06 December 2008

Relatively speaking

While having the misfortune to be ill last weekend, I had the even greater misfortune to catch several hours of programming on The Disney Channel. For those of you unfamiliar with its oeuvre, it is an odd mix of cloying North American moralising dubbed into English accents, transmitted through a variety of emetic formats. High on the list of culprits is ‘Little Einsteins’, which I watched with incredulity.

‘Little Einsteins’ is a TV sub-brand of the popular “Baby Einstein” product range, that keeps the great scientist himself in the top ten list of highest-earning dead people. ‘Baby Einstein’ preys upon the worst instincts and weaknesses in parents who should know better, by charging premium prices for ordinary toys with some claim to pseudo-scientifically proven benefits for infants. No sooner does a story appear about an alleged link between exposure to Mozart and precocious child development, and the Baby Einstein company will produce a dummy that plays the prelude from Cosi Fan Tutte.

While the products are careful to make no claims to turn your darling dunce into a Nobel prize-winner, the inference one is meant to draw is clear: the use if the Einstein name is lending scientific credibility to the product, even if none is demonstrated. Similarly, the “Little Einsteins” TV programme purports to introduce pre-schoolers to the world around them by encouraging investigation and observation. And then it blows it by falling back into educational gibberish.

In last Sunday’s episode, the diversely representative Little Einstein cartoon characters were demonstrating how seeds grow into plants, and the required ingredients and processes. Except they were magic musical seeds which, once planted, warmed and watered, grew into musical instrument-bearing plants in the vegetable patch. Ripe harpsichords and swelling violins, growing on the vine - is this what Einstein's reputation and ideas will mean to future generations?

Of course the easy defence for this is: it's a kids TV show, not Science 101. But if you are using the power of the Einstein name to explain the world around you, that surely brings with it some responsibilities? Or does anything go? Imagine if the Little Einsteins went to find where eggs came from and discovered a magic bush that grew them, instead looking underneath a chicken - would that be a good thing to teach our children? It smacks of a middle-class muddled-headedness about the role of science, and our children's engagement with the world: that somehow teaching kids about the science of the world in which they live will stunt their imagination, or will bore them - neither of which is true.

Incidentally the word "Einstein" is a trademark of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem - so I'm guessing that's where the royalties go. I hope that doesn't so much comment on the state of teaching at that university as the parlous state of funding for higher education that relies on Disney Faustian pacts.

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