means provided in this city by public munificence and private enterprise, are ample. From seventeen to the age when young men enter on the more active and responsible duties of their several stations, sufficient opportunity does not appear to be afforded for mental and moral cultivation.

At this period of life, when the mind is active and the passions urgent, and when the invitations to profitless amusements are strongest and most numerous, it is desirable that means should be provided for furnishing at a cheap rate, and in an inviting form, such useful information as will not only add to the general intelligence of the young men referred to, but at the same time will prepare them to engage more understandingly, with a deeper interest, and with better prospect of success, in the pursuits to which their lives are to be devoted.

The existing deficiency of such means is clearly a subject of regret; and the undersigned are of opinion that this deficiency may most easily and fully supplied by courses of Lectures delivered in different parts of the city, under the auspices of a Society, whose sanction may secure to the Lecturers employed, the confidence and resort of the public. . . .

The Association shall be called the “Boston Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.” And its object shall be to promote and direct popular education by lectures and other means.3

In March 1836, the lead founder of the society, John Lowell Jr., passed away in India. He had been on a world tour to recover his senses after the death of his wife and only two children from scarlet fever. Lowell was the scion of a Boston-based textile fortune, and his will made provisions to establish—with, it is said, half of his entire estate, some $250,000 in 1836 dollars—a trust dedicated to the maintenance and support of free public lectures and public classes or courses, much in line with the Boston Society’s ambition, and stipulated they be free to all the citizens of Boston, regardless of their race or gender.4

From this extraordinary bequest the Lowell Institute was established. And beginning in 1840, prominent minds from around the country and the world were invited by the Lowell Institute’s new trustees to come to Boston and lecture on any number of topics—geology, ornithology, theology, botany—and at any number of meeting places the Lowell Institute would rent for the purpose. One hundred talks were offered in its first year alone. At the time, Lowell’s gift was the largest such individual bequest ever seen, and no less a personality than Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said, “No nobler or more helpful institution exists in America than Boston’s Lowell Institute.” And the gyre widened. The institute began to sponsor free courses, its first a series of fine arts lectures at what would become Boston’s new Museum of Fine Arts,5 and then—even though Lowell’s will expressly forbade his funds to be spent on bricks and mortar—underwrote a project that brothers Henry Darwin Rogers and William Barton Rogers had presented to John Amory Lowell (cousin to John Lowell Jr. and executor of his estate): the polytechnic institute that would become MIT.

The School of Industrial Sciences, which was to become the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was opened in February 1865 in leased rooms in the building of the Mercantile Library Association on Summer Street and in the dwelling of Judge Jackson. The objectives of the school and the courses that it offered were, as described in the First Annual Catalogue. First. To provide a full course of scientific studies and practical exercises for students seeking to qualify themselves for the profession of the Mechanical Engineer, Civil Engineer, Practical Chemist, Engineer of Mines, and Builder and Architect. Second. To furnish such a general education, founded upon the Mathematical, Physical and Natural Sciences, English and other Modern Languages, and Mental and Political Sciences, as shall form a fitting preparation for any of the departments of active life. Third. To provide courses of Evening Instruction in the main branches of knowledge above referred to, for persons . . . who are prevented by occupation or other causes, from devoting themselves to scientific study during the day, but who desire to avail themselves of systematic evening lessons or lectures.

The support for these free evening classes at MIT spurred gifts extending Harvard’s educational mission under its new president (as it happened, fellow Lowell descendant A. Lawrence Lowell) to offer further free classes, and then—quick decades thereafter—moved into a new area in which to deliver “useful information” to “add to the general intelligence”: that being broadcasting. The institute supported the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council, established in 1946 by the presidents of Boston College, Boston University, Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, and Tufts, together with the leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Brandeis University, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Science, and the New England Conservatory of Music.6 Programming featuring courses and concerts started being produced for Boston’s commercial radio stations, but then—in 1951—the council applied for its own license and radio frequency. A radio tower was built—on a great blue hill, so W-GBH—and then a television tower, and then a network of educational stations, and all, as Lowell had envisioned, with the public weal in mind.7 The founder and first president of WGBH radio would become one of the first presidents of the public broadcasting system described by President Johnson above.8

But that wasn’t all. Fast forward: On December 17, 1965, the Lowell Institute’s trustee Ralph Lowell is invited to deliver remarks to James Killian’s Carnegie Commission meeting in New York. He describes his pride in the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council’s work and the membership fees that the partner institutions—expanded from the original list—contribute to match Lowell’s charity. He reminds the commission of television’s unique importance “as the only medium capable of combining sight, sound, color, and immediacy, it is an information and educative force without equal.”

In our country right now, he says, we have

two systems for using television. One, the commercial, is huge, powerful, enormously well financed. It has vast technical capacity, superb equipment, endless energy. The other, the educational, is relatively puny, ineffectual, and financially undernourished. It is all too often lacking in people, in leadership, and in drive.

But we have to fund it, he says, in large part because of

the spreading feeling that what is transmitted over television will inevitably make a difference in the kind of society we produce. Behind the 111 or more educational television stations stand the nation’s greatest educational and cultural institutions. Through the 111 ETV stations, the highest aspirations of our society are expressed—albeit imperfectly. In their general, non-classroom programming, the ETV stations are reaching out to receptive minds—wherever they may be—with programming that strives to present the widest possible range of human experience and to show the best that mankind has to offer.9

The lineage from John Lowell to Ralph Lowell takes us through lectures to public education to broadcasting and back again. It is the same promise that motivates the collective force of hope against the worst that mankind has to offer.

Which is, for lack of a better term, the Monsterverse.

The whole grand story is one of what early on in American life was called “visual education”—a beautiful term if there ever was one. The story dates from the very start of the moving-image medium, on the cusp of the twentieth century, and it continues right up to the present second. For as you are reading these words, someone, somewhere, is watching an educational video online, and someone else (perhaps even me) is producing one. Huzzas about the importance of visual education have been loud at times—and certain patches from our history might be identified as boon times for our highest hopes and dreams for the concept. The start of the 1920s was one such period; the early 1950s, another; the decade of the 1960s, with the Killian Carnegie Commission and the extraordinary founding of American public media, yet another; and now the present moment, again another, what with the web, the commitment of powerful educators to teach all the people in the world, and the promise of online learning still so tantalizing and still so unfulfilled. Yet notwithstanding the soaring language of Lyndon Johnson, above, at the launch of what may have been our best effort, these ambitions have been—have always been, every time—battered, dashed, and crushed, the search for knowledge and methods of knowledge distribution always smothered, it would seem, by the larger, more popular, more powerful, and much more lucrative leviathan of entertainment, and within that innocuous concept, misinformation, and within that an even greater monstrousness: efforts to purposely stupefy our population and render it unable, as a result, to act in concert and in its own best interests.

The story of the progress of visual education, then, is as much a story of the opposite of progress—regress—and indeed those who carry the standard of visual education in a progressive march during any of these periods always seem like opposition figures, when it should, quite naturally, be the reverse.10 It didn’t, of course, have to be this way. Our century of film began, roughly, with Thomas Edison in the late 1800s. By 2020 we have reveled in 100, 125 years of film and television—yet, notwithstanding the Carnegie Commission of 1967 and other efforts to bring into our era the Enlightenment’s power and passion, we’re about to muck it up, fuck it up, muck-it-fuck-it-up again, fuck it up as we have fucked up book publishing, journal publishing, music publishing, and more. We are going to knot up our genius and imagination in the same set of intricate, twisted Laocoönish publishing and distribution and sales models; the same almost completely (now) unregulated environment; the same type of uninspired and uninspiring leadership; the same huge and trivial contracts devoid of essential liberties and freedoms; and the same hangdog public attitude—a purely toxic combination that together with our failure as a republic to defend other basic societal freedoms will obligate us to stay deformed, upside down, and inside out. It will obligate us precisely not to share knowledge and not to make the world better by all our actions and investments, no matter how benevolent, in the field.

Lord, as Tyndale might have said, how counterintuitive!

Vachel Lindsay, one of the first American film critics—someone profoundly attuned to and hopeful about the power of the moving image—spotted the parallels and the linkages between print culture and screen culture: between film, just bursting vitally onto the world scene, and ancient languages long dead; between libraries, on the one hand, and dictionaries and encyclopedias on the other. “Edison is the new Gutenberg,” Lindsay wrote in 1915. “He invented the new printing.” The Egyptian “Book of the Dead,” he wrote, with its treasury of hieroglyphs and pictographs, is “certainly the greatest motion picture I ever attended.” As such, “American civilization grows more hieroglyphic every day.”11 “The art museums of America should rule the universities, and the photoplay studios as well. In the art museums should be set the final standards of civic life, rather than in any museum libraries or routine classrooms. And the great weapon of the art museums of all the land should be the hieroglyphic of the future, the truly artistic photoplay.” And the makers of those photoplays—especially the professional photoplay newswriters? “They should take the business of guidance in this new world as a sacred trust, knowing they have the power to influence an enormous democracy.”

Lindsay asked, then, almost as a voice from the future:

Why did the millionaires who owned such a magnificent instrument descent [sic] to such silliness and impose it on the people? . . . This American invention, the kinetoscope, which affects or will affect as many people as the guns of Europe [1915!], is not yet understood in its powers.

He predicted that

The motion pictures will be in the . . . schools. . . . Text-books in geography, history, zoology, botany, physiology, and other sciences will be illustrated by standardized films. Along with these changes, there will be available at certain centres collections of films equivalent to the Standard Dictionary and the Encyclopedia of Britannica. . . .

Photoplay libraries are inevitable, as active if not as multitudinous as the book-circulating libraries. The oncoming machinery and expense of the motion picture is immense. . . . Every considerable effort to develop a noble idiom will count in the final result, as the writers of early English made possible the language of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton. We are perfecting a medium to be used as long as Chinese ideographs have been. It will, no doubt, like the Chinese language, record in the end massive and classical treatises, imperial chronicles, law-codes, traditions, and religious admonitions.

Presaging debates at MIT and elsewhere in 2020, Lindsay continued:

When men work for high degrees in the universities, they labor on a piece of literary conspiracy called a thesis which no one outside the university hears of again. The gist of this research work that is dead to the democracy, through the university merits of thoroughness, moderation of statement, and final touch of discovery, would have a chance to live and grip the people in a motion picture transcript, if not a photoplay. It would be University Extension. The relentless fire of criticism which the heads of the departments would pour on the production before they allowed it to pass would result in a standardization of the sense of scientific fact over the land. Suppose the film has the coat of arms of the University of Chicago along with the name of the young graduate whose thesis it is. He would have a chance to reflect credit on the university even as much as a football player.12

But we get ahead of ourselves.

Thomas Edison, for his part, fervently believed in the power of the moving picture to educate. With cinema, he said, “education can be manufactured wholesale,” like any other product of the factory.13 He found film a key educational tool—full of promise, “almost the same as bringing that object itself before the child or taking the child to that object,” and “the closest possible approximation to reality.”14 “Virtually deified in the scholarly press,” as one scholar has written, “as the father of electricity, the phonograph, and the cinema,” the genius inventor of the twentieth century repeatedly and often fervently spoke of the power of the screen to uplift, to inspire, and above all, to educate. It was a time—almost exactly a century before YouTube—when efforts were being marshalled by hundreds of people and companies across the United States and the world to bring that power into theaters, but also into meeting rooms, homes, offices, and schools. Projectors and playback machines, with names like the Homograph, the Ikonograph, the Projectoscope, the Panoptikon, the Mutoscope, the Cosmograph, the Biograph, the Edengraph, the Power Cameragraph, the Kineclair, the Phantoscope, the Photophone, the Ernemann Kinox, the Optiscope, the Pathescope, the Veriscope, the Kinetograph, the Kinetoscope, the Kinetophonograph, the Synchronoscope, the Animatograph, the Spirograph, the Vitascope, and more, all were competing for a share of a burgeoning market, attention, and investment. Edison said, “I can teach more accurate geography in half an hour to a class of young pupils by moving pictures than a pedagogue can in a month.” “The moving picture art,” he went on, “will largely supplement the art of printing for the transmission and diffusion of knowledge.”15

These early years—right before the 1910s, in the 1910s, and in the 1920s, much the same as today, a century later, with the Internet—saw a rush of new organizations, some commercial, some noncommercial, being formed to produce, distribute, analyze, and help coordinate efforts to deploy the moving picture for teaching and learning. Among them were the National Academy of Visual Instruction, the Visual Instruction Association of America, the Society for Visual Education, the National Education Association Division of Visual Instruction, and more. The editors of the inaugural issue of Visual Education wrote, “We believe that the future awaiting the present efforts toward visual education will be more brilliant than the dreams of its most ardent devotees.”16 The French film producer and distributor Charles Pathé, addressing the whole world as his market, declared, “The cinema is the newspaper, the school, and the theater of tomorrow.” One professor of education declared that “the motion picture is the single most potent educational factor in our present-day civilization.”17 Edison, meanwhile, was, as usual, backing up his words with actions, producing educational films not only for theatrical release but also for classroom projection with such titles in history as “The Minute Men,” about the American Revolution, and in science as “Cecropia Moth,” “Magnetism,” and “The Life History of the Silkworm.”18

These were years when the explosion of cinema and screen culture was astronomical; a new universe was being formed.19 As one scholar has written, in these “take-off” years, “cinema industrialized entertainment by standardizing it, automating it and making it tradable.” The average length of films released in these years, measured in feet of film, soared by orders of magnitude—from 80 feet in 1897 to 700 in 1910 to 3,000 in 1920, at a time when a reel of film held 1,500 feet and each reel would play for about fifteen minutes.20

It was in the 1920s that cinema—and thus screen culture, in its own twenties or late teens—first became a mass medium in terms of production and distribution.21 The impulse to dedicate the new medium, this new industry, to good purposes—in fact to bring out its innate goodness, to develop its true promise—was strong. Edison’s film studio associate W. K. L. Dickson had predicted as much, writing that “the advantages to students and historians will be immeasurable. Instead of dry and misleading accounts, tinged with the exaggerations of the chroniclers’ minds, our archives will be enriched by the vitalized pictures of great national scenes, instinct with all the glowing personalities which characterized them.”22 Edison himself had said that “the substitution of motion pictures for books in the nation’s elementary schools would in twenty years bring about an advancement of ten centuries of civilization.”23 “Experiments I have made with school children have convinced me that 85 per cent of all knowledge is received through the eye. . . . I think motion pictures have just started, and it is my opinion that in twenty years children will be taught through pictures and not through books.”24 He even went so far as to say for publication that “books will be obsolete for the schools. . . . It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture.”25

That impulse to have an entirely new industry—a medium, a method of communication, information archives, professional creativity, and the passions inherent in every production—point straight to social good, early in its process of development, is a familiar one. It happened in print, it happened in radio, it happened in television, and now, after Google, after Amazon, after YouTube, after Facebook, it’s happening today with the Internet. We have, as a society, and always among our angels, this latent wish to make our media change the world, bring us our better selves, touch the stars. And yet that impulse almost always gets snuffed by the onslaught of . . .

. . . the Monsterverse.

The attitudes of these early film Tyndales, if one can call them that, preaching the potential of the moving image and the prospects of screen culture for social good, were powerful. The call went out for more wholesome fare for the growing number of movie houses, and at the same time for equipping with screens and projectors other places where groups gathered—and for producing beneficial media for them to watch. An advertisement appealing to investors to buy shares in the young Society for Visual Education, for example, reminded doubters that the country might have 17,000 motion picture theaters, but that the real opportunity lay in the society’s outfitting 226,000 schools, 200,000 churches, and 200,000 meeting lodges, “of which only a very small number have projectors” and films.26 In 1919 and 1920, the frenzy of betterment came to a head: the National Academy for Visual Instruction was incorporated in Washington, DC, in October 1919; the Society for Visual Education was formed in Chicago in November 1919; in 1920, the National Visual Education Association was established in Washington, DC; and in 1921, the Visual Instruction Association of America was founded in New York.

They all were out making their case against the background of an exploding Hollywood—and situating it in the larger and longer history of technology and culture. The new journal Visual Education, which billed itself quite forthrightly as “a National Organ of the New Movement in American Education,” reminded us in the opening salvo of its first issue that

when the omnipotent little Printing Press assisted at the birth of the modern world and made effective the power of the human intellect—the most subtle and resistless force in the cosmos—many a learned mind and pious heart grieved at this invention of the devil, for it poured forth so many frivolities which would lead the world inevitably to perdition.

Hieroglyphics, the editors told us, the alphabet, all of mechanical science, the first boats, trains, bicycles, carriages, airplanes, X-ray machines, telegraphs, and phonographs all had frivolous purposes to which they were first put—and the motion picture was no different. Yet the changes all came—tops were made to spin for children before becoming “gyroscopic governors of modern engines”—and now the motion picture was in the midst of its molt. “Thousands of intellectual men are awake to the existence of this new giant in our midst. Thousands more are stirring in their sleep.” And “[t]hinking men [and women] are dimly conscious that something important is being missed.”27

With these summonses also came a remarkable awareness of the importance of the human record and the contribution of video and screen culture toward it.

Every day that slips into the past carries significant events of world history into the limbo of the irrevocable. Persons, things, acts, and occasions are seen by a few eyes at the moment of their living actuality, and then must take their place forever in history, imperfectly preserved in the transient memory of witness, in printed words of inadequate description, and in still pictures that record only frozen moments in the march of an event that lived and moved. Yet we have at hand an instrument that will preserve for all time a good fraction of what has occurred since the 20th century began, and practically everything of real significance that will take place throughout the world in all the years to come. . . . By way of illustration, consider the titles of these old Edison films, made between 1900 and 1905, which George Kleine—a pioneer in modern pictures who never has lost the vision of the serious values obtainable from the great invention—recently had unearthed. These are selected at random from a collection of 179 similar subjects:

• Mount Pelee, smoking before the eruption.

• Eruption of volcano and destruction of St. Pierre.

• President McKinley’s funeral.

• Skirmish between Russians and Japs.

• Panorama of Culebra Cut (while canal was building).

• U.S. troops landing at Daiquiri, Cuba.

• Galveston Flood. Search for bodies in ruins.

• The Aeroplane “June Bug.”

• Opening of the New York Subway. . . .

What magical possibilities for preserving the past are here suggested! Out of the vast amount of footage taken since 1900, millions of feet still exist containing priceless records. . . . The great record of world activities being made daily by the motion picture is doomed to destruction after its present prescribed course is run, unless steps are taken to preserve it.28

Visual Education’s editors, contributing writers, and readers were aware of the exponential velocity of information over time.

In what may be called “natural education,” consider the speed attained since the development of the postal service, the telephone, the telegraph, the modern newspaper, and the mighty motion picture. The man in the street now possesses more real-world knowledge than the learned scholar of 1850 could have amassed in a life time.

There has been “speeding up” somewhere. With the advent of the most enlightening single force since printing—the motion picture—more speed is inevitable. It will come whether we accept, and thereby control it, or refuse and leave it to its headlong and lawless course.29

The Hebraic lament here is that same recursive refrain we have heard in every industry as it has hit its late teens or early twenties and thus, by our human generational standards, its initial maturity: that commercial ideation and the profit motive put societal needs (let us call it “the public interest”) onto the back burner—or indeed onto another stove entirely. When J. W. Shepherd, chairman of the editorial advisory board of The Educational Screen, laid into the young motion picture industry in 1923, it was akin to the scathing criticism that Edward R. Murrow, in his 1958 farewell speech, and Newton Minow, in his legendary 1961 “vast wasteland” address, and critics of public broadcasting in the late 1970s and early 1980s would deliver of television, and redolent of what critics of the wayward web now deliver to characterize the Internet. Shepherd, a University of Oklahoma professor of education and director of Oklahoma’s visual education initiative, believed that the film industry was already out of control. The young regulatory bodies—self-regulatory, really, led by the industry’s own Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America—that had been established to improve the quality of the motion picture had simply failed, he proclaimed.

In the first place, it means that the motion picture theatre, and the motion picture industry for that matter, is fully discredited among the better element. In the second place, it means that the motion picture industry and the motion picture theatre have blindly built up a clientele and following of doubtful character and that the only way that they can now hope to remain in the community is to continue a service to the same following. No wonder then that good pictures have no appeal and do not “pay.” In the third place, it means that large numbers of the population of these communities are not being furnished the recreation and entertainment that the motion picture can furnish, perhaps for cheaply and more satisfactorily than any other agency.

In the fourth place, it means that the policies of the motion picture industry and the theatres have been narrow, selfish and too limited with no thought of the communities’ welfare and with a complete absence of anything constructive in mind. In the fifth place, it means that the motion picture forces have looked upon the public as logical prey, and even in many cases demanding the right of protection from competition from other community agencies that seek to fill in the breach by giving an occasional moving picture show. This demand for a monopoly on the part of the local motion picture theatre has raised an important far-reaching issue of “rights.” Motion picture owners and managers have raised the cry of right to make a living on the one hand but denying on the other any right of the community to protect itself or to control its own destiny. In other words the theatre owners and managers demand for themselves full rights and privileges of protection and monopoly but deny any rights or privileges to the community. The economic fundamental, that only those persons in a community have a right to a living in that community who can serve the community constructively, has no place in the motion picture man’s philosophy.

There seems, therefore, to be but one solution. That solution comes from the growing sense of the community’s privilege, right and responsibility to govern its own destiny which in the last analysis demands that the community through its own organization determine the character and quality of its activities, particularly its entertainment and recreation, very much as it looks after its education, its commercial activities, its religious institutions. No force should be allowed contact with community life which is destructive in its influences. The motion picture certainly should be no exception.30

It was this exasperation—precisely this exasperation—that would lead, through a few more fits, to the Carnegie Commission and the establishment of American public broadcasting. That exasperation—and precisely that exasperation—arose because men and women of vision sensed promise and danger twinning around something new—an invention, a technology—and sought to alert society to both. In the early and mid-1920s, these voices spoke to us—and their messages are still loud and still clear. Writing for The Educational Screen in June 1925, California producer George E. Stone found himself allotted ten full pages to expound upon his solution to the dilemma that no one could create full educational-film catalogs and libraries on a commercial basis. That solution—its chimes ring over almost every page of this book—was to create a nonprofit engine, a “Foundation,” to become an “extremely useful center” for “the manufacture, exchange, and distribution of visual material with explanatory texts.” As a producer himself of such films—on the origins of life, food, malaria, and diseases more generally—Stone recognized what others saw then and since, namely that “no amount of business organization or efficiency of production will offset the fundamental economic handicaps which confront the producer of educational films.” A center that looked like “certain well-established cultural institutions in American life”—public schools, our great symphonies, our libraries, the museums of America, and more—was needed. Stone invoked these models with passion and prescience:

Visual Education demands a wealth of subject matter comparable to that of a great library or museum. The material must be housed under conditions which will preserve it indefinitely. It must be organized so as to make available its resources with minimum delay. It must be recognized as in a class with other public institutions and be placed on a free exchange basis for material and publications. It must maintain a highly trained technical staff to be available for all the highly specialized work involved in visual education.31

In a word, public broadcast—

But we get ahead of ourselves.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?