The first iPhone was released a little over twelve years ago. This means that students who entered college this year were about six years old when the iPhone came out, and although I certainly have memories of my life from before I turned six, I don’t have that many. If we aren’t yet at a point where new college students can’t remember a world without smartphones, we will be in the next couple of years, and it’s important for teachers to think about these things as they figure out the best approaches to use with their students. When I talk about the earliest years I remember, back before my family had cable television or a microwave oven (let alone a PC or the Internet), some of my students act like I’m talking about the dark ages, and that can be more than a little humbling.
I’m willing to bet that none of my students got one of the first iPhones when they came out back in 2007, but these students are one of the first batches I’ve had where most of them got their first smartphone back before they started going to high school. Some of them have even reported that their four- and five-year-old relatives are getting smartphones, and that raises all kinds of dilemmas, especially in light of James Bridle’s recent work on how dangerous YouTube content could devastate young children’s minds. Given the problems I’ve had with getting my students to put away their smartphones during class time, I can only imagine how much more difficult the jobs of elementary school teachers will become in the next few years as this technology keeps slipping into younger and younger hands.
News stories about the death of the television as a central hub for the family were all the rage a few years ago, but I’m not seeing so many of them these days. While it’s true that many of us are now carrying around these amazing personal video-watching devices in our pockets, the ability to watch something on a larger screen will probably always hold an allure to far too many people, just like the “food pills” of mid-20th century futurism will never replace the sensory and cultural experiences of a cooked meal. The over-the-air networks that used to hold such dominance in a pre-cable (and even, to some extent, a post-cable) world are definitely struggling to keep viewership in an era of Netflix and Hulu and ten gazillion YouTube videos, but if the opportunities provided by a large television screen in the home aren’t enough to keep them in most households, then their steadily-lowering prices will likely turn them into impulse buys for more and more people.
Back in that pre-cable world, when we could only get the three major networks and our local PBS station at my house (except when it was raining, and we could get faint signals from Bowling Green and Detroit and Windsor), Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood were often the most entertaining shows for me to watch in the afternoon, after Mom’s soap operas finished up and before my father came home from work. I didn’t care that they were educational — I’m not sure if I would have even understood the concept, especially since I can credit most of my early math skills to the morning game shows I watched back then — but I cared that I liked the characters and the messages. Charlie Brown television specials on CBS back then were my absolute favourites (here’s a punch in the childhood for everyone my age), but PBS afternoon programming was pretty high up on the list.
I always liked PBS pledge drives back then, because there would always be special shows (I miss the yearly live auctions that quickly became obsolete once eBay hit it big), and they were an early lesson for me, before my family started subscribing to our local crapola cable provider, that television wasn’t free, and public media needed a way to keep paying for all the stuff they did. I used to contribute to WGTE when I was younger, and although I had to give that up when money got tight, I’m looking forward to resuming that again soon. (Even though I’ve been gone from Toledo for almost two years now, I’m still listening to WGTE’s livestream every week, and I’ll probably always feel more affinity to them than any other public media provider.)
A few years ago, when Children’s Television Network announced that both PBS and HBO would be carrying Sesame Street, I felt kind of torn. On the one hand, it felt like Sesame Street — all the studies you’ve read about it improving young children’s minds are true, and even if they weren’t (and my profession means I have a rooting interest in smart kids, to say nothing of my personal preferences), that show is inextricably intertwined with the happiest memories of my earliest years — was expanding its reach, and might be seen by more children who wouldn’t otherwise see it if, for example, their parents had satellite television and didn’t have an antenna to catch local stations. At the same time, though, I worried that instead of just expanding its presence, Sesame Street would migrate in a way that made its content more difficult to get for low-income families, and it looks like those fears have now been completely justified.
While it’s true that public television stations will always have older episodes of Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood to broadcast, and that the messages of those shows are timeless, I’m not sure if those episodes will be as good as reaching the children of the early 2020’s as they reached me in the early 1980’s. I admit that I haven’t watched an episode of either show in ages, but I have to imagine that new episodes of Sesame Street are making more current cultural references in order to connect better with their audience, to say nothing of new pedagogical approaches they may be using with forty more years of child psychology research at their disposal. Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, for all its wonders and its current cultural renaissance, should never be remade, but at least Sesame Street can kind of keep up with the times.
Education is supposed to be the great equalizer, the way for people to advance in the world if they aren’t born with that many privileges. If I hadn’t learned to love learning through Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood and 3-2-1 Contact and the other PBS shows of that time, then I don’t know if I would have gotten over how much I hated trying to learn of that abattoir of a “school” I wound up going to later on, and wound up in college and where I am now. Even if you don’t want to accept the tremendous benefits that shows like Sesame Street provide to our world, then I still believe there’s a strong argument to be made that they should always be available for free just because of their cultural significance and history. Maybe today’s young children will be too entranced by their smartphones and tablets to pay much attention to educational shows, but just like with education as a whole, all children at least deserve that opportunity to learn. Putting a price tag on new episodes of Sesame Street just furthers the idea, if not the reality, of quality education only being available for the relatively well-off. There’s too much of that going on in America right now as it is, and the last thing we need, especially at this moment in our country’s history, is someone putting a toll booth on Sesame Street.