Shelf Life

When America learned that screens could teach

David Kamp May 13, 2020
Heard on:
In the late 1960s and 70s, experimental television programs including Sesame Street, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and Schoolhouse Rock proved that television could educate. Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Shelf Life

When America learned that screens could teach

David Kamp May 13, 2020
Heard on:
In the late 1960s and 70s, experimental television programs including Sesame Street, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and Schoolhouse Rock proved that television could educate. Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Today, many children in America are learning remotely, largely through screens. But in the late 1960s, when an experimental television program called “Sesame Street” hit the airwaves, the idea that screens could educate was revolutionary. The following is an excerpt from “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America,” by David Kamp. Click the audio player above to hear Kamp’s conversation with Kai Ryssdal.

On the last Friday of July in 1970, David Brinkley, the eminent NBC newsman, paid curious tribute to his departing coanchor, Chet Huntley, whose final evening on the air it was. Noting that Huntley was retiring to his native Montana, where he kept a ranch, Brinkley addressed his broadcast partner on the long-running Huntley-Brinkley Report with more wistfulness and anxiety than his wry demeanor usually allowed. “When you are out there under clear skies and clean air,” Brinkley said, “maybe, once in a while, you’ll think of those of us still here—fighting the traffic, the transportation breakdowns, the strikes, pollution. And wondering what is left that we can eat, drink, smoke, or breathe that will not kill us, and wondering what horror will be visited upon us next.”

Brinkley was hardly alone in suggesting that American society, and perhaps life on earth, was about to come to an ignominious end. The news offered ample evidence. A year earlier, the river running through Cleveland, the Cuyahoga, had caught fire, its murky waters slicked with oil runoff from  the factories along its banks. The protests against the Vietnam War were growing ever more rancorous, and sometimes deadly: in April 1970, four students were killed, and nine more wounded, when National Guardsmen opened fire on demonstrators at Kent State University in Ohio. Much of academia, meanwhile, was consumed by the Malthusian fear that population growth was outpacing humanity’s ability to feed itself; Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford biologist, had gained a measure of celebrity for his 1968  book The Population Bomb, which forecast that, “in the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

It was a noisy, transgressive moment culturally, during which Crosby,  Stills, Nash & Young’s lament for the Kent State dead, “Ohio,” was banned from many AM radio stations, and Midnight Cowboy, an artful character study of  the friendship between a male prostitute and a con man, set against the backdrop of New York City at its entropically scuzzy nadir, became the first X-rated film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Another journalist of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley’s vintage, the veteran newspaperman Edward Robb Ellis, kept detailed diaries of this period. Surveying the events unfolding before him as 1970 dawned, he presented an outlook even more apocalyptic than Brinkley’s. “I doubt whether I shall live through this decade of the seventies, or wish to do so,” Ellis wrote. “Although I consider myself fairly youthful in my attitudes, quick to confess my mistakes when they are pointed out to me, eager to change and adapt to a changing environment, I sense that I cannot alter my nature and beliefs sufficiently to accept all the values of those younger than myself. . . . It is possible that not since the decline and fall of the Roman empire (a long process, not an abrupt event) has the world known such a climactic turning point in human affairs.”

It’s startling to read and view these accounts knowing that they belong not to some unfathomably distant era but to a time when I was very much alive. I was a kid in 1970, living, like many others, blissfully oblivious to the end-times rhetoric, contentedly navigating the world at hip height.

It would be easy to attribute this disconnect to the simple fact that we were preschoolers, not yet equipped with the cognitive ability to keep tabs on current events. But something else was going on. A separate, more optimistic contingent of Americans witnessed the same societal stresses that the pessimists did, but, rather than wringing their hands in lamentation, they felt a call to action.

Sesame Street was part of a larger movement that saw media professionals and thought  leaders leveraging their influence to help  children learn and become better citizens. 

In the early months of 1970, just a few miles up the road from Ellis’s Chelsea apartment and Huntley’s Rockefeller Center perch, in an old RKO movie theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that had been converted into a soundstage, a group of men and women of various ages and races were convening daily to finish up the first season of a children’s TV program that was still considered an experiment, not yet assured a second season. Its theme song began with a bass-heavy musical figure approximating a toddler’s expectant gambol toward a playground—womp-womp, womp-womp, womp-womp, wompa-domp—and a chorus of children singing, “Sunny day, sweepin’ the clouds away . . .” It was called Sesame Street.

Sesame Street was revolutionary in many ways, not least in its embrace of urban shabbiness, its comfort in the very conditions that the no-hopers bemoaned. As a Time correspondent who visited the show’s set that year noted, “The place is in the unavoidable present; the clothing of the cast is well worn, the umber colors and grit of inner-city life are vital components of the show.”

Yet Sesame Street’s creative team infused this set with joy, effecting an innovative visual blend of scruffiness and gentle psychedelia that was enchanting to children, if sometimes confounding to adults. Today, Sesame Street is a beloved institution, its songs, look, format, and such Muppet characters as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch familiar to several generations. But at the time of its development, the show was so radical as to be literally unimaginable to those not involved in it. Loretta Long, who played Susan, Sesame Street’s sunshiny maternal figure, recalled putting a scare into her parents back home in rural Michigan when, in 1969, she described her new job, which, to them, sounded like a drug-induced hallucination.

'Sesame Street' hosts Matt Robinson (Gordon), Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) Loretta Long (Susan) and Bob McGrath (Bob) stand with Big Bird in a promotional still on the set of the educational public television series, circa 1969.
Sesame Street hosts Matt Robinson (Gordon), Will Lee (Mr. Hooper), Loretta Long (Susan) and Bob McGrath (Bob) stand with Big Bird in a promotional still on the set of the educational public television series, circa 1969.

“I said to my mom, ‘It’s an educational show, and I’m going to be sitting on a stoop talking to an eight-foot yellow bird!’ As it was coming out of my mouth, I knew it was a mistake,” she said. “My mother got real quiet. She handed the phone to my father. He was very direct: ‘You going to do this when you come home from your real job, right, baby?’ ‘Well, Daddy, this is going to be my real job!’ I was so glad that I didn’t talk about Oscar. They al-ready were thinking that I was having a breakdown. If I’d said, ‘And this thing is going to jump out of a trash can and yell at you,’ my mother would have been on the first train, smoking, coming to get her child.”

As unhinged as the show sounded to the uninitiated, what it stood for was hope. The streetscape was concrete, but the emphasis, metaphorically, was on the little shoots of greenery that sprouted through the cracks in the pavement. Three and a half years before Sesame Street’s November 1969 premiere, on PBS, the idea for the program had been hatched by two friends at a dinner party: Joan Ganz Cooney, a producer of documentaries for public television, and Lloyd Morrisett, a vice president at the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation. Deep in conversation at Cooney’s New York apartment, they identified a social problem, that poor children were entering kindergarten without the learning skills of their middle-class counterparts, and a potential solution, to use television to better prepare these disadvantaged kids for school. Could a new kind of kids’ TV program address this issue? Cooney and Morrisett resolved to find out.

What’s notable from today’s standpoint is that there was no financial incentive for Sesame Street’s founding duo to do what they did. Theirs was not an entrepreneurial undertaking, a start-up in the modern sense of the term. Jon Stone, one of Sesame Street’s original producers and its driving creative force in the show’s early years, later said of the team that Cooney and Morrisett assembled, “None of us was going to get rich from his labors. . . . But the challenge of the assignment and the creative freedom granted us to meet that challenge was heady stuff, and we took our responsibility very seriously.”

Then in their midthirties, Cooney and Morrisett were exemplars of John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” ethos, proud to fly the flag of the New Frontier: the late president’s slate of programs designed to lead the United States to new heights of greatness and positive influence, be it in the form of anti-poverty initiatives, the Peace Corps, or space exploration. The only wealth that entered into Cooney and Morrisett’s considerations was “human wealth”—a coinage of Morrisett’s that he used to describe what society was squandering: the untapped potential of disadvantaged children, the contributions that these kids might make to the wider world if only given the chance.

This idealism did not exist in a vacuum. Sesame Street was part of a larger movement that saw media professionals and thought leaders leveraging their influence to help children learn and become better citizens. A year and a half before the show’s premiere, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had made its national-TV debut, hosted by a gentle ordained Presbyterian minister named Fred Rogers, who had already logged fifteen years in the television industry.

And fast on Sesame Street’s heels came Schoolhouse Rock!, a short-form video series dreamed up by Madison Avenue admen that used music and animation to teach kids times tables, civics, and grammatical rules, and Free to Be . . . You and Me, the TV star Marlo Thomas’s audacious multipronged campaign (it was first a record album, and then a book and a television special) to instill the concept of gender equality in impressionable young minds.

More broadly, these developments unfolded in an unusually hospitable political climate. For all the polarization that characterized the late sixties and early seventies—as pessimistically described by David Brinkley and epitomized by the anti-war movement and the conservative backlash against it—there was widespread support among the American people and their elected representatives for investing in the country’s youngest citizens. The signature achievement of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which allocated federal funds to public education on an unprecedented scale, to nearly twenty-seven thousand school districts, and explicitly sought, as Sesame Street later would, to close the “achievement gap” between children from lower-income and middle-class households.

Another Johnson administration achievement, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, set up the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit entity that distributed federal money to local public television stations, much of it for the purpose of financing educational programming. When, in 1969, a U.S. Senate subcommittee was contemplating cutting the CPB’s proposed budget in half, to $10 million, Fred Rogers, already one of public TV’s foremost champions and stars, traveled from his home base of Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., to make his case for keeping the budget in place.

In his customary unhurried pace, Rogers explained to the subcommittee’s brusque, skeptical chairman, Senator John Pastore, Democrat of Rhode Island, that his program delivered “an expression of care” to each child viewer, adding, “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.” The senator, a self-professed “tough guy” from the mean streets of Providence, softened palpably over the course of the six-plus minutes that Rogers spoke, finally concluding in his Federal Hill accent, “I think it’s wondah-ful. I think it’s wondah-ful. Looks like you’ve just earned the 20 million dollahs.”

The Rogers-Pastore exchange has become a viral sensation in the YouTube era: a glimpse of a more civil and civic-minded time. But more than that, it represents how transformative this period was for children’s culture. “Feelings are mentionable”—this would prove to be a signature sentiment, whether it was expressed, in a marvelous incongruity, by the hulking former NFL defensive line-man Rosey Grier in the Free to Be . . . You and Me song “It’s Alright to Cry” (because “crying gets the sad out of you”) or by Sesame Street’s Kermit the Frog as he quietly sang “Bein’ Green,” which, in less than two minutes, cycled through expressions of insecurity, inadequacy, self-acceptance, and pride. (The song quickly evolved into an American Songbook standard, covered by Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, and Ray Charles.)

What was new about these shows, relative to the children’s programming that had preceded them? They didn’t patronize their audiences, and they acknowledged the interior lives of kids. Something similar was happening in children’s literature. Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, published in 1970, followed the disorienting logic of childhood dreams, as its little-boy protagonist floated in and out of the peril of almost being baked into a cake. Judy Blume, in an extraordinary run of productivity in the early seventies, broke new ground in depicting the emotional turbulence of preteen and teen experience in her young-adult novels, with her characters struggling to make sense of puberty (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; Then Again, Maybe I Won’t; Deenie); bullying (Blubber); and divorce (It’s Not the End of the World).

Far from being derided as squishy or snowflaky, this respectful, empathetic approach to engaging children was widely embraced. Blume’s books became bestsellers. Sesame Street succeeded well beyond its creators’ expectations, reaching not only its intended demographic of kids in need but virtually the entirety of preschool America. The songs and stories of Free to Be . . . You and Me were incorporated into the curricula of thirty-five of the fifty states.

The further we get from this era, this Age of Enlightenment Jr., the more remarkable it seems. It came together organically, by accident as much as design, “stalked by good luck,” as Cooney put it: with like-minded individuals finding one another just when they needed to. It was shaped, for the most part, by progressive intellectuals, largely from the Northeast—a cultural elite—yet it was received by the public in good faith rather than as an uppity culture-wars provocation.

And it happened to coalesce during a particularly fun, fertile, anything-goes artistic period, in which monsters could be benign and blue (Cookie, Grover) and anthropomorphic traits were routinely ascribed to letters, numerals, and even rolled-up pieces of paper (e.g., the titular star of Schoolhouse Rock!’s “I’m Just a Bill”).

I was a part of the first Sesame Street generation, three years old at the time of the show’s 1969 premiere. My mother, a research scientist, had read newspaper accounts of public television’s pending experiment in educational programming for preschoolers, and she dutifully plunked me in front of the TV set on day one of Sesame Street’s broadcast existence. My cohort was the first to grow up watching, as a matter of routine, both Sesame Street and its sibling program for older children, the reading-oriented Electric Company, which came along in 1971. My mother swears that these two shows taught me how to read before I had even entered kindergarten.

Given that this state of affairs was all that I ever knew, it did not register as extraordinary at the time. But as I grew older, I realized that it was, and that the sunny-days era of the late 1960s and 1970s was unique, unprecedented, and amazing. A great confluence of factors—the ongoing rise of television; the backdrop of the anti-war, civil rights, and feminist movements; a political moment in which people in positions of power believed that the federal government could and should play a major role in early-childhood initiatives; and, above all, the emergence of a group of activists and artists animated by a crazily ambitious, optimistic agenda to do good—conspired to create an era unlike any before it or since.

These men and women, in counterpoint to the fraught, fractured world that other grown-ups were worrying themselves through, built a world for kids “where the air is sweet” and “where the children run free.” (Both of those lyrics—from, respectively, the theme songs of Sesame Street and Free to Be . . . You and Me—were by the same writer, Bruce Hart.) It was an era of umber colors and grit, to be sure . . . but also of sunny days.

Excerpted from “Sunny Days” by David Kamp. Copyright © 2020 by David Kamp. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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