"Isn’t using a nine-million dollar color-TV environment to teach the alphabet and numbers a little like using a jet transport to go from 59th Street to 125th street?"
--Denis H. Walsh, The Village Voice
"Sesame Street is an effort to provide one option, one alternative that may be useful to some children. We do not intend that this one series will substitute for all other forms of educational experiences young children need."
--Dr. Gerald S. Lessor, Harvard University
THE HONEYMOON IS DEFINITELY OVER
One day last spring, a visitor to Dave Connell’s office was discussing the unprecedented success of Sesame Street and its almost total immunity from criticism. Connell, scratching his head and looking somewhat awed by Sesame Street’s good fortune, evaluated it as “Being in the right place at the right time. We happened to hit when the public was ready for our kind of show. Even the intellectuals had come around to admit that television has educational value. They no longer consider a status not to have a set in their homes. Frankly, we are all rather amazed at Sesame Street’s complete acceptance. But we peg it simply as the public being receptive to the job we are attempting to do. But we’re also fatalistic. Sooner or later there’s bound to be a backlash.”
It has happened lately. And while the negative criticism is a mere piddling considering “all those in favor of,” still in some circles it has become fashionable to take potshots at Sesame Street. If Joan Cooney isn’t prepared to eat her words. “I expected TV critics and parents to like and dig the show. But I thought educators would get on it. Instead—publicly at first—they’ve been as enthusiastic as the parents and critics.” She must now be suffering from a slight case of naivete.
Educators are challenging Sesame Street’s education goals. The most vituperative among them, Frank Garfunkel, professor of education at Boston University, contemptuously refers to Sesame Street as “the great palliative.” In a letter written to the Boston Globe, the professor goes on to say: “If what people want is for their children to memorize numbers and letters without regard to their meaning or use…without regard to the differences between children, then Sesame Street is truly responsive. To give a child thirty seconds of one thing and then to switch it and give him thirty seconds of another is to nurture irrelevance.” Professor Garfunkel concludes that to teach a child “rote memorization” is to “put a noose” around the child’s ability to ever “engage in sustained and developed thought.” Dr. Gerald S. Lesser, professor of education and developmental psychology at Harvard University and an advisor to the producers, has written a rebuttal to Garfunkel’s letter in the Boston Globe. Professor Lewis writes: “Different children learn in different ways and profit from different experiences. And Sesame Street is an effort to provide one option, one alternative that may be useful to some children. We are providing one small component of what ultimately must become a full range of educational opportunities for all young children.”
For some educators, using television techniques to teach erodes the very foundations of education. In the magazine Childhood Education, Minnie P. Berson, director of a nursery-through-third-grade experimental program at the State University College at Fredonia, New York, demands: “Why debase the art form of teaching with phony pedagogy, vulgar sideshows, bad acting, and layers of smoke and fog to clog the eager minds of small children?” She thinks it would be better to “tap some of the marvelous artist-teachers in nursery schools and kindergarten” for TV teaching.
Carl Bereiter, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and an authority on preschool learning, complains that what he has seen of Sesame Street has been too far removed from structured teaching. He maintains that the show has been “based entirely on audience appeal and is not really teaching anything in particular.”
A first-grade teacher in Detroit indicates that everything about Sesame Street seems especially irrelevant to the ghetto child: “They have no motivation to watch it, especially at home. Whereas, Black and White middle-class mothers encourage their children to watch it, the lower-class mother isn’t around to encourage it. We tried looking at it in our classroom, but the kids were uninterested. They did enjoy the numbers because they were so fast, but they just didn’t want to watch the rest.”
This teacher’s comments contrast markedly with most reports from ghetto teachers about students’ reaction to Sesame Street. Mrs. S.E. Gordon, Head Start teacher in Easton, Pennsylvania, sizes up her affirmative feelings about the show in two words, “Keep going.” Mrs. Gordon also clarifies that “the vast difference between Sesame Street and other children’s shows is that Sesame Street doesn’t moralize. Its interest is in teaching. Period.”
A few Black teachers have denounced the program because, they charge, it depicts integration and Black people from a White man’s viewpoint. In reply the producers argue that Sesame Street’s bouncy, jivetalking Muppet, Roosevelt Franklin “is certainly not a White kid hiding in Black skin.”
However, among the teachers with long experience in preschool education in the ghetto there is the real fear that Sesame Street will become a substitute for “personalized experiences,” rather than a supplement to them. “If Sesame Street is the only thing ghetto kids have, I don’t think it’s going to do much good,” says Sister Mary Mel O’Dowd, who penned the curriculum for Chicago’s Archdiocesan Head Start program and is now directing the curriculum of Capitol Head Start in Washington, D.C. “It never hurts a child to be able to count to ten or recognize the letters of the alphabet. But without the guidance of a teacher, he’ll be like one of our preschoolers who was able to write ‘CAUTION’ on the blackboard after seeing it on the back of so many buses, and told me ‘That says STOP.’”
Joan Cooney couldn’t be more in agreement with Sister O’Dowd’s feelings. “Television is a very poor substitute for a comprehensive preschool development,” she says. “All the effective and certain cognitive things are better done by a teacher.” This is why Mrs. Cooney is so concerned about possible misuse of Sesame Street’s success. It could happen that the federal government—which provides half of Sesame Street’s funds—will decide to make the television show a money-saving substitute for Head Start. Mrs. Cooney has thought this catastrophic possibility through: “I think the project is going to be attractive to government officials and Congress because it seems to be cost-effective and an answer to preschool education. Whereas in my view, ours is a project that could help make effective—and enrich—preschool programs. I see its great importance to the inner-city child as a supplement.”
Making Sesame Street a substitute for Head Start would not only be a penny-pinching failure, but would taint Sesame Street’s future. Five years ago, Head Start was the do-no-wrong darling of the middle class. Now it is being criticized on all sides for failing to outweigh all the defects of ghetto life. How much more exposed to this kind of barrage would a television show be? How could any show, no matter how excellent, escape similar criticism?
A reason why Sesame Street isn’t the end-all is found in a recent Head Start newsletter in which Oralie McAfee of the New Nursery School at Colorado State College discusses, “Using Sesame Street in the Early Childhood Classroom.” She writes: “Some things can really be learned only by doing….On television, a concept such as ‘round’ can be presented only in two dimensions, which really is inadequate. So we would supplement…with actual round objects. Eat oranges and grapefruits; notice that the clay balls and snakes the children make are round; blow bubbles….”
Some mothers have blown their cool and are bothered by some of the colorful language of the show. Mothers who are meticulously raising their youngsters on “Please” and “Thank you” are shocked when their toddlers spout expletives such as “Dum-dum” and “Stupid”. Other mothers are expressing concern that Sesame Street may be “brainwashing” children, “spoiling them for more structured schooling,” “assaulting their senses” with its “frenetic pace” and “psyched-up music.” A Kentucky mother brands it “a Saint Vitus’ Dance nightmare.” In Florida, a mother complains that the Cookie Monster’s obvious oral fixation has led her son to gulping down such inedibles as seashells.
Such objections are all but lost, however, in the din praise from others. Only one interest group has moved Sesame Street’s producers to alter the show and this comes from an unexpected quarter-members of the Woman’s Liberation Movement. They complained that Susan’s relegation to a housewife who does nothing more than sit around, wear pretty clothes, and sing a few songs was deplorable. And so this fall Susan makes everybody happy by having a job as a nurse.
Well, almost everybody. Marion Meade in her New York Times article, “Penelope Pitstop Isn’t Enough!” still warned: “Mothers keep your daughters away from Sesame Street.” Why?
According to Miss Meade: “Sesame Street’s images of women tend to be insultingly stereotyped. Sesame Street does uphold the old sexist stereotypes….Along with the numbers one to ten, Sesame Street does a fine job of teaching preschoolers the ABC’s of male chauvinism. Just look at the leading characters: Gordon, a teacher, and his wife, Susan, a housewife.
“From the start, there was no question that Gordon wore, as they say, the pants and Susan, the apron. According to the show’s producers, this was a deliberate decision to show Black children a model of a strong Black male which is absent in so many slum families.
“Unfortunately, all this rationalization illustrates is that sexism, unlike racism, is still very much in fashion. Apparently, it was inconceivable that children might benefit from seeing strong mother and father models. Or that the male needn’t be upgraded at the expense of the female.”
Belaboring her point, Miss Meade continued: “In most of Sesame Street, sex discrimination is right up front. The boy Muppets regularly lord it over the few females; little boys in the filmed sequences lead the way while the girls submissively follow; and even a dum-dum like Big Bird recognizes that he’s been lucky to have been born male.”
Written criticism of Sesame Street is by no means limited to Women’s Liberation. Just as Motherhood has its denigrators in the two Phillips—Roth and Wylie—Sesame Street has its detractors in O’Flaherty, Shayon, Sedulus and Walsh.
Terrence O’Flaherty, TV columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, had egg on his face as the first and, for the longest time, only Sesame Street criticizer. In his column entitled “J is for Junk” O’Flaherty describes an audience previewing Sesame Street. “In one film, an illustration for the letter ‘J,’ there was a reference to ‘a day in jail.’ When a Black lady in the audience asked Executive Producer David Connell if it was really necessary to associate J with jail in a young person’s mind, Connell gave this revealing answer.
“The children are already watching Batman and Superman so they’re familiar with jails. Also when you’re trying to come up with a lot of words starting with J, you soon run short….’
“Several words came immediately to my mind which might be of use to Connell: junk, jargon, and jabberwocky—all of which describe what I saw in his efforts,” said O’Flaherty.
J also brings to mind, “Join-in”—which other TV critics subsequently did in less frivolous fashion.
“Mainly to meet the demands of minority group parents,” writes critic Robert Lewis Shayon in The Saturday Review, “Sesame Street stresses cognitive learning—the teaching of numbers and letters of the alphabet.” Shayson concedes that “early results suggest that minority children do learn from the programs.” Still, he is one of those who feel that the preschooler most need the kind of learning that is related to feelings and emotions—which calls for a teacher. “The acquisition of cognitive skills is important,” writes Shayson, “but they are hardly the answer to our society’s social and personal ills.”
New Republic’s critic Sedulus picks up Shayon’s theme and goes beyond it: “As many a first grade teacher has discovered, the children most likely to have trouble learning to read don’t really see the connection between learning letters and reading. They have had little experience with books, are often hazy about what reading is and don’t understand that speech is divided into words, that words are composed of letters, and that what they say can be written down and read. It would help if they could follow the lines of print in a storybook with their finger as the story is read aloud. But on Sesame Street, as in most schools, the adult doing the reading only shows the kids the pictures. Even though imaginative presentations like Sesame Street can make learning letters easy, the learning is still mechanical, like memorizing the Lord’s Prayer in Polish.
“What is missed also in Sesame Street,” Sedulus continues, “is the recognition that many kids fail to learn because they are tired, hungry, or frightened….A good television program could give these children and their mothers a lot of help. TV has advantages over the conventional school. It is impersonal, and therefore it doesn’t make children afraid of failing. It demands no answers. Schools that have teachers who are interested in developing skills, take some of their clues from class. They listen and respond. By contrast, everything that happens on Sesame Street is planned in advance by adults who stick to the lesson no matter what children around them do or say. A little girl is identifying geometric shapes with Susan: suddenly she announces she has a toothache. ‘Oh, do you,’ says Susan, and pushes right on with the lesson. As Gordon reads a book aloud, two boys get very interested in one particular picture. They want to talk about it, but Gordon drives ahead with the story reading just the same. Children never stop Gordon on the street to ask him a question or joke or get help with a game. Grown-ups initiate everything. And their concerns are trivial. They ask kids what various toys have in common (all the toys—snore—have something to do with transportation). They never ask interesting questions like why do people kiss? Why does it rain?….”
Sedulus concludes: “Nobody on Sesame Street is ever genuinely miserable, terrified or exultant. Ernie, the
Puppet, is disappointed when the wonderful Cookie Monster eats all his cookies, or he’s lonely when everyone else is busy, but the problems cure themselves. Young Bill knows that Mother is pleased if he prefers Sesame Street to Batman. But there is something to be said for Batman, however reprehensible his moronic violence. Batman evokes real emotions and provokes real fantasy. Sesame Street does not.”
What Sesame Street does do, according to an article in the Village Voice, by Denis J. Walsh, is set the prototype of education in the seventies. Because of this and because millions of kids are already influenced by the show, Walsh thinks it none too soon to address a list of mind-boggling questions to the show in order to “push the producers and directors to explore consciously some of the hidden landscapes of the powerful environment they have created.
Among the most provocative queries are:
“Isn’t using a nine-million dollar color TV environment to teach the alphabet and numbers a little like using a jet transport to go from 59th Street to 125th street?” Not when the fare is a penny a day per child.
“The use of a staff of Blacks and Whites and the presence of different nationalities and races is one of the best attempts at social education. But do Spanish, Japanese, and Italian; Yellow, White, and Black cultures really speak and act the same? What about some raw representation of the fact and poetry of sub-cultures with their natural and environmental language?”
“Is it a fact or an atrocious rumor that Mahalia Jackson refused to sing ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’ until the grammar was made book perfect?”
“Do you believe in the one-answer method of education? Read my mind, kids, and get your psychic strokes? One afternoon a kid told Gordon (during a guinea pig sequence) that he knew a fact. When cross-examined by Gordon, it turned out he didn’t know the fact. Gordon got up-tight with the kids, and I got up-tight with a structure that features so many right answers for so many smiles from teacher that a kid would lie to get his quota.”
“Are you aware of the number of ways you super-impose standards of behavior and indoctrinate attitudes? Several weeks ago you announced a lesson in sounds. Two puppets appeared with a radio. Good sound was low-volume sound, bad sound was too loud. Isn’t that a propaganda lesson on socially acceptable and unacceptable sound? Weren’t you embarrassed by the fact that while one puppet was explaining how unpleasant loud sound is, the other puppet was dancing to the sound?”
“After clocking a few thousand hours of high-powered, total-packaged entertainment of Sesame Street, will the child be able to regain his power to initiate, create, and mold his environment, and become self-supporting?”
“Now that you have opened the outer environment to the kids and have created a classroom without walls, don’t you think the students of Sesame Street will experience formal classrooms as detention homes and psychic dungeons? Fantasize Miss Williams in Grade Two spending forty-five minutes with her felt board presentation showing John and Mary walking to school. Suddenly a mob of kids (Sesame Street graduates) storm the desk and hurl Miss Williams and feltboard out the third-floor window.”
The questioning and probing approach is a form of evaluation not unfamiliar to Children’t Television Workhop. For when all is said and done, the toughest Sesame critics of all remain the folks at CTW. If others in their move to criticize forget, CTW reminds one that Sesame Street is an experiment and it never claims to be anything more.