Thursday, November 5, 2009

Down with "Sesame Street"!

Sesame Street is 40 years old; it debuted on this day in 1969. I was too grown-up by then to watch the show, but my students were then being born and Sesame Street, in its supposedly fun and radical way, aimed to teach them to read and think: "edu-tainment," they called it.

I began teaching freshman composition in 1986; most of my students had been born 1968-69. Freshman comp isn't fun for anybody, but students just a few years younger than my first ones appeared to have attention spans accustomed to Sesame Street's rat-a-tat pacing (modeled on network TV's Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In), and their primary concern in the classroom was entertainment. Their ideal instructors would have been singers, guitarists, bongo-players and tap-dancers, and guest stars such as Bill Cosby. Their ideal teacher was most concerned not with communication but with students' personal comfort levels and self-esteem. Over a span of about five years these ideas rose to epidemic levels. The students spoke in quips or in the disingenuous tones of children's public-television programming -- and to this day, dialogue on PBS kids' shows can drive me nuts.

I don't complain because the students in my college classroom couldn't write; most people can't and don't want to write. It worried me more that most couldn't think, except about games and sports teams.

I don't celebrate Sesame Street.


  1. This fascinates me. As you know, I struggle teaching the city kids who are, for the most part, functionally illiterate. On the tail end of the Sesame Street generation (I was just a bit too old; I personally watched The Electric Company), I've always thought these "edu-tainment" shows were a good thing. But yeah, it's all bites of information, and there is no staying-power, and certainly no controlled focus of attention. I'm inclined to agree with you...

  2. Did you know that Sesame Street was purposely designed to have short bursts of "info" because kids were thought to have short attention spans and so the show pandered to the lowest common denominator of "time on subject." The result? Even today, if you watch TV closely, you will see that the commercials and even some shows go in short, short bursts. Does this mean Sesame Street had a long term negative effect -- i.e., if it "works" for Sesame Street, it should work for us, the advertisers?