a prejudicial notion or set of notions a person uses to define members of an ethnic or other social group outside one’s own direct experience. Introduced by Walter LIPPMANN, a stereotype is a simple and erroneous idea, gained secondhand, that negatively affects one’s ability to understand members of other social groups and that is resistant to change.
“Representations of various groups on TV reflect our cultural values,” the professor was saying. “Our perception influences our attitude, and our attitude obviously influences how we treat different groups.” We had been talking about sterotypes on TV and how various groups are represented: Blacks, women, minorities. I started thinking about TV’s depiction of teachers.
The image of teachers on TV has been pretty positive, we must admit. They are often portrayed as dedicated, intelligent, caring, and often attractive. The sterotype is accurate, of course. There was “Our Miss Brooks” and “Mr. Novack.” Pete Dixon in “Room 222”, Charlie Moore in “Head of the Class”, and Gabe Kotter in “Welcome Back Kotter” were all shown in a positive light. Young, hip, personable, interesting — you’ve got to admit that when it comes to TV sterotypes, teachers have made out pretty well. I mean, it’s truthful and accurate, but it is nearly universally positive.
Just then Mr. Tony LaRosa walked by, and my mind switched to school principals. How have they been portrayed in the popular media culture?
A moment’s thought will reveal that school administrators are a much-maligned group. It’s nearly enough to make you feel some sympathy for them.
Miss Brooks had to deal with Osgood Conklin, a bumbling, blustering fool. Mr. Novack had Albert Vane, a kindly but often absent old man who just didn’t seem to “get it.” Seymour Kaufman was the principal for Pete Dixon. And who can forget Kotter’s Mr. Woodman? He was feared and hated by students and teachers alike. The man’s principal joys (pun intended) came from inflicting senseless administrative and disciplinary terrors on Kotter and the Sweathogs. He not only didn’t care about education, but he actively disliked both students and teachers.
Even Dr. Samuels in “Head of the Class” was either absent or ineffective, if not outright hostile to the kind of practical education Charlie Moore was trying to give his students. And on it goes. We watched a clip of “Picket Fences” in class where the principal was portrayed as silly and ineffective, concerned more about school department rules and regulations than the welfare or education of students.
Even in film, with Dean Vernon Wormer (the name says it all, doesn’t it?) in “Animal House,” the principal in Nick Nolte’s “Teachers,” from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to “Stand and Deliver,” school principals and administrators are almost universally portrayed as inane and ineffective, unconcerned about any but the most petty concerns, and often as outright evil or comic.
This is necessary for dramatic purposes, we all understand. After all, if the teacher and/or students are the heros of the show, they need an antagonist, an enemy, someone or something to stand in their way, provide comic relief, be a buffoon.
Whether the portrayal of school administrators does indeed reflect the cultural values in our society today is a topic that can be debated — I’m not going to delve into the realm of the public’s perception of school principals here.
But as I sat there and watched Principal LaRosa working on a hot July day, trying to get his school in shape for September already, the negative stereotyping of all school administrators did strike me as particularly unfair. The Billerica School Department has a long tradition of intelligent, caring, dedicated, talented school principals. In fact, it’s impossible to point out some as truly inspirational without omitting others, equally exceptional at doing a very difficult job.
TV stereotypes can be destructive by their very nature by the very fact that certain groups of people are portrayed over and over again in a negative light. We have made a great deal of progress in recent years recognizing and attitudes. They affect us not just racially and globally, but can also touch us personally — in our own lives and in our own town.
As we watch TV, we need to keep asking ourselves if the program is stereotyping people. We need to compare the characters on the screen with the characters we know and ask if what and who we see on the screen is a reflection of real life or a misrepresentation. We need to decide whether fantasy or reality will shape our attitudes. Sometimes the TV world isn’t just unrealistic; it’s wrong.
We report studies in which the meaning-making, knowledge-based approach of categorization (Medin, 1989) succesfuly predicts stereotype-formation.
For instance, in an illusory correlation paradigm, the illusion was only observed when differentiation between the groups made sense (the classification of behaviors in two groups has allegedly been done by psychologists versus a computer).
The same pattern emerged when initial differences existed between the groups on two dimensions. Small differences between groups (group A is more intelligent and less social than group B) were accentuated, especially on the contextually more appropriate dimension (accentuation was larger on intelligence than sociability when groups were assumed to be genetically different, and, conversely, accentuation was larger on sociability than intelligence when groups were assumed to live under different climates).