Friday, July 18, 2014

War On Fun: Bad For You

Kevin Pyle and Scott Cunningham's Bad For You (Henry Holt) is a compelling and slow burning case against the over-regulation of and fear-mongering regarding activities that children have historically enjoyed: comics, video games, television, skateboarding, etc. While aimed at a young-adult audience (complete with a glossary of terms in the back to help younger readers understand certain historical, legal and philosophical terms), there's no mistaking this book's bold, anti-authoritarian stance. That should be no surprise given Cunningham and Pyle's close connection to radical comics anthology World War III Illustrated, but this book is far from a heated polemic. Instead, it's an intensively-researched and well-sourced book that is careful to link up historical, social and cultural contexts with regard to larger institutions like education, parks & recreation and various gaming and toy industries. At its heart, the book's biggest and last target is the war on free and critical thinking.

Of course, given that this is aimed at young adult readers, Pyle and Cunningham take a certain amount of sheer glee in revealing both how intellectually bankrupt bans on fun tend to be and how historically cyclical they are. They note, for example, historical outrage over the institution of things like the written word, the printing press, and the novel as contributing to moral decay and a decreasing work ethic. Pyle and Cunningham make an interesting case throughout the book regarding why children find moderately scary or dangerous activities to be so appealing. For example, gruesome and visceral fairy tales are important for a child's psyche not to scare them, but rather to let them play out their own natural fears of the unknown, death, darkness, abuse and even adults in general. It's a safe way to express these fears, much as playing violent video games or watching horror moviesgenerally tends to lead to a decrease in violence by providing a steam valve for kids. The same is true for adventurous play on playgrounds, which not only gives kids a chance to blow off steam, but it also provides mental stimulation.

The authors discuss research methods and reasoning at length in the book. In general, they take aim at argument by anecdote, where bans are created because of statistically rare instances of something happening. Sometimes, bans arise due to simple urban legends, like the classic "razor blade in the candy" trope surrounding Halloween. They also argue against studies that infer causality from correlation, which generally tend to arise from studies that have a firm goal in mind and manipulate the subjects to confirm a previously-formed hypothesis. The study of juvenile delinquents and comic book reading by Dr Frederick Wertham is a classic example of this, because he didn't bother to create a control group of non-delinquents and comic book reading, as the authors point out. Bad For You patiently counters myths and bad studies with facts, statistics and better-constructed studies that pointed out violent media, comics, etc have no statistically significant effect on behavior. The authors note with an air of resignation the ways in which video games and whatever the newest form of technology favored by children come under attack again and again when the newest round of gun violence flares up, an attack proliferated and perpetuated by anyone with a media outlet. In the expanding media universe of the internet, it's incredibly easy to proliferate bad science, pseudoscience, and arguments by anecdote and difficult to get True Believers to back down.

One thing the authors don't do is extrapolate a child's need to understand and explore their fears to adults, and how this historical drive to decry youth culture is really the adult response to these fears. That cycle occurs in part because when they don't understand a new technology or culture, there is first the fear of being replaced by their children--a fear of their own mortality. The responses to argument-by-anecdote also reveal a parent's own understandable fear of outliving their children. At the same time, this urge to "protect" children is really an urge to protect their own egos and understanding of a constantly changing world. Anything embraced by their children but not understood by adults is automatically feared. As such, it creates an unwarranted nostalgia for old days that did not actually exist.

The authors build on their arguments for their real target: the educational system that increasingly relies on standardized testing and increasingly phases out recess, the arts and even history. Once again, their exploration of the history of the educational system in the US gets to the root of certain issues, like school once being developed to create students who would respond well to the rigidity and repetitiveness of factory work. While one can criticize such a method in its own right, the additional problem is that such a system is now obsolete thanks to the increasing mechanization of factory work as well as it being shipped overseas in so many instances. What Pyle and Cunningham stump for, again and again, is play. A school environment centered around play and exploration instead of rote memorization and standardized testing, they argue, would lead to students better suited to deal with a rapidly changing society. Technology should be fully embraced instead of shunned, especially if there's a chance to use it in creative ways.

The book falls short of illustrating every one of their points, but Pyle is careful to make sure the historical scenes are depicted by way of comics as a way of getting them to go down smoother. He uses a wonderfully fuzzy style on some pages and a clearer, crisper line on others. It reminds me a bit of the fuzzy, slightly grotesque naturalism of Lauren Weinstein, where it's more important to capture the essential emotional characteristics of a person or scene than it is to recreate the thing precisely. That slightly grotesque style is also a nod to EC Comics, for whom this book is a sort of extended love letter. The pages consisting of just text come at the end of each section, sort of as a way of piling on additional data and synthesizing the ideas that the reader was just exposed to. There are also a number of clever graphs and a scathing feature on standardized testing done in the form of a standardized test. Bad For You's arguments are well-built, the content is well-organized, and the book has a sense of humor about itself while being utterly serious in its goals to demolish a fear-mongering culture of rigidity and give kids the ammunition with which to do so.

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