I grew up during what might be called the second half of the first television generation. My parents came from lower middle class farm families that never had televisions at home during their elementary school years at least but they became aware of that side of American culture by way of their richer friends with more liberal parents, and by the time I came along living rooms were being designed around these ubiquitous devices. Broadcasting in color was an innovation that occurred in the United States during my childhood, so these days my personal antiquity is well established.
From its earliest years though, television has had seriously nostalgic elements to it. It has always promoted an ideal of simpler times. Sometimes this was a matter of providing a secondary market for B-movies of the 30s and 40s, but besides the actually old stuff they broadcasted, there has seemingly always been a market for comic depictions of the world as it was in one’s parents’ times and earlier. In some ways this would explain how the “cowboys and Indians” genre became established in film in 20s and 30s, about one generation after such lifestyles had faded into the mythical past.
In any case, in my earliest memories of television the golden age of half-hour sitcoms was blooming, including some that looked back nostalgically at “simpler times” a generation earlier, when the US was particularly pumped up about their glorious role in World War 2 and the subsequent reconstruction, such as McHale’s Navy and Hogan’s Heroes. Then as we shifted into the 70s, the nostalgia wave began to target the 50s, most memorably with Happy Days and its spin-offs, but also with MASH and Grease in their various televised incarnations.
But there was also, from the start, another common variation on the theme: looking at various Rip Van Winkle-like characters who had somehow managed to culturally sleep through all of the changes that had been occurring in society, thus interacting with “normal people” from a comically antiquated and out of touch perspective that was somehow nevertheless refreshing to watch. It could be said that this accounted for much of the appeal of Green Acres and The Andy Griffith Show (later known as Mayberry R.F.D.). But the archetype for this sort of comic nostalgia format was really The Beverly Hillbillies. This show has been on my mind for the past few weeks, in part because it explains something of the recent Duck Dynasty debacle, and in part because of how it relates to the problems of PISA ratings as such.
This show basically focused on six main characters: each with their own interestingly mal-adapted forms of intelligence. The Clampetts of Beverly Hills consisted of the patriarch Jed, who had become a millionaire through the accidental discovery of oil on the property he owned back somewhere in the rural Appalachians or Ozarks, his daughter Elly May, his late wife’s mother “Granny,” and his second cousin and foster-son Jethro Bodine. From the time of their arrival in Los Angeles’ Beverly Hills, this quartet in was effectively being kept in a comfortable semi-reality by their banker and neighbor, Milburn Drysdale, and his indispensable secretary and the all-around brains of the operation, Miss Jane Hathaway.
Jed and his family are all super-human strong, with outsized appetites for food to fuel this energy level. Granny, the feisty matriarch of the clan, keeps them stocked with enough home-style “vittles” to maintain this energy level as well as keeping the mansion clean and brewing up various forms of back-woods magic to help in difficult situations. Jed in turn spends much of his time sitting around whittling, though within his own limits he is always ready to dive in and sort out various problems that fall to the head of an old-fashioned household to take care of. Jethro is the primary “project” for the family. He is apparently the most literate member of the family, the holder of a driver’s license to operate their family car (a vintage truck from the 20s, held together with a fair amount of bailing wire it seems), and in spite of his overall cluelessness, he is the one they are expecting to someday find a wife and establish a brilliant career for himself to do the family proud. Elly May, meanwhile, occupies herself with caring for a Snow White-like menagerie of semi-tame animals while struggling part-time with the dilemma of why she as a girl is not given the same amount of investment that Jethro receives as a boy. Then we have the “plain Jane” Miss Hathaway continuously struggling to be subtle about her major crush on Jethro and trying to maintain a certain level of “this world” reality into her boss’s crazier efforts to make the Clampetts feel at home in Beverly Hills rather than withdrawing their eight-digit fortune from his bank and crawling back into the wilderness from whence they came. It was an interesting enough dynamic to keep the show running for nine production seasons, remaining immensely popular through its entire run.
The best explanation I have heard of for the logic behind the reality TV show Duck Dynasty is that it attempts to recapturing some of the marketing magic of these hillbillies of the sixties, combining that with a bit of the “real family business” appeal of shows like American Chopper, Pawn Stars and the rest: a “poor white trash” rural southern family which is comically out of touch with the modern world, yet through a fluke of their own good fortune they have become rich enough where the modern world sort of has to take them seriously in spite of their on-going cluelessness.
That makes sense actually. Not enough sense where I’d personally be motivated to try and find the means by which to watch the show (as far off the grid of American cable television as I am) but still, sense. The problem is that while CBS could entirely manage every word that came out of Jed Clampett’s mouth, and not really have to worry about the ignorance that made Jed entertaining on TV coming out of actor Buddy Ebsen’s mouth in his private life, A&E have nothing like that sort of control over the Robertson family in general and patriarch Phil in particular.
They say that a big part of what makes the show so interesting and entertaining (I’ve never watched it myself, and I have no plans of ever watching it, unless I need to do so as part of my academic research into American theocratic impulses, so I sort of have to go with what “they” say in this case) is that it showcases a sub-culture as far from the mainstream of modern society as that of any bounty hunter, biker gang veteran, Vegas pawn broker or obese junior showgirl showcased elsewhere in the genre. So… if the exotic culture they’re setting out to exploit in this way just happens to spill out as homophobic, naively racist and almost comically narrow-minded… what are they supposed to do about it? Isn’t that part of the point of reality TV in general –– to add the excitement of an unscripted, unpredictable “authenticity” into the mix? Weren’t they aware of the fact that racism and homophobia are as much part of the “white trash” sub-culture in the southern US as substance abuse is part of so many of the other sub-cultures exploited in this medium?
So when it blows up in their faces what are they supposed to do about it? They’re too addicted to the money they’re making off of this franchise, and enthralled with the merchandizing honeymoon this has sent them on with Walmart, to seriously consider quitting now. So one way or another they just have to find a way to stay on that ‘gater and ride it to the end of… whatever.
It has to be said though that this sort of show is put on the air primarily to communicate a message that is important enough to its creators where they are willing to take chances with what they see as trivial matters regarding like the Robertsons’ religious obsessions. The primary message they want to get out is that in America anyone has a chance to become a millionaire, so everyone should keep taking their chances and no one should start taking privileges away from those who have been able to realize their dreams in order to deal with trivial matters like childhood nutrition, health care and education. It effectively reinforces the truth of quote somewhat questionably attributed to John Steinbeck: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
By feeding this fantasy self-image via the Duck Dynasty dudes, A&E and their programming competitors have successfully campaigned to maintain public support for “anti-socialist” policies that continue to handicap over 99% of their supporters –– turning turkeys into the world’s most dedicated fans of Thanksgiving as it were. As long as they can keep doing that they’re willing to take their chances with what people think of the Robertsons firmly believing that the universe is less than ten thousand years old, or that blacks were happier in the “good old days” before Martin Luther King and company screwed things up, or that public acceptance of homosexuality is a slippery slope towards all sorts of other unspeakable forms of immoral perversion. In terms of getting Phil and his boys to tone down their message, the network’s “suspension” efforts in December may have entirely backfired, but like, so what? It boosted their ratings and reinforced their own primary message that any idiot can become rich and famous someday all the more. The rest is details as far as the bosses are concerned.
But I was actually thinking of The Beverly Hillbillies well before this quacker-maker scandal story broke last month. As I said, the show also relates quite effectively in its own way to the problem of PISA testing which I wrote about here a month ago. You see, part of the alternative reality world that dear old Mr. Drysdale was trying to construct for the Clampetts to keep them in California was that it was a land of opportunity for them, particularly in terms of Jethro’s educational possibilities, leading to advances in his career potential. The episode where this message peaked was the finale of season 4: “Jethro goes to college”.
Through paying sufficient private school tuition fees to get schools to overlook his serious lack of academic ability, Jed had managed to enable Jethro to academically make it as far as graduating from sixth grade. As far as Granny was concerned that was about as far as any young person should expect to go in education, but Jed had heard that not only was college the key to career success but perhaps the key to getting Jethro’s love life started. So they went to talk to Mr. Drysdale about it, looking for advice about how to get Jethro into some sort of college. He and Miss Hathaway proceeded to try to talk them out of this scheme, until Jed turned to Jethro and said, “Maybe we can get ye into one of those schools back home.”
At the mention of his major client possibly leaving town Mr. Drysdale instantly panics and suddenly becomes far more optimistic about the idea of finding some local college for “the boy”. When the hillbillies leave the office he starts to discuss with Miss Hathaway the possibility of paying some college enough to take Jethro in in spite of his short-comings. She sums up the dilemma by asking rhetorically, “What college in the entire country would corrupt its standards to that extent for mere financial gain?” In the mid-sixties that was still a laugh line. These days it would merely sound naïve, with such institutions obviously being more common than those who would refuse to do so.
It doesn’t take too long, however, before Jethro, driving around the streets of Los Angeles, comes across a second floor window advertising a “business college” on the premises. This basically amounts to a small institute where girls were taught basic secretarial skills of typing, taking shorthand dictation, business telephone answering formalities and the like, intended to turn them into somewhat useful little secretaries. A dialog there just before Jethro walks in is scripted to tell that this school is in desperate need of money to keep from going under. So when, for all his obvious cluelessness, Jethro pleads with them to take him as a student, and in the process starts physically throwing the tuition money Jed had given him at them in the process, they relent and allow him to enroll.
Jethro later speaks of it taking two hours to pick up some of the basic skills they taught him, but in the compressed world of half-hour sitcom time it takes precisely 2½ minutes from the moment Jethro walks into his first class until the dean of the school realizes he is a hopeless case and instructs her assistant to “prepare a diploma” because “Mr. Bodine is going to graduate.” The diploma he receives is actually just a blank sheet of paper, but it is fine enough quality parchment so that it’s enough to make Jethro happy. It’s enough to make the family feel that now that Jethro is a “college graduate” he is qualified to work as an investment manager at Mr. Drysdale’s bank.
Elly May, meanwhile, is left with a very bitter taste in her mouth concerning her own college adventure. Even though Jed cautions her that she “ain’t got whatcha call the ‘educational background’ Jethro does,” he gives her permission to try to find a college that will take her. She immediately rushes out to dig through the yellow pages, and finds a place for herself at “The College of Judo and Karate”. She too “graduates” on her first day, but not with the same sort of satisfaction as her second cousin. As she relates the experience to Granny,
“I went in this big room with this real thick rug on the floor and the teacher come out wearing his pajamas! And when I told him I wanted to enroll he got madder than a rattle snake with a sore tooth… He commenced shouting and chopping away at me. He even tried to trip me! …so I gave him what fer! Bounced him around that rug like a basketball. I didn’t stop throwing him until he offered to grajiate me. But he didn’t give me no cap and gown. All I got was this skinny old black belt!”
And for some reason this seriously reminds me of how many things about our processes of academic evaluation continue to work nearly 50 years later.
Some kids we pass through the system with minimal effort from both teachers and student –– to match their minimal interests and learning capacities –– just to be rid of them; still giving them enough recognition in the process to keep their powerful parents satisfied, grudgingly admitting to ourselves that we make the education we offer that much less meaningful and more abstract as we do so, but… it keeps us fed. In other students we see incredible signs of natural talent and promise, and we do our best to encourage them at it, but as often as not this ends up being in ways that don’t quite match up with the ideas of prestige that their parents have had in mind, so we just back off and leave it at that. What else can we do at times?
To say that the standards by which we evaluate young people in our schools are somewhat abstract –– not necessarily either a fair assessment of their natural abilities and effort nor the most suitable from of preparation for the life challenges that lie ahead of them –– would be a polite understatement of immense proportions at times. Efforts to fix this problem with a greater emphasis on standardized testing have, obviously to those within the profession, made things considerably worse. We can only hope that it will all come out in the wash; that our investment and encouragement in some will bring them that much closer to realizing the potential we see in them, and that the difficult cases that we end up just whisking through will end up doing relatively little damage to themselves and those around them at subsequent stages in their life before they take it upon themselves to backtrack and learn the necessary thinking skills and working habits which we were not able to teach them, or they find a role for themselves in society where such skills are not necessary. We can only hope that the theoretical dynamics of cultural evolution will eventually take place in our educational institutions: dysfunctional aspects, however nominally prestigious they happen to be, will be seen for what they are and eliminated, and genuinely student empowering and enabling programs are set up in their place. The question is really how bad things have to get and how many types of trial and error the systems have to go through in the meantime. Sadly there’s also the undeniable factor that many of the powers that be really don’t want people to be educated enough to seriously question their authority, or to question the importance of continuing to buy so much of the useless crap they keep trying to sell us. But still we can hope…
I’m not holding my breath though. I’ve seen how absurd ideas and practices have a way of going on for generation after generation. One significant part of the whole Beverly Hillbillies background legend was the way Granny would never admit that the south had lost the “War between the States”, and she had all sorts of alternative historical interpretations in place to support the theory that her side had won. I know plenty of fundamentalists of all different sorts (theistic and atheistic) who are still doing equivalent mental gymnastics to this day. I don’t think any form of education reform will succeed in solving that problem any time soon. How long cultures and sub-cultures built on self-deception can last is not something we can predict with a particularly great level of accuracy. We can only hope that they destroy as few lives as possible while they continue.
But that’s not the worst of it. Not only are some hillbilly values and world views slow to die out; there are a surprising number of anti-intellectual folk in the US that consider such perspectives to be worthy of revival; and those who shamelessly speak out in favor of such absurdities, heroes. It’s sad really, though sort of understandable. As I was saying though, the best we can hope for is that our education systems, dysfunctional as they are, will progressively improve young people’s capacities to critically evaluate the various antiquated and “radical alternative” value systems they continue to be presented with.
Meanwhile then we can still enjoy the comic value of these alternative perspectives on life, bearing in mind that, as with any joke, when a significant part of the audience takes the comically absurd seriously it ceases to be funny. So get what laughs you can as Rome burns.