For all the “television will rot your brain” rhetoric I heard when I was younger, the opposite seemed to be the case for me. I watched a lot of educational shows back then — Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, 3-2-1 Contact, Mr. Wizard’s World, and others — but even the shows that weren’t explicitly educational still triggered a desire in me to learn more. Back when all the major television networks had game show blocks in the two hours before the noontime news, I was fascinated by the spectacles of the shows (their bright colours almost seemed designed to hook young children), but more to the point, I wanted to understand why people were getting so happy about those numbers I saw on the screen. That, in turn, led to me learning a lot of basic math concepts much earlier than most children do, and that advancement stuck with me through all the math classes I took, at least until I got to calculus. (We don’t talk about calculus here.)
Back then, contestants on those game shows were often ordinary people on vacation in the Los Angeles area who just wanted to sit in on a taping of a television show while they were seeing the sights of la-la land. This was long before so-called staycations became normalized, and middle-class families taking cross-country trips during their vacation time was not only common, but it was cited as one of the most visible examples of the “American Dream” in action: Even “Joe Six-Pack” made enough money to vacation for a week or two in California, watch the miracle of television being produced, and maybe even win some extra money or prizes if Rod Roddy told them to “Come on down!” at a taping of The Price is Right.
I think those ideas carried through to the game show revivals around the turn of the millennium, or at least the image of them did. From what contestants said about themselves on shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and The Weakest Link, they didn’t seem too different from the contestants I used to watch on Card Sharks and Joker’s Wild a generation earlier. Around the middle of the aughts, though, the new competition-based shows that rose out of the ashes of that game show boom — I’m thinking specifically of Minute to Win It here, but it was far from alone in this regard — often highlighted the serious difficulties of the contestants on their shows, from cancer battles to dealing with deaths in the family. Slickly-produced video packages made sure we saw the faces of all the people, from the very young to the very old, whose futures were about to depend on how well one of their relatives could do something like juggle a bunch of plastic cups.
To be clear, the game show contestants of generations past could very well have been going through distress when they made their television appearances, and there’s an argument to be made that showcasing the contestants’ life stories was a way of humanizing them that just wasn’t done in game shows before then. When I tried to watch Minute to Win It during its initial run, though, these stories just made me call into question just what it said about our society that instead of simply giving these deserving people the money they needed to live without crippling fear — or just to live — we were instead putting them on brightly-lit stages, making them go through so many artificial struggles, juvenile “games” that would somehow weed out who was really “worthy” of getting the money for medical bills or a new house or what have you. It’s likely that I would never have gotten into shows like Minute to Win It on their own merits, but after seeing just a couple of those “contestant profile” segments, I couldn’t stomach even thinking about those shows any longer.
This isn’t to say that all competition is bad by its nature, or that game shows are an inherently degrading form of entertainment. When you abstract what these recent shows do to glitz themselves up, though — take out the whole television aspect — it quickly becomes apparent just how inhumane and callous our society has become that we’ve turned life-or-death decisions not just into a public spectacle, but that so many people have convinced themselves that these spectacles are a magnanimous gesture on our collective part, as if the only possible alternative to having people debase themselves for desperately-needed money is simply to not give them any money at all. It’s just like all those news stories of six-year-olds working themselves to the bone just to do things like pay off their classmates’ school lunch debts, with the usual attendant headlines of how these actions are “heartwarming” instead of yet another sign of a society trapped under grotesquely perverse ideologies of greed and cruelty.
In the twenty-four hours between my first hearing of the South Dakota “dash for cash” and starting to draft this blog out, it seems to have gone viral for all the right reasons. (The irony of this event happening in the perfect venue to highlight our misplaced priorities, a massively-overpriced taxpayer-funded sports stadium, has also not gone unnoticed.) There is a part of me hoping that this story will draw attention back to how criminally underfunded American public schools are right now, and the sacrifices that teachers continue to make (above and beyond dealing with the manifold complications of teaching during a pandemic) in order to provide for their students where society has failed to provide for them, but given the current political landscape, I fear that this story will disappear off the cultural radar just as quickly as it appeared, and all the discussion about education will return to the same funhouse-mirror distortions that have dominated that sphere since the start of 2021.
Finals week starts here on Wednesday, and as is always the case for me at the end of a semester, I’m dealing with a complicated mix of emotions as I worry about the futures of my students. I can’t expect to inculcate the intense love of learning I experienced during my earliest years into all of my students, but I still strive to provide them with the best and most useful education I can possibly give to them. With all the roadblocks being put in the way of providing good education to American children, though, that work gets harder and harder every year, for instructors at every level from pre-school to grad school. The “Dash for Cash” is just the latest example of how American education has not only been trashed, but turned into a plaything of the most wicked among us. If future examples of this don’t get the attention they deserve, then we need to be ready to shine the brightest of spotlights on all the ways, large and small, that our society is doing a grave disservice to our children.