11 October 2012

What We (Should) Talk About When We Talk About Big Bird

It’s been a week since Mitt Romney made his now-infamous remarks about Public Television during the first presidential debate: 
I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you too. But I’m not going to — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”
Within minutes, the internet was buzzing with Muppet jokes, and Fired Big Bird was tweeting at Fired Grover. The hashtag #OccupySesameStreet was born. Muppet John Stewart took over on The Daily Show. Even President Obama got into the act, joking about Sesame Street on the campaign trail, and putting out a campaign ad featuring Big Bird.

Interestingly, the debate wasn’t the first time Mr. Romney has mentioned Big Bird on the campaign trail. According to abcnews.com, Romney has been specifically referencing Big Bird since December:
“We’re going to have to stop some things we also like.  I mean, I like PBS, for instance. I like my grandkids being able to see Bert and Ernie and Big Bird, but I’m not willing to borrow money from China so that PBS doesn’t have to run advertising.” (Romney, March 2012)
Clearly, the comment wasn’t off the cuff, nor was it unintentional. Going after public funding for the arts, public radio, and public television is nothing new, but normally that involves accusations of the liberal elitism of NPR or moral outrage over Piss Christ, not threatening a beloved American icon. Everyone with a beating human heart loves Big Bird. Why in the world would Mr. Romney repeatedly – and specifically – bring him up?

Some have interpreted it as an attempt to make Mr. Romney seem more human (“All humans love Big Bird. I love Big Bird! Therefore I am clearly a human”), or to reinforce an image of Mr. Romney as stern-yet-loving paternal figure (“I like Big Bird too, kids, but we can’t afford him, and anyway it’s past your bedtime”), or perhaps merely to reassure us that he lives on the same planet we do (“Sure I have a yacht and an Olympic horse and four houses, but I love Big Bird – I’m just like you!”).

Maybe that’s all that’s going on here. But as a teacher who spent the early part of my career working at schools in rural, low-income areas, I can’t help but wonder about the underlying race and class issues at play here.

History of Public Television

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created by an act of congress and signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in 1967, in response to a 1961 speech by then-head of the FCC Newton Minnow, who described television as a “vast wasteland… a procession of game shows, formula comediesabout totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence,sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters,more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials -- many screaming,cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom.” (Some things never change, am I right?)

This speech – commonly known as the “Wasteland Speech” – advocated for programming in the public interest, which led to the formation of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, which in turn led to the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Put simply, the purpose of public broadcasting was to create “high culture” to counteract the “wasteland” effects of commercial television’s “low culture.”

Included in the Carnegie Commission’s recommendations were two revolutionary ideas: that television could be used for educational purposes, and – more specifically – that television could prepare children for school. “Public Television programs should give great attention to the informal educational needs of preschool children, particularly to interest and help children whose intellectual and cultural preparation might otherwise be less than adequate.” (Spring, 326)

The Children’s Television Workshop grew out of the Carnegie Corporation, in the first attempt to bring these revolutionary ideas to life, and in 1969, they aired the first episode of Sesame Street.

Sesame Street as Educational Gap-Closer

According to Paul D. Slocumb, Ed.D., author of Removing the Mask: Giftedness in Poverty:
“Students from enriched backgrounds typically perform better in school than those from poverty, as measured by standardized achievement and intelligence tests…. In educated households, the children have environmental opportunities and experiences that foster and encourage skills and academic performance to a level higher than students who don’t have such opportunities. Students from educated households are exposed to more abstract uses of language, more complex planning processes and procedures, schemas to organize space, precise use of words and phrases to describe objects and tasks, assignment of abstract values to time, and labeling part-to-whole relationships. Such exposure allows students to develop mental models, which serve as tools to get meaning from things they read, hear, and experience in school and in the outside world.”
Children of parents with limited income and education are already at an academic disadvantage by the time they enter school. Sesame Street was expressly created to help close this achievement gap between low-income and middle- and upper-income children entering school. Joel Spring, author of The American School: 1642-1996, describes Sesame Street’s original educational goals:
“While Sesame Street was supposed to appeal to a national audience, concerns with educating the children of the poor directly influenced the overall goals of the program. [...] The emphasis on preparation for school and concerns about children of the poor determined the basic shape of Sesame Street. The staff decided that poor parents wanted their children to achieve in the basic subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic. The major complaint of these parents, the staff felt, was the failure of the school to teach these subjects. Therefore, the staff concluded that the program should focus on preparation for learning these subjects in school.”
The desire to help prepare low-income children for school wasn’t limited to television, of course. Around the same time, in 1965, as a part of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” campaign, the Office of Economic Opportunity launched Head Start, originally conceived as a catch-up summer camp to help get children living in poverty ready for kindergarten.

Educational television offered one strong advantage over Head Start and other such programs, however: it was available to children in all geographic areas. To appeal to children from low-income families (and in particular, those in urban poverty), Sesame Street was set in an urban, racially diverse environment, but its creators knew that its success would come in appealing to all children.

In order to do so, Sesame Street sought to entertain and educate an audience not just of different racial and economic backgrounds, but also of different ages. Specifically, the Muppet characters were designed to reflect different developmental stages, in order to cover different curricular needs, to address the concerns and experiences of different ages, as well as to play to a broader audience of children. Big Bird, for instance, is modeled after an inquisitive 6-year old, while the impulsive Cookie Monster is babyish, right down to his grammatical errors (“Me want cookie!”).

The World as It Might Be

Chief advisor for the Children’s Television Workshop was Gerald Lesser, Bigelow Professor of Education and Developmental Psychology at Harvard, who had a great deal of influence over Sesame Street’s educational and ideological goals. Television, he believed, could offer “a vision of the world as it might be.”

As an example of this, Lesser described an urban bus ride, as depicted by Sesame Street:
“Now, we all know that a bus driver is often not our best example of someone who is courteous and civil. But on Sesame Street’s bus trip, the driver responds to his passengers’ hello’s and thank-you’s, tells a child who cannot locate his money, ‘That’s all right, you can pay me tomorrow,’ and upon seeing a young woman running after his bus just as it has left the curb, actually stops to let her on.” (Lesser, 95)
Lesser himself acknowledged this as an “outrageous misrepresentation” of real life, but “We wanted to show the child what the world is like when people treat each other with decency and consideration. Our act of faith… was that young children will learn such attitudes if we take the trouble to show them some examples, even if we stretch familiar reality a bit in order to do so." (Lesser, 95)

Another example of this “world as it might be” vision was in the way Sesame Street’s multi-racial cast lived, worked, and played together in integrated harmony – while, on the news and in the streets, white and black civil rights protestors clashed with white police and soldiers. (In 1970, a state commission in Mississippi voted to not air the show, stating that "Mississippi was not yet ready" for the show's integrated cast. The decision was reversed after the vote was leaked to the New York Times, gaining national attention. [Newsweek])

Why Sesame Street Matters

For more than four decades, Sesame Street has done what it set out to do in the late 1960s: teach basic alphabet, reading, spelling, and math skills to children while modeling values of kindness, consideration, and friendship. The magic of Sesame Street is that it’s managed to teach these lessons without being preachy or pedantic. Could it achieve the same magic while having, as Mr. Romney suggests, “Big Bird look at cornflakes from time to time”? I don’t know.

Mitt Romney was in his twenties when Sesame Street first aired, but for those of us who grew up in the 70s, 80s, 90s, or 2000s, the cast – both humans and muppets – feel like old friends. For people my age, Mr.Hooper’s death in 1982 was one of our first – if not the first – experiences of losing a friend. (And I don’t know about you, but I still get a little choked up when I think about Big Bird waiting for Santa, shivering and blanketed in snowflakes, while the residents of the street grow increasingly worried about him.)

For those of us with educated, middle- and upper-income parents, Sesame Street was a fun, educational show that helped us to ask questions we might not have asked otherwise, exposed us to racial diversity we might not have seen otherwise, and made us sing, laugh, and explore our feelings along the way. But to those of us with uneducated, lower-income parents who often worked multiple jobs and didn’t have the time, energy, or skills to read to us, teach us our letters, numbers, and colors, Sesame Street was an important resource that provided us with the knowledge and skills we needed to be successful in kindergarten.

Without Sesame Street, Mitt Romney’s grandchildren might miss the friendship and humor of characters like Big Bird, Ernie, Bert, and Elmo, but they’d still have access to the early educational opportunities and skills they needed to be successful in school. They’d be just fine. But other children – including many of the children of Mr. Romney’s 47% -- would enter kindergarten facing an even steeper learning curve, one that might prove too steep to scale in a single year. These children might find themselves falling farther and farther behind, blaming themselves for their academic struggles, eventually deciding that they simply weren’t cut out for school, and give up.

Whether or not Mitt Romney likes Big Bird is not the issue. Sesame Street matters not because it’s likeable, but because it seeks to provide pre- and early-literacy education to millions of at-risk children, to close an often overwhelming academic gap, and level the educational playing field so our children – all of them, regardless of racial, cultural, economic, or educational background – have full access to the America -- and the American dream -- we've promised them.


Anonymous said...

Even if federal funding of Sesame Street went away, I'm pretty sure they could survive off the royalties, sales, etc. and would survive. I'm not saying that PBS, the NEA, the NEH shouldn't be federally funded but if there are areas where they can be self-supporting, why not?

Elizabeth Fama said...

This is an interesting post, Molly, and thoughtfully written. I just want to point out that of all the shows on PBS, Sesame Street has extremely high merchandise revenue, which would support it even in the absence of public funding. In that sense, Big Bird is maybe a safe choice for Romney to use in his speeches. (It's shows like "Joanne Weir's Cooking Class" that should worry...)

EBS said...

Whether or not Sesame Street could financially sustain itself, I believe that the federal government's support of it (through the taxes we pay) is symbolically important for all the reasons you elucidate here, Molly. In a million ways, we fail kids, particularly those who are minoritized or live in poverty, but Sesame Street is one way that we try not to screw up, and it has made a lot of difference in the world.