Over on Twitter the always interesting W Bradford Wilcox highlights the fact that children of more educated parents watch less television. I stumbled upon this datum via social conservative blogger Rod Dreher under the heading How Idiocracy Perpetuates Itself. If you read this blog you are aware of W Bradford Wilcox’s ouvre. It is of the nature that both Left and Right can take some comfort in it, as it serves as an informational balm upon their own particular presuppositional sores. And so here I am to suggest that the data do not declare what you fear sirs!
First, let me put into the record another piece of surprising datum, the average American watches 34 hours of television per week. That’s well near a full time job. But wait, remember that average means a large number watch more than 34 hours. Who are these people? Do you know them? By the fact that you read this weblog I suspect many of you do not. Certainly when I ask my friends they’re agog at this much television watching.
Let me try to intuit what a traditional conservative would take away from this level of watching television. “The people have lost their moral center, and lack appreciation for the edifying arts of yore, debasing themselves to partake of the passive hedonism of our fallen age.” Perhaps I stated it pompously, but I suspect you get the picture. What about a liberal? “The people lack the disposable income to avail themselves of the outdoors and finer pleasures of life, and so must make do with the accessible joys of television.” In other words, for the conservative the passive television watching public have missed the mark of their own free will, they have sinned against what their life was meant to be. For the liberal television occupies the role in the lives of the proletariat it does because they lack the economic wherewithal to enjoy all the finer things they obviously must yearn for.
But there may be a different answer. The people watch television because they prefer television to what the cultural elites, Left and Right, would term the “higher arts.” The soul of man is not noble, and it is not made in the image of a divine being on high. It is that of a squalid savanna ape rutting in the open and greedily thrusting sweets into its mouth until waves of satiety wash over its corpulent physique. I certainly watched television when I was a younger person, from Saturday Morning Cartoons such as The Smurfs in the 1980s to reality television in the 2000s. In 2004 as a household we stopped paying for cable, and soon enough managed to fob off our television on a friend. It was not because we disdained television, but because we found ourselves gluttons for it too often. I still remember a Saturday dissipated by a Newlyweds marathon in July of 2004. It was indeed a temptation which we had to toss out of our house, lest we be swallowed by its demands upon our attention.
Perhaps television can be analogized to sugar, ideally designed to trigger all of our most primal instincts. For the average human, even the not-so-average human, the passive pleasures of television are without parallel. And yet I believe television is likely far less dangerous than sugar: the average human has long been rather dull in comparison to the grand visions which the cultural elites held to be the exemplar of human existence. Their nature is pedestrian, but it can be called to decency. Dullness of nature should not be confused with low moral character. The simple pleasures of television are not fundamentally harmful, and I doubt they leave the mind or soul any less than they were beforehand. More likely the ultimate abomination of television in the eyes of the modern elites rooted in egalitarian presuppositions is that it gives the lie to the argument that all men are the same in their wants and preferences. Whether through self-cultivation or fundamental nature those of power, status, and wealth have aesthetic preferences which move in different directions than that of the mainstream, and they define their own goals as the true goals, as the good goals. The organized religions which emerged in the Axial Age have long been controlled at the highest levels by these classes, so the pleasures of the peasants have always been demonized as ungoldly, base, and sinful. Even when the priestly class killed their own gods, they continue to uphold that old morality.
Despite what what I say above, attempting to step outside of the circle of judgment, it is clear that I can not help but pass judgment, and elevate that which I hold to be true, good, and beautiful, to be what is objectively true, good, and beautiful. Intellectually I dispute such a proposition as self-evident, but emotionally it is difficult to shake that feeling in your bones. Our elites, from Left to Right, are arrogant creatures because they are elite, and wish to reshape all to universals of their own ends. So let us to move to the domain of data. The General Social Survey has a variable, TVHOURS, which asks respondents how many hours of television they watch per day.
Has there been a major drop in the watching of television over the past generation? Not according to these data.
There has been some recent talk about surveys which show that older people watch a lot more television than younger people. Does this show up in the data? From now on I am going to limit the data to the year 2008 or later, unless specified. In any case, yes, older people do watch more television.
How about education? This goes back to the result that W Bradford Wilcox shared.
No surprise. But how about IQ (measured via WORDSUM, a vocabulary test).
The results speak for themselves. Confirming our prejudices, the dull watch more TV than the bright, though even here you notice that the higher orders watch a fair amount of television. But some of you might wonder about confounds of education.
What this tells us is that both education and intelligence have an effect on hours watched of television, though education means a great deal (multiple regression seems to suggest that education has the bigger effect). So that readers can inspect the sample sizes and look at the confidence intervals, here is how you reproduce. First, go to the GSS. Under ANALYSIS, select COMPARISON OF MEANS. For DEPENDENT enter TVHOURS. For ROW enter WORDSUM(r:0-4;5;6;7;8-10). For COLUMN enter DEGREE(r:0;1;3-4). Finally, SELECTION FILTER(S) YEAR(2008-*).
How about income? Here I used the REALINC variable to establish some rough thresholds. You get the idea from this chart….
Now labor force participation (no idea why “Keeping House” is around as a variable in 2008 to 2012, but there it is)? Nothing surprising here.
There’s really no significant difference when it comes to politics.
Finally, how about hours worked? Limiting the sample to full-time workers the correlation between numbers of hours worked last week and hours of television watched is -0.12. Expanding the data back to 1972, the correlation is -0.10. Not large, but it’s robust.
You can explore the data yourself with the GSS.