Big Bird is a National Treasure

Silas learned to count from The Count. He likes to finish with a hearty vampire laugh.

I usually try to avoid posting things that are basically political, but well, when certain politicians slam public broadcasting, I get cranky (before you say it: Juan Williams. Yes, he was fired for saying some political things. His First Amendment rights were not being jeopardized. He signed a binding contract to uphold NPR’s ethics code, which prohibits on-air personalities from voicing political opinions. I knew an NPR employee who asked for permission to attend the barely-political Rally to Restore Sanity, and was told that only the reporters covering the event were allowed to attend. As a counterexample to Mr. Williams, Michelle Norris voluntarily stepped down from her post co-hosting All Things Considered because her husband took a job with the Obama campaign. She is still reporting, but has recused herself from all campaign-related coverage. Lots of organizations bind their employees’ behavior and exercise of free speech. I had to sign an agreement, when I worked for a software company, that I wouldn’t tell people about what I was working on, projected release dates, etc. Had I violated that, I, like Mr. Williams, would have been out of a job.).

My family and friends tease me because, while I generally refuse to allow my kids to have much of anything with licensed characters, I make an exception for Sesame Street. Although Silas isn’t allowed to watch television generally, we do let him see some Sesame Street. What makes Sesame Street special?

The short answer is: it’s good. It’s really, really good. Better than any other educational programming out there, bar none. The people at Children’s Television Workshop genuinely care about pedagogy. They do research. They test out every episode to make sure it’s good.

Sesame Street has a strong social mission, a plan to teach every child in America the alphabet, counting, and concepts like sharing and co-operation. It tries to address real topics in a way that is accessible to children, responding to their fears and respecting their world view. I still remember seeing the reruns of the episode where Mr. Hooper died, and watching it over again now, I see how carefully written it is–not scary, but also not denying how sad everyone is.

The writing is funny when it doesn’t have to be, and the humor is wide-ranging, from absurdism to slapstick to puns. Some of the jokes are clearly meant for adults, but not in the crass way that the jokes in Shrek are for adults.

“Writing” with window markers while singing the ABC song–which he learned from Sesame Street

The Sesame Workshop’s international efforts are wonderful. Not satisfied with simply translating US Sesame Street, they work with educators and television producers in the target countries to create content specific to that culture. The documentary The World According to Sesame Street is a good window into this process.

I’ve had people ask, “Why can’t PBS support itself with advertising like Nickelodeon?”

Having worked in both the not-for-profit and for-profit educational-materials-creating industries, I can tell you, definitively, that when your #1 goal becomes “make money” instead of “educate people,” (even if you are ostensibly making money to make more educational materials), the quality of education suffers dramatically. And yes, the “educational” content on Disney and Nickelodeon does not begin to meet the standard set by Sesame Street, and that’s probably because they have to create things they think they can sell. PBS makes the argument TO PARENTS, “Look, your kid can learn something valuable.” Nickelodeon makes the argument TO ADVERTISERS, “Look, we can make kids into passive butt-sitters who will spend hours in front of the TV.” All “educational” content is not created equal. My two-year-old, who only watches Sesame Street (and then, not much of it), knows probably 15 letters, and they are all ones that I know he’s seen on Sesame Street. CTW has such a strong commitment to education that even their licensed products (like, I’m not making this up, Tickle Me Elmo) have defined pedagogical goals. I got him a Sesame Street coloring/activity book. I thought it would be just like the similarly priced Disney Winnie the Pooh book he has, but I was completely stunned by the level of thought that someone at CTW clearly put into the pedagogy on the activity pages. It’s the sort of thing that someone who HADN’T spent the past decade in the education industry might overlook, but to my eyes, it was incredibly clear. Money makes a difference, as does the source of the money (see also, Super PACs and …Matthew 6:24).

All that is to say, long live Big Bird!

This post is brought to you by the letter D.

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One response to “Big Bird is a National Treasure

  1. Pingback: Upworthy | Cinnamon&Sassafras·

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