"Between birth and age four, half of all growth in human intelligence takes place; another thirty percent occurs between the ages of four and eight. Two-thirds of a person’s intellectual development occurs before he even begins his formal education."
--Dr. Benjamin Bloom, author of “Stability and Change in Human Characteristics”
"The continuing neglect of the first five years of a person’s life may be compared to the waste of a precious natural resource."
--Joan Ganz Cooney, President of Children’s Television Workshop
IT ALL BEGAN OVER BEEF WELLINGTON
Maybe it was the beef Wellington—done to a crisp outside, savory and rare inside—or the wine—Pinot Noir, full-bodied and rich, the kind of liquid velvet that draws people out and puts them in a convivial mood. More likely it was the people themselves—who gathered in Tim and Joan Cooney’s comfortable Manhattan apartment that blustery February in 1966. The dinner guests were predominantly from Mrs. Cooney’s world of television. And among the guests who were to make this such a memorable night were Mrs. Cooney’s boss Lewis Freedman, program director for educational TV station Channel 13, and Lloyd Morriset, then vice president of the Carnegie Corporation, an institution long interested in public broadcasting. It was only natural that over coffee and brandy the conversation would ultimately wind around to the media.
“Channel 13 had been having a sensational season,” Joan recalls. “Lew was saying, ‘Television is the new educational tool, whether it’s educating now formally or not.’”
Not only at the Cooney’s dinner party but in every TV-infiltrated home, people were aware of how the medium was being used to influence people. Parents, who often heard their small children chant commercials and recite the brand-name litany of toys and products they had seen on TV, knew their offspring were being brain-washed to want the most expensive toys. Aside from Captain Kangaroo and Misterogers Neighborhood, tow children’s series with deservedly fine reputations, most of children’s TV was vapid nonsense designed as short pauses between endless hawking of products. The commercials were infinitely more interesting. They were meant to be. The products pitched, such as flotilla of battery-operated toys, were designed to according to how well they could be advertised on television. And what wasn’t vapid was violent. Children’s TV hit its nadir in the early sixties. High on bash, bang, burn, shoot, stab, and hang, the run of violence temporarily faded from the Saturday morning lineup when the public, revulsed by President Kennedy’s assassination, demanded that the emphasis on violence be halted. The lapse, it must be lamented, was only temporary. For when Milton S. Eisenhower’s National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence issued its ominous report in the late Sixties, it had over a two-year observation period clocked an average of more than twenty violent episodes per hour in samplings made of children’s Saturday morning cartoon programs! The report stated unequivocally, “Television enters powerfully into the learning process of children….Violence on television encourages violent forms of behavior.” This statement confirmed what psychological research had known all along: if you set a person down and show him films of violence, he will subsequently behave in a more aggressive, hostile way. An experienced nursery school teacher related how this chain reaction applied in her classroom: After The Three Stooges program was launched on television, the children in her class began to pommel one another soundly, without provocation and with great frequency. When she upbraided the youngsters, they answered indignantly, “Why can’t we do it? The Three Stooges do!” People—young children especially—can be influenced in setting their own behavioral standards by what they see others do in actuality or on television.
The appalling truth is that twelve million preschoolers between three and five years of age are glued to their TV sets for an average of fifty hours a week. Before hitting the first grade, they rack up an average of 9,000 hours of viewing.
While these children are sopping up mindless fluff, their ability to learn is not being developed. The earlier a child begins to learn, the better, according to Dr. Joseph McVicker Hunt, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois. “It is important to reach children early, because it is during the first four or five years of life that a child’s development is most rapid and most subject to modification. During this period, a child acquires the abilities on which his later abilities will be based. The early years are the most crucial and formative stage of intellectual development.”
Against this backdrop—that the major part of an individual’s intellectual development occurs before he ever gets to kindergarten or the first grade—consider the child that doesn’t have nursery school, Head Start or a family that has the time, money, and/or interest to provide mental stimulation. It has been demonstrated that a child in a less than optimal environment and a child in a more fortunate environment—both of the same native intelligence—may wind up 40 IQ points apart. One will develop an IQ of a person only about ten to thirty points above the moron level. Something had to be done to stimulate these disadvantaged children before it was too late.
The idea of preschool education for disadvantaged children is, of course, not new. Since 1965 the federal government has spent more than 1.6 billion dollars sending some 3.5 million children through six weeks of classroom training in its popular Head Start program. And despite cutbacks by the Nixon Administration some 230,000 children are still attending Head Start programs. But this is merely a drop in the ocean, considering the millions upon millions who never have benefit of this or any other such program.
Curiously, before Lewis Freedman made his passing observation linking education and television, no one had seriously considered attempting to pipe high energy television into these millions of disadvantaged preschoolers who needed it desperately, even though it had been long obvious where and by what means they could be reached. Some 95 percent of all homes in the United States have TV sets. More families own TV receivers today than bathtubs, telephones, toasters, vacuum cleaners or subscribe to daily newspapers.
But Lewis Freedman made the right comment to the right crowd. An idea clicked in Lloyd Morrisett’s mind. Since Carnegie was involved with preschool research: Why not marry television to preschool education?
And who would he get to officiate? The answer to that was equally logical. Within a few weeks Morrisett called Joan Cooney asking, “How would you like to do a study for us on the potential of television in preschool education?”
Joan was flabbergasted. “I knew what I knew from McLuhan; kids were watching shows like Batman and Get Smart and they were watching a lot of commercials. I was in television and I’d majored in education at the University of Arizona, but I wasn’t in commercial television and I wasn’t an educator.”
That’s exactly what Morrisett wanted: someone who could figure it all out within any axes to grind.
And that description couldn’t fit someone more perfectly than Joan Ganz Cooney. Probably more of the youngest and most important woman executives in television, Joan Cooney looks and acts like the teacher students always fall in love with. This lovely, lithe, poised woman, who seems to possess all the demanding capabilities she asks and willingly gets from others, taught second-graders while earning her bachelor’s degree (cum laude) worked as a reporter doing everything from woman’s page features to crime news and book reviews. After moving to New York City she got started in television. She began on Channel 13 as producer of discussion shows and eventually ventured into the documentary field with her highly acclaimed A Chance at the Beginning, a film about the preparation of Harlem’s preschoolers for formal education.
The year Morrisett made her his offer, Joan had won an Emmy award for her three-hour study of this country’s poverty programs entitled: “Poverty, Anti-Poverty and the Poor.” (Joan’s husband, Tim, was treasurer of the Equal Employment Council in Harlem. His interest in urban affairs exceeded even his wife’s.) With a track record like that, Joan Cooney could hardly refuse this new challenge.