Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

Sesame Street - Growing Up With a Three Minute Attention Span (continued)

There are other criticisms. Sesame Street is seen in Britain, but not on the BBC, whose head of children’s programming, Monica Sims, asks: “do we really have to import commercial hard-selling techniques into [Britain] because... [American] children will not watch anything quiet or thoughtful?” Others are critical of the programme’s “violence,” which they see as typically American. Cartoon characters frequently solve their problems violently — by biting or whatever. Undesireable people are swallowed up by holes that magically appear in the ground, or they’re crushed under the weight of some massive object. Letters are smashed or get bumped off the screen. (‘violence’ of this kind isn’t found in the Canadian inserts; there’s a determined effort to avoid it.)

I love watching the programme and have no doubt whatever about its entertainment value. But, like a number of others, I have serious reservations about its pedagogical effectiveness. The programme was originally designed to bridge the gap between ‘privileged’ and ‘underprivileged’ children. The gap that has been bridged is the one between three-year-old and five-year-old ‘privileged’ children. Research has shown that any three-to-five-year-olds who regularly watch Sesame Street, whatever their race, sex and class, know the alphabet and the numbers from one to twenty better than those who don’t watch it. Given the constant repetition, it would be surprising if they didn’t. Indeed, more kids are probably entering school with the alphabet firmly fixed in their noggins than ever before.

But so what? Knowing the alphabet doesn’t make one literate any more than knowing the names of tools makes one a carpenter. What I wonder, given Sesame Street’s forty to fifty different items per hour and its assumption that children have at best a three-minute attention span, is whether one can reasonably expect a child who’s been taught the alphabet this way to focus happily on a static printed page. My guess is that the answer is no, and that what Sesame Street is doing more than anything else is conditioning kids not to read but to watch television. One study has already shown, not surprisingly, that the least popular segments on the programme are those in which books appear. I can’t imagine Sesame Street graduates growing up to read Victorian novels. I can’t imagine them sitting through a speech by Robert Stanfield. Or reading a serious magazine or newspaper to find out what’s going on in the world. I can imagine them watching lots of programmes like Mannix, and keeping up with the world through the three-minute segments on TV newscasts.

I have a number of other reservations about the programme. Although Sesame Street has improved somewhat in this respect it continues to be sexist —males still outnumber females more than two to one. (The Canadian inserts are much less sexist than the American.) And, although again there’s been some improvement, we continue to get puppets who are human in their emotions which is fine — but humans who tend to be saccharine. As well, kids continue to be taught a number of ‘invisible’ lessons on Sesame Street in preparation for school: that learning is a passive activity initiated by grown-ups; that there is usually only one right answer to a question (“Which of these things is not like the others?”); that learning how to figure out what answer the teacher wants is an important part of learning; and that one never goes off on tangents.

I find myself very much in sympathy with the American critic of education, John Holt, who has written that “Sesame Street... seems built on the idea that its job is to get children ready for school. Suppose it... said, ‘We are the school.’ Suppose it asked... not how to help children get better at the task of pleasing... teachers, but how to help them get better at... learning from the world and people around them.” I hope the kind of Sesame Street he envisages isn’t going to limit itself to the frenetic mentality of the commercial and the assumption that people can’t concentrate on anything for longer than three minutes.

— Saturday Night, July/August 1975

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