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PBS Educational TV: What’s Being Taught?

I remember when, as a kid, PBS’ educational TV consisted of shows like Sesame Street, Electric Company, Read All About It, the Letter People, 3-2-1-Contact and… oh, you know, that one with the clown that taught you French. These shows all taught substantive material. Sure, there was the occasional “Mister Rogers” that taught lessons about caring, listening, being nice and sharing, but they were the exception, not the rule.

Now, when I look at the PBS TV lineup more this morning, I see Arthur, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Dragon Tales, It’s a Big Big World, Clifford’s Puppy Days, Barney and Friends, Caillou, It’s a Big Big World (again), Jay Jay the Jet Plane, Sesame Street, Mister Rogers and Between the Lions. Of these eleven shows, only two (Sesame Street and Between the Lions) teach any substantive content, and Sesame Street has been really, really, really dumbed down — now the big intellectual challenge is to find out where Ernie’s been hiding on the TV screen. The rest of the shows are different in trivial ways. Arthur is about an anteater who learns to be nice and share, the Clifford shows are about a dog who learns to be nice and share, Dragon Tales is about dragons who learn to be nice and share, Jay Jay the Jet Plane is about an airplane who learns to be nice and share, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

What’s behind the change over the past thirty years in educational television from an emphasis on science, phonics, reading, foreign language and the like to an emphasis on sharing and being nice?

3 comments to PBS Educational TV: What’s Being Taught?

  • Sarge

    Well, kids that I know (and it was true in my own childhood) find out very quickly that this warm-fuzzy claptrap that parents, teachers, and others promote is a shuck pretty early in the game. I very quickly recalled my own childhood and stopped patronizing my own sons when the oldest called my attention to the fact that it was ME who said they “wanted to be good boys”, they, frankly (and emphatically!) did NOT. They were six and three at the time. They figure out what to say, what to do, how to filter out the fact that some people are obviously exempt from these rules laid on them. Some turn cynical, others do the mental disconnect that makes it all right.
    Saw this in action not too long ago: a family known to me was in the mall. The father, many times in my presence, had told his son with due earnest solemnity, that “the truth is always best. If you always tell the truth, you’ll always be fine. The truth can NEVER hurt you.” The boy was being introduced to his mother’s superviser as they chanced to meet, and the boy looked at this gentleman and said, “Do you REALLY stab people in the back?” Mom was saying that she didn’t know what got INTO kids, made them say such crazy stuff…you get the picture. Dad had the back of Junior’s shirt in a bunch in preparation for frog-marching him off somewhere private where he can be taught the consequences of mistaking reality with metaphor, symbol, allegory, and that the truth will at least cause him a whole lot of discomfort. I think the youngster learned the lesson of circumspection as well, in very short order.

    Some time back I saw a family walking, curious young man (about six years old) dawdling, looking at this and that, and his parents telling him to hurry up, they didn’t have all day…that sort of thing. The boy yelled, “Boy, when I get big and YOU get little…!” Not twenty minutes later another family came by, spouses, small children, and an obvious grandma. Grandma paused to look at something, and her daughter snapped, “Mother we don’t have all day, hurry up!” “When I get big and you get little…!” Life lessons in the real world.

  • Iroquois Honky

    Phonics, for one, is in disrepute.

    I didn’t have sesame street. Back then it was Miss Francis and Ding Dong School on the radio, then when TV became commonplace it was Captain Kangeroo (Bunny Rabbit always conned the carrots out of Captain Kangeroo’s large pocket without speaking, Mister Moose did have a nephew that didn’t speak, perhaps useful for those of us with pre-verbal siblings?), then Rocky and Bullwinkle against coldwar characters Boris, Natasha and Fearless Leader, although the adults who watched with us always laughed in different places–at the political jokes and not the sight gags. Lots of entertainment and little preaching.

    But phonics, yes, I don’t agree with banishing phonics. This is how I learned to read, and perhaps not all children can learn to read with this method, but I have also heard the argument that the reason the nation’s reading scores have fallen (and I don’t know for a fact that is true)is because the schools have abandoned phonics.

    Also we were not asked politely to learn to read. We were EXPECTED to learn to read. It was fun, but whenever school stopped being fun, there was always that non-negotiable expectation. Now the teachers don’t expect kids to do anything, they are too busy figuring out how to get their own weapons past the school’s security system in case the children get their weapons into the classroom. I have heard they can’t get the children not to use swearwords. From the lack of creativity in the language I hear on the street in front of my place, it is probably true.

    Also, I was ‘tracked’. This means early in life someone decided I was Above Average and put me in special classes where everyone in the community would also be aware that I was Above Average. This was because the nation was in an ideological war with the Commies which we would have to win with technology. Nowadays, it’s not polite to track the smart children because it makes the dumb children feel bad and everyone should be equal. I suppose that means the kids who are willing to pay attention are held hostage by the kids with behaviour problems while the teachers spend all their time with discipline instead of teaching something that challenges the students?

  • Marc

    Well, we don’t need to track the smart kids any more. We’re not in a race with the Soviets to see who can be the smartest. We’re in a race with Islamic extremists to see who can be the most simple-minded fundamentalist nitwits. We’ve got some stiff competition over there, but hey, as George W. Bush keeps saying, “We will prevail.”

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