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The Sesame Street Approach: Not Universally Educational

With a history that includes “trying to bridge the education gap” and an approach to learning that engages the child while encouraging parental participation, Sesame Street is often perceived as the quintessential preschool television show in the United States. Dr. Jensen examines the initial reaction to Sesame Street that occurred in Denmark, a country that has held children and children’s television in high regard. —Cyndi Maurer, PhD (editor)


 

Last year I was a visiting lecturer at a couple of American universities where I participated in discussions regarding children’s media. In my guest lectures, I posed a question that often took students aback: “Can you think of a reason that Sesame Street might be considered inappropriate for children?” To my U.S. students, Sesame Street represented the epitome of an appropriate program for children: produced by a nonprofit organization; broadcast on PBS; loved by children, adults, and educators; and, on top of it all, devoted to promoting diversity and teaching children things that are highly valued in the school system.

This strong, positive belief in the program’s potential and qualities is similar to how the producers at Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) felt at its first U.S. broadcast in 1969. When it first aired, the program was meant to be an alternative to the kinds of children’s programs broadcast by the big networks and their vast wasteland of “hour-long commercials.”

CTW set itself apart from other children’s shows by enlisting the professional endorsement of educators, psychologists, and pediatricians. A research unit for testing and developing the episodes was set up right from the beginning. Puppets, voices, film clips, and animation were developed with the intention of having a maximum positive impact in terms of teaching and popularity among viewers.

Sesame Street was also aligned with the Johnsons administration’s “War on Poverty” and the “Great Society’s” Head Start initiative. When Sesame Street premiered, it targeted children from low-income, urban families with a minority background in hopes of helping to bridge the widening educational gap. Sesame Street, and by extension CTW, attempted to enlist children’s television in the fight for a more equal America.

In Denmark in the 1970s, the understanding of educational television’s role in the lives of children could not have been more different than that of Sesame Street’s producers. The Danes considered the use of television programming for “teaching” as inappropriate. By the late Sixties, the national broadcasting service, known as DR, was part of a Scandinavian change that had a big impact on children’s culture.

In the wake of the youth rebellion, children’s culture had become politicized. Children went from being seen as subjects within their families and schools to becoming citizens in their own right. This was why the director of Danish children’s television in 1968 declared that children—who had no interest organizations—should have television as their spokesperson. In the years that followed, children’s television developed with the intent of empowering children and giving them a voice in society.

Children’s television included children’s own news programs—real news coproduced with the journalists who also made the news for adults. There were programs about problems children could have at home, in school, or in society at large, such as sibling rivalry and loneliness; programs showing children how to do things on their own; and also big-budget dramatic productions, often with a female lead character.

When CTW invited the then director of the Danish preschool television department to the U.S., his reaction to the program was unfavorable on most counts. From the discussion he and his colleagues had afterwards, it became clear they didn’t think that teaching children “letters,” “numbers,” and “concepts” were an appropriate task for children’s television. They had recently restructured Danish children’s television to encourage child viewers to consider the world around them in an explicit and critical way, having broken away from using children’s television as a tool for formal education.

In the U.S., Sesame Street and CTW, inspired by the Civil Rights movement and the enhanced liberal influence during this era, had responded differently to the challenges of inequality and the need for empowerment than had their peers in Denmark. In some ways, both Sesame Street and the criticisms levelled against it were part of the same cultural ripples that marked Western societies in the late 1960s. During this period, the figure of the child gains a renewed potency, which we also see in the history of children’s television.

There is one last little twist to this story. The Danes’ wish to empower children and to make television their spokesperson meant that the Danish reception of Sesame Street was not perfectly clear-cut. The director who had been to the U.S. and seen Sesame Street had been very impressed with the popularity of the program. So while he did not like the program’s content and its commercial-inspired visual language, he liked the hand puppets and the way they appealed to children. And he liked the idea of television making a positive change on the basis of research. So while American children learned numbers and letters from Kermit, DR came up with a Sesame Street–inspired show in which Danish children learned about friendship, jazz, and being critical toward adult authorities from a chubby little frog named Kaj.

 

Learn More

Buckingham, David. 2000. After the Death of Childhood. Cambridge: Polity.

Jensen, Helle Strandgaard. 2013. “TV as Children’s Spokesman: Conflicting Notions About Children and Childhood in Danish Children’s Television Around 1968.” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, vol. 6, no. 1.


hjensen

Helle Strandgaard Jensen is Assistant professor in contemporary cultural history at Department of History and Classical Studies, Aarhus University, Denmark. She holds a PhD in History from the European University Institute.

Jensen’s work focuses on contemporary childhood and media history in Scandinavia, Western Europe and the US after 1945. She combines historical methods with theoretical approaches from childhood studies, cultural studies, and media studies. Her current research project, financed by the Danish Research Council and the European Commissions’ Marie Curie actions, focuses on the children’s programme Sesame Street and its reception and demarcation in the US, UK, Italy, Scandinavia and Germany. It explores national broadcasters’ roles in the transfer process to show how norms, values and ambivalent feelings about American cultural production, especially vis-à-vis children, were negotiated in 1970s’ Europe.

Since 2015 Jensen has been the co-chair of the working group for ‘Digtital literacy in homes and communities’ in the COST-action DigiLitEY. She is the author of the book From Superman to Social Realism: Children’s Media and Scandinavian Childhood  (in press, John Benjamins). Recent articles include “Parent-Pressure: A History of Parents as Co-Consumers of Children’s Media” (Nordicom REVIEW) and “Doing Media History in a Digital Age: Change and Continuity in Historiographical Practices” (Media, Culture and Society).


 

 

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