Turn on, tune in and don't drop out

Sir David Attenborough has been educating us for decades.
Sir David Attenborough has been educating us for decades.

WHAT can television teach us? I don't mean ''teach'' in the boring ''life lessons'' sense, like how The Golden Girls teaches us the power of friendship and Glee teaches us to be ourselves and Seventh Heaven teaches us about unnecessarily lengthy phone conversations. I mean useful real-life facts that we can gain from TV in order to become more well-rounded individuals.

For example, I was recently watching a QI Christmas special, whereby I learnt that Queen Victoria never, in fact, vetoed the criminalisation of lesbianism in Britain. I had laboured under this misapprehension for many years, and I am grateful to Stephen Fry for disabusing me of the notion before I made a fool of myself at any social gatherings.

For television is not only for entertainment and titillation, it is also for education, and I feel the capacity of the medium to act as a teacher is underestimated. Everything I know about the US electoral system, for example, I learnt from The West Wing. OK, so that's not so unusual - there are members of Congress who could say the same - but my TV education goes beyond that. Without MythBusters I would be sorely scientifically illiterate, particularly regarding the explosive sciences. But thanks to them I can now hold my own in any conversation about the use of shiny shields to set ancient Greek ships on fire, or whether Jaws was real.

MythBusters teaches us many fascinating things, and we retain the knowledge it imparts, because the MythBusters crew understands the cardinal rule of education theory: it's easier to learn when everything is awesome. And since TV is, almost always, completely awesome, what better way is there to impart information and wisdom to the populace?

Quiz shows are excellent for broadening one's education, as well as relieving tension by providing a socially acceptable outlet for yelling. The British show Eggheads, in which a panel of quiz show experts goes up against a bunch of ordinary Brits, is a prime example, giving us all kinds of interesting factoids to salt away in our minds, as well as teaching us about the tendency for ordinary Brits to vastly overestimate their intelligence.

This has, of course, never been a problem for Sir David Attenborough, television legend, seven-time winner of the Greatest Guy Ever Award, and the small screen's greatest teacher. How much of our knowledge of nature, of plants and insects and animals and fish and reptiles and soothingly avuncular voiceover commentary, do we owe to Sir David? Even now, no matter how I might pride myself on my general knowledge, I can switch on one of his stellar series and discover a new species I'd never heard of, or a fact about the social structures of hyenas that will simply blows my mind. And it may be that hyena social structures are not the sort of thing you expect to blow your mind, but that's the point - Sir David makes everything mind-blowing.

It's the power of television. It's good to distract, to comfort and to excite, but it's also good to enlighten, to fascinate and enthral. It has the power to open up the world to us, which is why I scoff at those who say TV is making us ''stupider''. It's been teaching me my whole life, and even now, it makes me a little bit smarter every day.

This story Turn on, tune in and don't drop out first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.