The Way to Sesame Street: The Politics of Children's Television

Article excerpt

IT'S HARD TO fathom just how unusual Sesame Street must have seemed when it debuted 40 years ago this month. The children's TV show didn't just mix entertainment with education: It was a full-blown collaboration between commercial showmen and social engineers. On one hand you had a team of educators, experts in child development, and officials at the Carnegie and Ford foundations trying to create a televised preschool. On the other hand you had veterans of projects ranging from Captain Kangaroo to The Jimmy Dean Show, including a gang of puppeteers best known for making strange and funny ads. The program itself reflected both an antipathy to commercialism and a fascination with commercials, which served not just as a source for its parodies but as a model for its programming.

The show emerged from the same Great Society milieu that had produced the Head Start preschool program. That guaranteed it would be a magnet for controversy. In his 2006 book Sesame Street and the Reform of Children's Television, the historian Robert Morrow notes that preschool in the '60s was frequently framed as a project for the impoverished, who were presumed to suffer from "cultural deprivation." Not surprisingly, many poor people found this attitude haughty and high-handed. The middle class, meanwhile, often saw the home as "a haven to be protected from intrusions by educators as well as by television."

Sesame Street was a liberal project, a.k.a. Mr. Hooper, had been blacklisted in the McCarthy era). When Joan Ganz Cooney wrote the first feasibility study for the show, she consciously set herself against the traditional nursery-school notion that a child should "self-select" his activities, "incidentally learning all that is intellectually appropriate to his age and stage." This, Cooney wrote, amounted to "ignoring the intellect of preschool children." For radical critics of American schooling, by contrast, free exploration was the best nourishment an intellect could receive. The education critic John Holt, later a leader of the home-schooling movement, argued in The Atlantic Monthly in 1971 that "Sesame Street still seems built on the idea that its job is to get children ready for school. Suppose it summoned up its courage, took a deep breath, and said, 'We are the school.' Suppose it asked itself, not how to help children get better at the task of pleasing first-grade teachers, but how to help them get better at the vastly more interesting and important task--which they are already good at--of learning from the world and people around them."

Inevitably, there were culture war controversies. Feminists complained that one human character, Susan, was too much of a traditional homemaker; conservatives grumbled that another woman, Maria, was too feminist. Morrow quotes a leftist viewer's complaint that the "cat who lives in the garbage can should be out demonstrating and turning over every institution, even Sesame Street, to get out of it" More broadly, there were the anxieties that always attach themselves to a centralized medium beaming unvetted images and ideas into the home. Marie Winn, author of the TV-bashing book The Plug-In Drug, spoke for many Americans when she warned that the program was "promoting television viewing even among parents who might feel an instinctive resistance to plugging such young children in" Monica Sims, an official at the BBC, felt the show's attempts to mold children's behavior were a form of "indoctrination" with "authoritarian aims. …