What We Can Learn From 'Sesame Street'

Sesame Street was never meant to be revolutionary. But it did aim to be different than anything else on TV. It came along at a time—40 years ago this month—when "it was sort of in the air that the world was going to change," recalls Sonia Manzano, who joined the cast as Maria in 1971. Sesame Street aspired to be a part of that change. (Click here to follow Ellis Cose).

Manzano, then a 21-year-old daughter of the South Bronx, had grown up watching Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best in an era when dark-skinned people of Puerto Rican descent were never seen on TV. Though she had enjoyed a star turn in the off-Broadway production of Godspell, she was unsure where she would fit in "this world that doesn't see me." Then Sesame came along, with its multicultural cast and its culture of inclusion, and she knew she was home. She was nonetheless a bit baffled when Matt Robinson, who played the avuncular Gordon, told her she was responsible for making sure the show reflected Latinos responsibly. Manzano soon realized a large part of doing that was simply being herself: an intelligent, supportive Latina woman who sometimes spoke Spanglish. (Article continued below...)

The program was a huge and immediate success. Its message of tolerance has become de rigueur in America. And it has spawned coproductions in Australia, Brazil, Palestine, South Africa, and elsewhere around the globe. The formula, tweaked to conform to local sensibilities, remains largely the same: entertainment and education, with a dollop of cultural relevance thrown in. In South Africa, children might see Archbishop Desmond Tutu or former president Nelson Mandela conversing with Kami, a Muppet who is HIV-positive. In Bangladesh, Bangla-speaking Muppets instruct children on the importance of politeness, washing their hands, and eating vegetables. Michelle Obama delivered a similar message in her Sesame Street appearance earlier this month, promoting the virtues of exercise and healthy eating.

Sesame Street has always had its critics. Some consider its educational philosophy old-fashioned. Others find it too political. And as the program has expanded globally, some have accused it of cultural imperialism. Sesame also has plenty of competitors these days, from Dora the Explorer to Spongebob Squarepants. But it remains in a category all its own. It has a seriousness that is evident, despite the silliness it uses to sell itself. As my 7-year-old daughter, Elisa, put it, Sesame Street is not quite as "babyish" as many other shows aimed at young kids.

But even the best children's television programs fall short of delivering what many of us would like. In an article published in The Atlantic shortly after Sesame's launch, John Holt pronounced the program insufficiently ambitious. He argued that television, in some respects, could do a better job of educating young children than schools, and urged Sesame to rise to the challenge. It's an intriguing notion. The typical preschooler, after all, spends nearly 30 hours a week in front of the set, more time than many spend with parents. It would be wonderful if all that time staring at the tube resulted in a great education.

Television programs are limited by the medium in which they exist. Television's main job, after all, is to entertain in bitesize bits, while encouraging consumption. That mission creates a culture of TV that no show seeking a broad audience (including those on public television) can really ignore. So for every second spent on teaching serious skills, there is another spent on either marketing or pure daffiness (say, Kermit singing about a disco frog). Then there is the fact that TV is not truly interactive—no matter how vigorously Dora and other characters encourage kids to shout at the screen. The learning that can take place on such a one-way medium is necessarily limited, which is not to say that there is anything wrong with launching a dialogue about making children's TV better.

But the more important national discussion that needs to take place is not about television but about early education, period. For years, researchers have cranked out data proving beyond any reasonable doubt that children who receive a high-quality preschool education have a great start in life. They are less likely to end up in special-education programs, less likely to need remedial help, and much more likely, in every measurable way, to be a success.

The hoopla over Sesame Street and its 40th anniversary is well deserved. But it would be great to see this attention to landmark TV shows morph into attention to one of the great social issues of the day: how do we begin to lay the groundwork for a system of universal, high-quality preschool education that could transform lives that no TV show can fundamentally change?