“Sesame Street,” the PBS show that revolutionized educational TV programming for children, turns 50 this year. Big Bird, Elmo, Kermit, Grover, and other beloved furry creatures taught generations of preschoolers that learning about numbers, letters, shapes, colors, and getting ready to read could be fun. But who taught the teachers? Harvard psychologist Gerald Lesser of the Harvard Graduate School of Education was one. From 1968 through 1996, Lesser chaired the board of advisers of the Children’s Television Workshop, which created “Sesame Street.” He developed the curriculum to ensure that the content would be age-appropriate, pedagogically sound, and capable of inducing a smile.
The partnership between Harvard and the show has continued over the decades. Joe Blatt, faculty director of the Master’s Program in Technology, Innovation and Education, leads the many collaborations between Harvard and the children’s show. The Gazette recently sat down with Blatt to talk about the show, Lesser, and, of course, his favorite Muppets.
GAZETTE: What was the social context in which the partnership between the Ed School and “Sesame Street” emerged?
BLATT: When “Sesame Street” was being planned in the late 1960s, the country was in turmoil; the Vietnam War was really at its height, but these were the Lyndon Johnson years, and there was also the idea of the Great Society, trying to make society more equitable and the country more inclusive. The launching of Head Start was a signal that the government wanted to intervene in education to give more kids a fair start in their learning. That seemed like a natural place for “Sesame Street” to emerge. But in fact, there was a lot of opposition. People thought, “We shouldn’t have people from outside telling us what our kids should learn” because the tradition of education in the United States is that it’s a local matter. Secondly, many countries have a national education curriculum, but the United States has always resisted that. Third, there were many people who thought that preschoolers were just too young to be focused on learning, and they should just have fun. And then finally, when “Sesame” emerged, as well as Head Start, they were racially integrated in a way that was really progressive and very unusual for the time. That sparked a lot of opposition, especially in the South, and in many parts of the country. In that social context, the fact that within the first year “Sesame Street” was a national sensation is really a wonderful story of the possibilities of something good happening in a turbulent time.
GAZETTE: How did the Ed School become involved with the show?
BLATT: The people who had the idea for what became “Sesame Street” were Joan Ganz Cooney, a television producer, and Lloyd Morrisett, a foundation executive. Among their first steps was to recruit Professor Gerald Lesser from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A number of Lesser’s colleagues told him not to get involved in something as unscholarly as television, but Lesser appreciated the possibilities for children’s learning in this relatively new medium. And he contributed three key things to the success of “Sesame.” First, he insisted that it be curriculum-based to be different from other shows that had some good intentions for children but were just sort of general entertainment. And he arrived at that curriculum by convening a series of seminars in the summer of 1968 that brought together psychologists, sociologists, teachers, as well as television producers, children’s book authors, and entertainment executives. And he did something even more extraordinary because when you get experts together, they usually don’t actually talk to each other; they’re out to impress one another, or they use jargon that other people can’t understand. Gerry, who was the chairman of the board of advisers of Sesame Street from 1968 through 1996, actually succeeded in making television producers, writers, and child experts communicate effectively. And the result was a very detailed curriculum with educational goals.