Flashbacks July 2006

That's Edutainment

Atlantic authors address talking bears, Sesame Street, and the obsession with making kids smarter

In “Extreme Parenting,” her article in the July/August Atlantic, Alissa Quart describes a new obsession with what she refers to as “edutainment”—a sort of vainglorious scramble by parents to seize upon anything that might bolster their child's chances of “making it” later on. The more panic-stricken may scoop up expensive toys professing to make kids smarter; others plunk their children in front of allegedly mind-enriching television programs. “Whose purpose does all of this aggressive early learning serve?” asks a skeptical Quart. Does it really give children a leg up? Or does it serve primarily to enrich the pocketbooks of those purveying these products and services?

Though the edutainment frenzy has escalated of late, the concept is not new, and as the assortment of articles collected here makes clear, the implications have been debated for decades. In “What’s Good About Children’s TV” (August 1969), Norman S. Morris, a writer for CBS News and the father of two small boys, waxed enthusiastic about the then-novel edutainment concept as applied to television. He championed a few televised babysitters of choice:

In the realm of young children’s television three men have been the pioneers: Robert Homme, Robert Keesham, and Fred Rogers…. [They] approach television for the very young from somewhat different directions, but all three believe it is essential for them to establish a relationship with the child at home. And every move they make is calculated to meet that end.

The qualities Morris seemed to favor in children's TV included “a complete sense of dedication to youngsters,” sensitivity for their emotions, comedy, and a marked flair for balancing simple instruction with imagination and play. Homme’s performance as The Friendly Giant won raves for his “quiet-spoken” demeanor and “special segment for disadvantaged three-, four-, and five-year-olds.” (Lasting a full hour, the program was longer than most children’s fare of its era. Homme compensated by gearing the first half toward older kids, who left early for school, and the second half toward his younger viewers and what Morris described as the Giant’s “ghetto” devotees.) Both Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Keesham’s Captain Kangaroo scored high for their compassion and indulgence of fantasy.

Changing tone, the author reserved his criticism for one of the year’s most popular shows:

Discussions on children’s television frequently cite a program entitled Romper Room as exemplary…. This program in fact violates every principle I have so far outlined as being standard equipment for a successful show. The philosophy seems to be that kids are little creatures who must be taught their ABC’s. Everything takes place in a formal classroom setting, and creativity is hiding somewhere under the teacher’s desk or perhaps in a broom closet. The prevailing attitude is one of condescension, and humor is hiding somewhere, too, perhaps keeping creativity company.

A better use of the medium, Morris argued, would be for exposing children to educational opportunities outside the classroom—something of particular importance when programming for the underprivileged.

His wish would be granted yet. Morris had caught wind, from a burgeoning nonprofit known as The Children’s Television Workshop, of its designs for a new program that would do just that—traverse class barriers while scrapping the stilted teacher-student rhetoric of its predecessors. He offered an enthusiastic preview of its forthcoming show: a street populated by fuzzy monsters and gentle humans, a place whose main objective would be to “promote the intellectual and cultural growth of preschoolers, particularly disadvantaged preschoolers.”

Sesame Street debuted in November 1969, under the auspices of National Educational Television. It was largely praised; its wit and screwball creativity appealed to critics; kids liked it, too. Not everyone was quite so easily satisfied, however: in his May 1971 article, “Big Bird, Meet Dick and Jane,” author and educational theorist-at-large John Holt voiced his concerns. “I feel very strongly that Sesame Street has aimed too low,” he wrote, “and will be a disappointment in the long run.” Holt's reservations derived not from any qualms about the show’s values or aesthetic—which he thought were fine—but from its failure to motivate:

Learning on Sesame Street, as in school, means learning Right Answers, and as in school, Right Answers come from grown-ups. We rarely see children figuring things out. As in school, we hear children responding, without much animation or imagination, to leading questions put by adults. But we rarely see them figuring things out; in fact, we rarely see children doing anything.

Providing specific examples of its missteps, Holt went on to appraise the show’s teaching methods, reviewing specific lessons he found inadequately taught and explaining the detrimental effects of their pedantry:

Nothing makes school more mysterious, meaningless, baffling, and terrifying to a child than constantly hearing adults tell him things as if they were simple, self-evident, natural, and logical, when in fact they are quite the reverse—arbitrary, contradictory, obscure, and often absurd, flying directly in the face of a child’s common sense.

Holt’s approach contradicted what has become one of the edutainment industry’s most insistent claims—that “having it all drilled in” at those crucial stages in early development can fix a baby for adult brilliance as effectively as any more active approach. Proponents of this theory often cite research dating from the early 1980s.

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