Sesame Street in context

This was the sixties, and every night you would turn your television set on and the news would tell you cities were burning, leaders were being assassinated, riots were being held at universities, anti-war riots. And so it was as if people were saying, ‘so do something!’ to the television set. And one day they turned it on and television did something!

 Joan Ganz Cooney, interviewed in 2006.[i]

Sesame Street can be seen as the product of a particular historical conjuncture – a coming together of broader social, cultural and political developments. Simply as a television show, and particularly as a children’s television show, it was extraordinarily innovative. Yet it was its social and educational aims that also broke new ground. The show explicitly set out to address what were seen as the educational needs of disadvantaged, inner-city children – and at least in its early seasons, this focused specifically on African-American children. As we’ll see, it did this in two main ways: firstly, through its representation of inner-city life, and of racial diversity; and secondly, through attempting to raise the educational achievement of black children in particular. As Benjamin Looker aptly puts it, the show was ‘a curious combination of social program and social representation, designed to educate and uplift inner-city audiences even as it depicted them’.[ii] These two related issues will be addressed in detail in the sections that follow. However, it is important to begin by placing these aims within the wider historical context.

 

Sesame Street as television

At the beginning of the 1960s, Newton F. Minow, the incoming chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (the US regulatory body), had given a high-profile speech in which he famously described television as ‘a vast wasteland’.[iii] Minow did refer to the ‘special needs’ of children, and described children’s television as ‘massive doses of cartoons, violence, and more violence’; although his broader argument was about the need for television to function in the ‘public interest’, rather than merely serve commercial objectives. Through the 1960s, the ‘wasteland’ epithet became a staple of television criticism, but to many it seemed particularly applicable to children’s programming. Concerns around the harmful influence of television on children were growing, although it was not until later in the decade, with the formation of Action for Children’s Television in 1968, that these developed into a more organised campaign of activism.[iv]

While some innovative animation shows had emerged in the early 1960s – the work of Hanna-Barbera is still under-appreciated – these tended to be based on adult sitcoms, and were partly targeted at a family audience. Programmes primarily for children were mostly to be found on Saturday mornings, when other, more lucrative audiences were assumed to be unavailable to view. The most common format was the live studio variety show, in which male hosts would entertain audiences with slapstick comedy, sketches and songs, alongside a cast of puppets and other performers. Probably the best known of these was Howdy Doody, which ran from 1947 until 1960; although others, such as the frenetic Lunch with Soupy Sales, lasted well into the 1960s and beyond. The hosts of such shows typically improvised much of their patter; while they delivered occasional pro-social homilies about tolerance or health and safety, they would also frequently interrupt to provide commercial messages (‘host selling’ of this kind was not banned until 1973). These shows were extremely cheap to produce, requiring only small production teams, and little rehearsal or preparation.

When it came to preschool children – the primary target of Sesame Street – there was even less available. Captain Kangaroo, featuring Bob Keeshan, began life in 1955 and ran until 1984; while the magazine format Romper Room lasted (astonishingly) from 1953 to 1994. Perhaps the most fondly remembered preschool show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, did not make its national debut until 1968. Although several of its executive producers were poached from Captain Kangaroo (or had formerly worked on the show)[v], Sesame Street was attempting something distinctly new – not least by virtue of its lavish funding and its high production values. Like its predecessors, the show featured adult hosts interacting with puppet characters – although the cast was significantly larger and more diverse. However, these elements were interspersed with short animations, live-action documentary sequences and short films, mostly with a much more explicit teaching function.

If Sesame Street was unprecedented in children’s television, it did nevertheless draw on television culture more widely. Cooney’s initial feasibility study had proposed using a magazine format, but she later picked up the idea of using the methods of television commercials (such as repetition, animation and musical jingles) to ‘sell’ educational messages, such as letters and numbers.[vi] While these segments were a relatively small element of the show, the approach was controversial, particularly for critics of commercial television – as indeed was the broader intention to combine ‘education’ with ‘entertainment’ in the first place.

Meanwhile, early formative testing had suggested that the conventional format of adult hosts and children interacting on the studio set was one of the least appealing elements; and this encouraged the producers to import Jim and Jane Henson’s Muppet characters, which they had been developing (and using in commercials) since the mid-1950s. Cooney and her colleagues realized that the show was more likely to attract an audience – and perhaps to achieve its educational aims – if it was appealing to adults as well. One often-cited influence here was Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a fast-moving, kooky sketch-based comedy show that had debuted in early 1968. Laugh-In was an adult programme, featuring some satirical humour alongside more traditional slapstick and running gags; and in some respects, it reflected the emerging ‘hip’ style of the counter-culture, which was also evident in several of the Muppet characters. Nevertheless, there was some evidence that it was attracting a much younger audience, which was a particular inspiration for Cooney[vii]: she later described Sesame Street as ‘a Laugh-In for kids’.[viii]

 

Sesame Street as education

President Lyndon Johnson is mainly remembered by non-Americans of my generation as the aggressive perpetrator of the Vietnam War. However, his presidency was also marked by a set of domestic social policy initiatives collectively known as the ‘Great Society’. These measures – in areas such as health care, housing and education – were presented as means of addressing the problems, not only of poverty in general, but specifically of racial inequality and injustice. As in many other areas, Johnson was belatedly responding to the growing pressure of the Civil Rights movement. While the aspirations of the Great Society were bold, its concrete achievements were limited; but as Benjamin Looker suggests, it also provided the context for a new contemporary cultural style – a kind of hip, white liberal response to African-American forms of expression that were becoming steadily more assertive.

Education was a key element of the Great Society initiative; and indeed LBJ was also described by some as ‘the Education President’. One of its most noted federal projects was the Head Start preschool programme, which specifically targeted disadvantaged children (it became one of the early backers of CTW, via the government’s Office of Economic Opportunity). However, in the context of CTW, education was understood in particular ways that reflected the changing ideologies of the time. During the early 1960s, a series of researchers had drawn attention to the educational inequalities between black and white children: black children were perceived to be arriving in first grade already some years ‘behind’ their white, middle-class counterparts, and the problem only got worse as they continued through school.[ix] Several studies placed the blame for this situation, not on the shortcomings of the schools, but on the inadequate preparation provided by African-American parents. Following in the footsteps of sociologists such as Michael Harrington and Oscar Lewis, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s government report The Negro Family: A National Case for Action (published in 1965) painted a picture of black families as positively dysfunctional. Parents (often single mothers) were found to be lacking in the expertise and motivation to encourage their children to learn; their forms of language were restricted and ill-suited to intellectual thought; and there was a lack of positive male role models in particular. Unlike their white peers, children from such backgrounds were simply not being properly prepared for school.

These kinds of arguments are frequently seen to reflect a ‘deficit model’ – in effect, to judge such children and their parents in terms of what they lack, or fail to do. However, this issue was already controversial among researchers at the time: for example, there were many heated debates about the relationships between ‘race’ and intelligence, and about notions of linguistic ‘deprivation’. In this, as in many other areas, CTW’s own position was not always consistent. Gerald Lesser, for example, argued that the ‘need’ for such education was among inner-city children in particular: ‘the suburban, middle-class kid [already] encounters at home many of the skills and concepts we hope to convey’ – while by contrast, ‘urban’ kids ‘grow up with a very constricted view’.[x] Yet elsewhere, he explicitly rejected the idea that CTW operated according to such a deficit model.[xi] As we’ll see, there was a conscious attempt to provide ‘positive images’ of black, inner city families; although for some commentators, this too was problematic. Even so, Lesser and others clearly shared the view that the problem was essentially a psychological rather than a social one: whatever the causes, it was manifested in a lack of cognitive or intellectual skills, and it was this that needed to be addressed.

If the explanation for disadvantage was debatable, therefore, there was rather less contention as to what should be done about it. As incoming president Richard Nixon put it, in a key speech to Congress in February 1969, poorer children were ‘seriously deficient in the ability to profit from formal education’; yet the solution was to adjust the child to education, rather than education to the child. Pre-school education appeared to offer a potential way out of the generational ‘cycle of poverty’, although again it was a particular kind of pre-school education that was called for.

Cooney’s initial report for the Carnegie Corporation tended to caricature existing preschool education as another ‘wasteland’, like television: there had been too much play in the sandbox, she asserted, and too little formal teaching. However, Cooney argued that educators were now moving beyond progressive child-centred ideas, towards what was (perhaps confusingly) called a ‘cognitivist’ approach – an approach that also appeared to be preferred by Carnegie itself. According to the report, old-style ideas of learning through play were being abandoned in favour of a much more direct instructional approach, informed by behaviourist forms of ‘child science’. The curriculum was coming to be defined in terms of itemized lists of cognitive skills, which would effectively be drilled through repetition, reinforcement and constant testing.

Cooney was particularly impressed by the work of Carl Bereiter and Siegfried Engelmann, two researchers at the University of Illinois, whose accounts of classroom instruction with disadvantaged children resemble those of an instructional boot camp. In their book Teaching Disadvantaged Children in the Preschool, these authors describe such children as ‘handicapped’: they are seen entirely in terms of their ‘deficiencies’ and ‘deficits’. In their method, children were subjected to what they called ‘verbal bombardment’, and required to recite correct answers in a kind of unison drill: this was backed up by a rigorous system of rewards and punishments. According to Bereiter and Engelmann, this was the only way such children would ever stand a chance of ‘catching up’ with their white peers: ‘nonacademic’ objectives and other ‘amusements’ would have to be avoided, or at least relegated to a secondary position.[xii] (Interestingly, Bereiter was subsequently critical of Sesame Street on the grounds that it was insufficiently instructional, and yet that it was too difficult for disadvantaged children to follow.[xiii])

In many respects, ‘cognitivism’ represented a dramatic narrowing of the aims of preschool education, although some clearly saw this as realistic and necessary. In his book Children and Television, for example, Gerald Lesser argued that educators had spent too long addressing the social and emotional dimensions of learning, and making promises about how this would solve wider social problems and injustices. In his view, they had largely failed to deliver: it was time to get real about what disadvantaged kids actually needed.

The Sesame Street curriculum that eventually emerged drew heavily on Bereiter and Engelmann’s approach, with its taxonomies of cognitive skills; as indeed did some aspects of the programme’s pedagogic style (most obviously the use of repetitive, fast-paced techniques taken from television commercials). This went well beyond simple letter and number recognition, encompassing forms of logical classification, visual discrimination and reasoning skills. Questions about children’s emotional and social development – which had been central to earlier, child-centred forms of education – proved much harder to define (and indeed to measure) in such mechanical terms, and tended to be left aside. This was subsequently accentuated by the emphasis on quantitative evaluation, which was so necessary if CTW was to retain its funding: as both Lesser and the evaluation agency (the Educational Testing Service) acknowledged, there was little point in testing anything that could not easily be tested.

 

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[i] Interview in the film The World According to Sesame Street (2006).

[ii] Looker, 216-7.

[iii] The speech can be found at: https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/newtonminow.htm

[iv] See Morrow, Chapter 1; and for a more critical account, Hendershot (1998).

[v] These included Dave Connell, Jon Stone and Sam Gibbon.

[vi] This idea seems to have come from George Dessart, a programming executive at CBS.

[vii] Davis, 148.

[viii] TV Academy interview, 1998.

[ix] For example, see the essays included in J.L. Frost (ed.) Early Childhood Education Rediscovered (New York, Holt McDougal, 1968).

[x] CTW press release, as cited (for example) in Palm Beach Times, 2nd October 1969. Lesser’s own earlier work, for example in his book Mental Abilities of Children from Different Social-Class and Cultural Groups, co-authored with Gordon Fifer and Donald Clark, exemplified this view, although it sought to move the debate in a more liberal direction.

[xi] For example in his book Children and Television.

[xii] Quotations from Bereiter and Engelmann, chapter 1.

[xiii] Cooney, ‘The Potential Uses…’, 22, 25-7.