What is wrong with Sesame Street?

By Khalid Baig
Posted: 16 Jamad-ul-Awwal 1432, 20 April 2011

According to a report Sesame Street is about to hit Pakistan. It is being brought by the number 20, as in $20 million. That is the amount the donors are putting up for a full scale invasion of the children’s space to make sure no child is left out of its great charms. It will be aired on PTV, which has the largest reach, and will be taken even to remote parts of the country via mobile vans. Further, it will be accompanied by a radio show and travelling Muppet road shows.

Call it war on illiteracy. With this planned carpet bombing of letters and numbers illiteracy should soon be erased from the country.

If you are inclined to start singing and dancing with the Muppets to celebrate the anticipated victory of literacy you are highly advised not to check the background record of this great wonder. For it is a minor detail that in the US where the show has been going on since 1969 and where there is hardly a child who has not been exposed to it, Johnny still cannot read or write. According to a report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than two-thirds of the nation’s fourth-graders are reading below proficiency level. And according to the American College Testing Program an astonishing 49 percent of the 1.2 million students who took its college admissions test in a recent year lacked college-level reading skills.

Those who know the ABC’s of literacy and of television are not surprised. The ability to read and understand requires concentration and reflection, while television focuses on light, action and noise. Its visual pyrotechnics can keep the young eyes glued to the screen but they cannot train the young minds to get engaged in the processes that are a foundation for reading. In fact continuous exposure makes them incapable of enjoying or relating to a page of text. They demand the excitement that comes from looking at fast paced action, moving colors and music.

The generations grown on Sesame Street demand their classrooms, their teachers, and their books to be like Sesame Street. Anything else is too dull and too boring for their corrupted tastes and too demanding for their corrupted cognitive capabilities. American novelist and poet Laureate Larry Woiwode reportedly wrote, “television eats books.” To which critic Kay S. Hymowitz added: “Then Sesame Street is the Cookie Monster.” For it “effectively ensures the conversion of the next generation to TV's beliefs and gods.” 

Sesame Street brings forth the worst of television because its genesis was the idea that children can be taught by television commercials, which require the minimum of attention span and offer the maximum of entertainment. Certainly, as claimed by the producers, it is founded on the greatest research effort of any television program. That research has been in how to keep the young eyes glued to the screen. The winning formula was fast-paced action, pixilation (a series of individual frames without connectors, so that characters move jerkily), talk in sound bytes measured in seconds, music and dance.

Children loved it. So did the parents whose guilt feelings about letting television babysit their children (as mothers left the home for the workplace in increasing numbers in the 1960s) was assuaged by the rhetoric about using television for a higher purpose. They needed a justification for television and what better justification there could be than educating the very children who were being spoiled by the ubiquitous babysitter.

What actually happened is a different story. Johnny learnt a few letters or numbers but he developed an addiction for the glitzy world of television entertainment. The learning disabilities it created can be seen by looking at the textbooks now being produced. It is ironic that they are still called textbooks as the “text” in the textbook --- from kindergarten to junior college ---- must now be subordinate to the pictures in every subject including mathematics. In the words of Neil Postman, “Sesame Street undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents.” He called it the third great crisis in Western education and took Sesame Street to task for “its pretense that it is an ally of the classroom.”


So much for literacy. The story of its devastating impact on culture is no different.

In exporting the plague called Sesame Street the producers have made another claim. That they uphold diversity and respect the culture and values of the country that it is exported to. That too is as false as the first claim. There is certainly a carefully constructed façade to support it. It uses local languages, characters, and themes. Yet as Hymowitz notes, “the show couldn't be more monocultural and conformist in its unwavering endorsement of American anti-intellectualism and cult of the cool.”

It cleverly picks those elements from the target region’s practices that will serve its monocultural agenda. In Sisimpur (Bangladesh), Ikri Mukri plays the tabla and Asha proudly presents dance performance. In Galli Galli Simsim (India) it is the celebration of Bhangra. Whether in Shar’a Simsim (Palestine) or Alim Simsim (Egypt) or Hikayat Simsim (Jordan) the first and the last lessons are in music. Music and dance. Dance and music. This is what the Sesame classroom is all about.

It is more than a side issue for any Muslim country. For it collides head on with the values and received wisdom of this Ummah. For that we do not need to go any further than Omar bin Abd al-Aziz --- esteemed as the first reviver of Islam. In his letter to his son's teacher Sahal he wrote:  “The first thing that your instruction should instill in their hearts is the hatred of musical instruments; their beginning is from Shaytan and their end is the anger of Al-Rahman (the Most Merciful).”

The program also uses carefully planned role models for the young minds. It is Tuktuki in Sisimpur (Bangladesh) and Khokha in Alim Simsim (Egypt). It will be Rani in SimSim Hamara (Pakistan). The Muppets are telling the young Muslim girls how they should talk, think, and behave. Most important what their goal in life should be. It is anything and everything other than being a good homemaker. Be a police officer, astronaut, scientist, whatever. Girl empowerment. It is doubtful that most of those who were nurtured on the glitz of “edutainment” will be able to become scientists. But it is highly likely that they will be unable and unprepared for attending to the responsibilities of homemaking. John Dewey calls it collateral learning: the formation of enduring attitudes, which is far more important than the spelling lesson.

To gauge its seriousness we need to realize that throughout the Muslim world, the family life is going through a crisis. Age at marriage is going up as is the divorce rate. Marriage rate is going down. The divorce rate in the first year of marriage in Egypt is 42%. In Saudi Arabia it is 62%. Whether in Indonesia or Pakistan or Jordan, it is the same story of globalization of misery. Combine that with a high percentage of young people in the society and we can begin to get a feel for the terrible catastrophe we are facing.

While the reasons for this are many, the media has played the largest role by promoting materialism, hedonism, and individualism. Television promises everything and delivers nothing. Its promises expand the expectations and therefore the frustrations as the gap between the expectations and realizations grows. The values of contentment, sacrifice, and compromise --- so essential to smoothing out the rough ride in real life --- are alien to this culture. And now with its attractive Muppet role models, the same message is being given to the youngest of children.

According to the Guardian report about the upcoming Pakistani version, one of its goals is to fight “religious conservatism.” (And of course this is not a war on Islam). We can see how this is being done through other (carefully researched, we can be sure) subtexts in the program. In Shara’a Simsim (Palestine) one tiny episode deals with the issue of fear. Children there live in constant fear of Israeli aggression so this is an important topic. Child actors answer how they deal with their fear. “I run away or look to someone to help comfort me,” says one. “I will talk to myself until I forget about being afraid,” says another. “I think of nice things.” “My brother talks to me.” “I go to my sister.” For a nanosecond one girl says: “I will speak to God.” See they have accommodated everyone. Turning to God is just one of the ways and not the most important one of them either. It has been mentioned and cleverly dismissed by being ignored. Another episode devotes the segment to an actor who says he overcomes fear by singing. Then he sings to demonstrate his technique. Whether or not this helps the children overcome fear, it will help them overcome “religious conservatism.” Goal accomplished.

So it is a war as Sesame Street’s invasion of all these countries has been on a war footing, using every imaginable means to reach every child in the target area. But it is not the war on illiteracy that its accompanying massive propaganda suggests. Rather it is war on literacy and on culture (and religion).  The Muppets may look cute. But there is nothing cute about what they are up to.