Last week Sesame Street celebrated its 40th anniversary. This brought out some congratulations but more condemnation. The attacks seemed to focus predominantly on the fast paced nature of the show which it is claimed has led to short attention spans in children. One thing I couldn't help notice was that those who were doing the attacking were all white. Perhaps this is because there are few people of color on television, or maybe because it is a statement of privilege. What they all seem to disregard is what the common thinking was at the time Sesame Street started and the impact it has had on children's lives for the good.
Sesame Street did not create the idea that children have short attention spans. This is what educators believed at the time, including Jean Piaget whose theory of cognitive development was predominant. What the creators of the program also found in their test programs was that after about three minutes the children lost interest, and so they kept the segments short. They were following what the experts were telling them and also what the children were demonstrating. Now were they wrong? Maybe. I still think it's too debatable. My daughters never watch Sesame Street and have very short attention spans.
What the commentators also missed was the fundamental change this program made on television. For one it created children's programming as we know it now, which is focused on learning. Second it gave a positive spin to living in the city. Most shows portray the city, especially large urban centers, as dirty and dangerous places to live. Certainly not the place you want to raise your kids (again think white privilege and white flight). They also portrayed the radical notion that whites and blacks could be seen interacting in positive ways. This was so shocking that many southern PBS stations refused to run Sesame Street.
Finally, and most importantly, was that this program gave inner-city kids good quality television to watch. I cannot locate the statistic at the moment, but it was something like 95% of all televisions in homes with children in urban areas were turned to Sesame Street when it was on. That means that all of those children were being exposed to educational programming and opportunities that would not have otherwise been available. If Sesame Street had not been on then more than likely the children would have been watching a soap opera or some other meaningless program. Something that would not be helping them learn their numbers or letters.
Now wouldn't it be more beneficial if the children were not watching television at all? Of course. But let's not attack Sesame Street for our failure as a society to provide adequate low cost preschool and daycare opportunities for our children. The simple reality is many people cannot afford to send their children to good programs and so for them they need something to help supply what they cannot, and Sesame Street helps fill in some of the gap.
So lay off Sesame Street, for remember Big Bird is bigger than you are!