Children and Television … with Joan Ganz Cooney

GUEST: Joan Ganz Cooney
VTR: 9/13/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND … a task I hope I’ve done fairly well at over the years … though that’s just a hope … while I know for a certainty that I did do very, very well indeed 30 years ago in identifying the best and consistently the brightest talent public broadcasting has ever known: my guest today, Joan Ganz Cooney, the creator of Childrens Television Workshop with its Sesame Street and many other endeavors on the screen and off that have served our children so well here in America and elsewhere, too.

Now I don’t know when you’ll actually see this program, but Joan and I are recording it early in September, 1991, just 30 years from the month we and others worked together so long and so hard to put Channel 13, New York’s premier public television station, on the air. I had come from CBS, before that NBC and ABC, had worked at acquiring and activating Channel 13 as what we then called “educational television” … had recognized Joan as the great talent she is, had asked her to produce my own weekly program, “Of Men and Ideas,” as well as sociologist Robert Merton’s rendering of legal scholar Harry W. Jones’ brilliant idea for a televised “Court of Reason.”

Those were the days. And I wonder if we weren’t a mite better off then in considering and even calling this medium “educational television,” accordingly due all the respect and support due to education in any well-functioning democracy.

Of course, it doesn’t get that support now. But neither does education generally in America. And that’s what I’d like to puzzle over with Joan Ganz Cooney. Now we must ask how, in what supposedly is our totally child-oriented society, can we Americans be quite so reluctant to find resources to care for our children … to educate them, on television and off. It’s almost as if we were indifferent to our own future … for our children surely are our future. And, Joan, that’s the puzzling question. We’ve talked about it before, but it goes on and on and on. Why don’t we take good enough care of our children?

COONEY: Well, I think we’re on several tracks in this country. I think individual people take … try … most try to take very good care of their children. So they’re puzzled as … when they read … many of them are very satisfied with their schools. They think everybody else’s schools are bad. But polls show that most parents are satisfied with their childrens’ schools because they’re deeply involved in their children’s homework, everything seems to be going along just fine. It’s when you … they then see these studies showing that we’re way behind our economic competitors out there, Japan, Germany … our children that is are, are not doing as well in math, science, literacy, anything you name … they’re not doing as well. And then I think everyone, I, too, say, “Have we gone wrong? If so, where have we gone wrong? Is it correctable without violating American values” … that’s a big question. Many, many … Japan’s values are not America’s values in terms of how they … the women do not work in Japan by and large … the wives stay at home and take care of those children and see that they do homework. We, our women must work … they must make a living to get food on the table for their children. The vast majority of, of women who work, work because they must. Many are single parents. So it’s … it is puzzling to all of us, what do we do that is politically do-able, psychologically do-able, do-able in terms of American values, about our children because day to day our children are taking an immense amount of our time. If you have a child … you’ve just had a child in your home, your grandchild, you know that if someone had said “that grandchild’s not doing well” and you’d say “what, what, what … I was with the baby all the time.”

HEFFNER: Yeah, but Joan, look. That makes it seem as though we’re talking about individual situations. We both remember when Sputnik went up and Americans became very much concerned with the fact that the Soviets were so far ahead of us, educationally. They could do things …

COONEY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … that we seemingly couldn’t do.

COONEY: Yes.

HEFFNER: And we resolved then that we were going to change our educational system …

COONEY: Yes.

HEFFNER: 35 years later we’re not in a different situation, we’re perhaps worse off then we were then.

COONEY: That is true. We are worse off. I believe our children are not doing as well as they … I believe the SAT scores would show that, but there are a number of measurements that would suggest our children are not as well off as they were in the sixties. The decline started, I believe in the early to mid-seventies. And has been proceeding a pace. I think our government, interestingly enough now understands that something’s wrong. The Federal government. And I think every Governor in this country understands something is wrong. The American people are not with them. This is a case where the leaders are perhaps a little bit ahead of the people. Although the leaders aren’t proposing anything because it seems to them to come down to money. And, as we know, the states and the Federal government are running these huge deficits. And so I don’t … I personally do not believe that the answer is just money and I wish we wouldn’t … we’re spending a lot of money per capita on education. We’re doing something wrong, we’re doing something wrong. And I’m … I think a lot of people, smart people have ideas as to what, what has gone wrong and would like to change it, but it’s tough now.

HEFFNER: Now you say now that at this point you believe that governmental leaders have begun to think about the problem, to recognize it, and I assume that you’re saying they have begun to do something about it.

COONEY: Yes, the … President Bush announced recently, or rather his Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander, but with the President very much behind him, announced the creation of the new American Schools Development Corporation, which will raise private funds to create a number of model schools throughout the country so that it’s not just in one location … 500 locations … to show what excellence is in the school. You may ask, “will that change anything?” and who knows, but at least there is recognition that change … that we must change public schools. Well I think Lamar Alexander understands that very well. You know there’s a big argument about choice in, in schools going on. I personally hope that we count to ten on choice. I would like to see schools … every parent have access to every public school and I’d like to see there be “magnet” schools and so on. But if we get into parochial schools and private schools as part of choice, we’re going to get bogged down in the courts, I think, for many, many years on “is it Constitutional to use tax dollars or tax credits or whatever?” And, secondly, is it an abandonment of public education, which I’m not prepared to do now, I’m not prepared to abandon the ideal of public education. I might be in ten years.

HEFFNER: What are you prepared to do?

COONEY: I’m prepared to have all parents be able to go to any school in their city that they wish their children to go to … any public school. And I am certainly prepared to … it would take an immense act of political will, but to sit down with unions and to find out where the … and it’s done all the time, there is an immense amount of that going on … to sit down with the teachers unions and so on, to find … to find out how the day can be extended. Let me say what the outcome has to be, I think, if we want our children to be competitors in … global competitors. The outcome has to be longer school days, longer school weeks, probably and certainly longer school years. All of our competitors just … Japan just … kids go to school there much more than they do here. There’s not a question … Japanese children also watch just as much television as American children. That always shocks people. Their, their parents let them watch television, but they make them do homework. So that if they watch three or four hours of television when they come home, the next thing they have to do is three or four hours of homework. Now maybe the homework comes first and the television second, I don’t know. But they’re in school many weeks longer a year than our kids are.

HEFFNER: Alright, now you earlier said that what we have to do, we have to do within the context of our … or we should do what we do within the context of our general moral, social proclivities and our standards.

COONEY: I don’t think it’s possible to do otherwise. I don’t think it will fly with the American public …

HEFFNER: Now …

COONEY: … is why I say that.

HEFFNER: … let’s take the longer school year. Will that fly?

COONEY: There’s been a lot of fighting of it. I don’t know why because parents, individually, complain about the three months, the long three month vacations, but the second it’s brought up, many parents fight it. The ideal is considered to have children have no more than six weeks off. Or even four weeks at a time and scatter it throughout the year so that there might be four weeks in the summer, four weeks at Christmas and two weeks in the spring. Parents don’t like that. They, they then would have to adjust their vacations in the summer to when that four weeks is. We’ve gotten very used to this agarian system, and this is all based on the old farms where the children were needed for the three months of summer to bring the harvest in. We don’t need them on the farms anymore, we need them to be in school, learning.

HEFFNER: But what we also need, as you suggested, is a economy that has room for working mothers.

COONEY: Yes.

HEFFNER: And that when we do that, and that is, as you describe it, a necessity, we’re not in the same position to take care of our kids …

COONEY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … when they’re not in school.

COONEY: And that would take money. There’s … in my view, there is a very important need for money for daycare and after-school-care. You also could make that an extremely important educational system, particularly after-school care. Because imagine after school if 1) you had children in sports so that they got enough exercise, but you also had them tutored, also had them play educational games. We’re designing some at the Workshop for after school programs … we’re, we’re adapting “Three, Two, One, Contact,” our science show and “Square One” TV our math show into games where kids run relay races, all kinds of things where they’re moving around, but they’re learning. Teachers are crazy about this because they are asked to take care of a bunch of kids in a gymnasium, or a school cafeteria after school, and there’s not much, no one’s suggesting very much to do. It shouldn’t be ad hoc as it is now, where Childrens’ Television Workshop will do something and someone else … that there really should be a decision that we’ll, that we’ll take care of our children after school and we will use that time to coach them.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication that such a decision a) is about to be made and b) would be made effectively?

COONEY: No, because the next question from a Governor or a President is “where do I get the money?” And that’s why I say that, that eventually the teachers’ unions have to be sat down with to find out what kind of flexibility there, there can be to have teachers work longer days. Of course they have to prepare lesson plans … teachers are not working short days because school is out at 3:00 p.m. It’s a puzzle. It will take money, there’s no question, it will take some money. But I’m not at this point convinced that we’re spending what money we’re spending in education well. And I, myself, would not mind seeing a system whereby there’s some penalty for not teaching children … where you don’t get your state, your federal money or whatever the money is if you’re not doing it.

HEFFNER: But won’t that exacerbate the situation?

COONEY: We may have to exacerbate it in the short term. Nobody, nobody said this is going to be easy. I don’t … that’s where … and that’s where you run into political problems … is if things might have to get worse. That would be true if you decided that the deficit couldn’t go on the way they are in the economy. You might make things worse in the short run, we all know that.

HEFFNER: Well, when you make them worse, do you think there’s a moving back then? Those who, who are failing are almost by definition going to fail worse. And then where do we go?

COONEY: I’m not sure that that’s what … I’m not sure that’s what would happen. I think, I think the concern is that certain children, those most at risk are going to be placed at even more risk. I think those are the children most, that most of the concern centers around. My own feeling, and you know this sounds tough and I don’t mean it that way, but I think this country is in such trouble in education that sometime … that I think there might have to be short term triage, that we might have to focus on the vast majority of children and try to move them up a notch or two. I, myself, would like to keep our eyes on all of them, but there’s no question you might worsen some of the at risk … that some of the schools in the most trouble, might get into more trouble.

HEFFNER: Is there sufficient recognition of that? Let’s say we haven’t made up our mind yet whether we move in that direction or not. But is there sufficient recognition that “at risk” children will be at greater risk.

COONEY: I think that that’s what’s stopping anything from happening, Dick. I think, again I don’t want to sound as if I’m critical of Liberals because I’m, I’m not … I’m not, I don’t feel critical of anyone. Frankly I feel, I think as we all get older we don’t feel we have … I used to feel I had all the answers, now I feel I don’t have any answers at all. But I think there’s been a kind of liberal … which … feeling that, that we have to do everything for everyone at the same time. And I think those people that have that view are holding progress back. They aren’t helping. As I say you might have to make some things worse in order to make it better eventually for everyone. But …

HEFFNER: Do …

COONEY: … the political problems in that are just enormous.

HEFFNER: Joan, what about the matter of the machine, the tool, the instrument, that you have really mastered. Now you and CTW have used television to … you’ve used visualization in such a way when I watched … you mentioned, much to my pleasure, our sitting with Alexander Benjamin Heffner for a week and more recently. As I watched him I swear, as young as he is, learn from watching Sesame Street produced videotapes, CTW produced videotapes. So much of the prejudice that I’ve always felt against this beady red eye over here began to disappear. Now you’ve been enormously successful in this area. Do you think the opposition to teaching with this visual device has sufficiently diminished for you to make even more massive steps forward?

COONEY: I think there’s immense prejudice against television, still, to be used. And I think it’s, it’s a tragedy. I think it’s a tragedy for educational progress and reform because there’s an immense amount of help that television could provide right now. As I say as everything gets worse, there are ways of, of really minimizing that with, with technology. Technology should be used. It is … it’s a great gift that we have television, and have computer games and these things that children love and can learn from. I would … it’s the educational establishment and parents, besides, still seem to say “television is okay as a … as a supplemental teacher. Sesame Street’s okay,” you always hear that. And even “Three, Two, One, Contact” and “Square One TV,” they’re okay. But not in school. Well, I don’t, I’m not sure that you want those shows in school because you’re not going to … the math period may be 45 minutes, and then you … and the teacher wants to get through so much material. But three minutes, four minutes. I have said, to make the argument more appealing and harder to deny me, is “does anyone doubt that using the Civil War series from public television could teach high school children about the Civil War” if when you’re in that … does anyone doubt that? And, of course, the answer is “of course not, that was special, that was different.” Well, we could do a lot of special and different things if there was a green light on “okay, let’s use the medium” to teach kids.

HEFFNER: It’s so amazing that when you say, “if there were an okay,” now we’re talking in September 1991. I remember reviewing for the, for the Saturday Review forty years ago, Charles Seaton’s book on television and the classroom, and it seemed to me the problem was the enormous claims that were made … here we have this instrument and it’s the end of our teaching problems. It’s just as in the 1920s and early 30s, there was the assumption that the camera, the projector, the film projector in the classroom was going to solve our educational problems. The, the outrageous claims that were made for the media …

COONEY: Yes. Yes.

HEFFNER: … probably had a lot to do with it.

COONEY: But in 1969 when we went on the air with Sesame Street and then subsequently with Electric Company and our other programs, we always said it was a motivator, that it could interest children in the subject. We never made claims beyond that and it stunned me that that didn’t … the people didn’t say, “okay, let’s used it as a motivator.” Reading Rainbow has been remarkably successful. Libraries can’t keep the books in the libraries, nor bookstores the books in the bookstores that are shown on Reading Rainbow every week on public television. Everyone seems to say, “isn’t that interesting” and then they move on. There are no lessons learned from this, it’s quite sad.

HEFFNER: Well, what lessons could be learned to bring into the classroom these teaching aids, is that what you want to see done?

COONEY: I … yes … I think audio visual aids with, and with videotape recorders it’s very easy now to use three minutes … a compelling three minutes in math or in geometry or in science to show what you’re talking about. In science it’s just knockout what, what you can show that you’re talking about. Further, Dick, why not … and public television, I think, would jump at it, it there was really a concerted push to have public television respond to educational needs so that teachers said to these little children going home alone, “when you get home, unless you have other instructions, I want you to turn on Reading Rainbow,” or whatever that they know will be on and, and will help that child.

HEFFNER: But you remember that when we started here in New York Channel 13 that was partially our understanding, we would teach Russian in part …

COONEY: Right.

HEFFNER: … we would teach this or that in part, and then the concept of public television rather than educational television took over. Now, what happened?

COONEY: I think that was a mistake. I think, I think that as much as I admire the work of the Carnegie Commission that suggested that change, I think that was how public television to some degree lost its hold on the public and on the, on the Congress as well where it needed money. And, and where its mission became fuzzy … because what … and it was the BBC model that in a way distracted everybody and England is a …

HEFFNER: Great distraction.

COONEY: A great distraction (laughter) … that is so generous, it is what it is. We are not England. We needed to call it “educational television” and to use it educationally. You could still put on “Brideshead Revisited,” you could still put … and, and the great programs many, many of them have been educational. What was the Civil War series? What is Sesame Street? The great successes of public television have almost been, except, unless you don’t consider the BBC dramas educational, I do, have almost always been educational, some of them very specifically educational.

HEFFNER: Do you think that movies from the thirties are educational?

COONEY: No. I don’t

HEFFNER: And yet that’s what we find to very great extent these days, more and more … I don’t mean that you turn the set on …

COONEY: That’s to some degree a function of money and also a function of trying to get ratings … well, it’s a function of money … to get ratings, to get people to send in money. I’m not … Dick, if you recall we put on Charlie Chaplin and I thought it was wonderful, and we did “Art of Film” in the old days, when it was educational television, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I think there are certain … I think that maybe 11 to 1 in the, in the … 11:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. is a good old movie time and maybe Sunday afternoon. I’m not opposed to putting on any old movies.

HEFFNER: But do you think that what we have come to call “public television” will ever have the public support, sufficient public support, channeled through from government, until it does the educational …

COONEY: No.

HEFFNER: … job.

COONEY: No, I don’t. I have, I have been on this wicket for a long, long, long time in every forum that I’m permitted to be on that wicket.

HEFFNER: And how effective have you been, Joan Ganz Cooney?

COONEY: Well, I’m … everyone always agrees with me (laughter) in the room, Dick, but I don’t see … it’s hard to change. It’s hard to change.

HEFFNER: It’s funny … we, we started it, and initially it was going to be teaching through television, was going to be what we called “educational television,” and then it got away … I’m glad it got a way to a certain extent …

COONEY: Oh, some of it …

HEFFNER: … but it seems to have gotten away too far.

COONEY: … some of it is terrible. And that was a function of money, that some of it was simply boring, as we know. That it was too much broadcast power to too few people, on some of the more esoterica. But it was never meant to be a … it was … I always saw it as … that the best of it would be like a library where there would be different books, they wouldn’t all be available at the same moment, but if you watched a lot of it regularly, over time you would have really … you’d know quite a bit.

HEFFNER: Do you think that cable is going to take from what we know as public television today the BBC kind of product and leave the public stations, perhaps publicly supported to do the public education job that you feel we need to have done?

COONEY: Well, I hope that that’s what … I hope that in … that public television is looking over it’s shoulder and seeing that cable is going to do the old film … is doing the old films … Arts & Entertainment network does quite a bit of performance, live performance or taped performance from opera and ballet and so on. I’m for public television doing all of that, but I think that they’ve got to make that educational mission sharper and sharper and sharper and more and more obvious that so that the public says they have a role that is different from the others.

HEFFNER: Joan, you know, a couple of days after we went on the air back in, back 30 years ago, Jack Gould of The Times called and said, in a very puzzled way, “What in the world are you guys doing? Who and what your audience is,” and I guess if we had thought it through better than we wouldn’t be in the pickle we’re in today. But that’s life.

COONEY: Yes.

HEFFNER: And thank you very much …

COONEY: Thank you.

HEFFNER: … for joining me today, Joan Ganz Cooney.

COONEY: Pleasure.

HEFFNER: And, thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program, our theme today, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. In the meantime, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; the Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation, the New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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