24 February 2009

The Sesame Street Sermon

Did you know that the BBC did not buy the rights to broadcast Sesame Street in the 1970's because they thought that is was too moralist, telling kids how to think and act? My kids and I read Sesame Street books and watch their podcasts and programs all of the time and I have only felt grateful that healthy ideas are introduced to my kids in such an enjoyable way. The concepts promoted by the furry friends - appreciation for diversity, honesty, sharing, caring for others, kindness to animals, etc... - aren't exactly controversial, but there are those who believe that children will best become mature, healthy members of society by exposing them to a wide variety of content and ideas so they can build the cultural constructs that best suit themselves and those near to them. Showing children a message - even if it is about the concepts mentioned above - closes their minds, makes them judgmental, impedes their capacity to think freely and make sound decisions.

This same mentality reigns at my University where teachers are encouraged not to present content in courses like "Society and the Role of the Individual" in which students are supposed to contemplate relationships between the individual and the collective whole. Rather, teachers should lead students to become more reflective and informed of historical tendencies, theories and future possibilities.

It is difficult to disagree that cultural sermonizing requires ignoring that the learner has the capacity to make healthy decisions. If we really believe in capacity building and learner autonomy, then learners need to make their own decisions, especially ones that involve moral dilemmas. However, the opposite of sermonizing requires believing that there is no right or wrong beyond what benefits the learner at the particular moment in time that he or she is confronted with a moral dilemma. This moral relativism is one of the main philosophical foundations of our current global society of individuals and institutions that act uncannily like cancerous cells, boosting selfish aims at the expense of most others. The mantra of doing whatever you want as long as it doesn't harm others is precisely the cancer that is devouring the entire organism, cancer and all.

To begin resolving this issue, it must first be established that moral neutrality, the very concept upon which defenders of this laissez faire attitude towards education pride themselves, is illusory. Eliminating content in the name of a neutral process is in itself a moral decision with clear moral consequences. When graduates of this educational system don’t see enough wrong with opulence and misery living side by side to do anything about it, when they elevate both white and blue collar thieves to hero status, when they create “needs” within children even though they clearly cause irreparable physical or emotional damage, then the moral neutrality that justifies their actions becomes an exact opposite and an equally damaging approach as sermonizing.

This dichotomy is further resolved by defining the purpose of education beyond preparing individuals for successful insertion into the current job market. If most jobs aim exclusively towards increasing profit margin, defined in narrow economic terms, then directing education to provide students with the necessary tools to compete within this context only serves to legitimate it. Even if these tools are otherwise desirable traits and skills - creativity, administrative and investigative capacity, entrepreneurial leadership, etc… - the end towards which they are used strips them of any worth they might otherwise have. We can, rather, define our purpose for educating as building capacity for youth to become protagonists of their own community development, considering individuals and institutions as vital and interdependent actors within the community.

Of course, taking this path requires having the courage to face the daunting and inherently subjective task of defining development. Addressing faulty assumptions that the global development enterprise has had about such fundamental concepts as “the nature of man, the purpose of individual and collective life, the meaning of participation, the goal of development and the role of knowledge in social transformation” so that they serve an educational process that “empowers individuals and communities to engage in the generation and application of knowledge as protagonists in a materially and spiritually prosperous world civilization” requires taking a clear stand on such issues.

Further, although there are pedagogical advantages to providing the proper tools and context for learners to discover knowledge and thus take ownership of the decisions they make, there is no reason we should expect individual learners to rediscover all of the painful lessons humanity has slowly learned throughout its existence. Beyond those mentioned in the previous paragraph, one of these great lessons is that education should seek to channel the powers of the human soul into humble service to humanity, both on professional and personal levels. This is the primary context within which the individual may develop the necessary qualities and capabilities to become a protagonist in his or her spiritual and intellectual growth and thus contribute towards the transformation of society.

These and related lessons point us towards what we can call a pedagogy of moral empowerment. It is an approach that has emerged from an action-research process conducted by FUNDAEC in an effort to provide world-class tutorial secondary education that truly builds local capacity to generate prosperity. This process began in Colombia and later spread throughout most of the world.

In the end it is our individual and collective sense of justice that provides meaning for every action we undertake, whether that action is meant to be as objective as possible, or whether it is deliberately subjective. It is also this sense of justice that will enable us to establish the foundations upon which the oneness of humanity will ultimately be established. Although they don’t go too deep into the broader issues mentioned here, our furry friends at Sesame Street provide a good head start for all children in their search for justice, which will provide meaning and guidance in such a confusing world.


All quotes taken from "Preparation for Social Action: Education for Development"


kattyscoggin said...

Ok, Justin tocaste tres temas apasionantes para mi...Medios, Educacion y empoderamiento...Evidentemente las propuestas expuestas son geniales, asi como el analisis, conozco de cerca el proceso de Fundaec y contiene todos esos elementos necesarios para empoderar...contemplando el rol del individuo desde una perspectiva totalmente diferente...Pero es acaso responsabilidad de estos mismos medios de comunicacion que decidieron no sacar al aire Sesame Street asi como muchos medios...que el ser humano sea concebido como es concebido...no es acaso que los medios de publicidad han creado el 50% de la imagen de quienes somos?...Me gustaria escucharte mas al respecto sobre los Medios y su participacion sobre este PROCESO DE EMPODERAMIENTO....ya estabamos extranando un articulo...excelente!

Steve Marshall said...

Do you have a source for your statement that "the BBC did not buy the rights to broadcast Sesame Street in the 1970's because they thought that is was too moralist, telling kids how to think and act"?

There seems to be no mention of this in Wiki:

"In the United Kingdom its introduction was controversial. The ITV network company London Weekend Television first showed the series in the London region in the early 1970s to much criticism (generally regarding its Americanism). In time the show was subsequently broadcast by other ITV regions in the early 1980s, after which it moved to Channel 4, where it was a lunch-time fixture for many years through to the early 2000s. Later broadcasts of the show featured the hour-long episodes in a format of two ½-hour episodes. 120 countries have aired the show, many of which partnered with Sesame Workshop to create local versions."
Sesame Street - Broadcast history

Justin said...

Steve - I heard this on NPR's news quiz Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me! I assume that because it came from a very reputable news organization they got their facts straight. I hope I have assumed correctly.

It isn't the main point of the article, but it helps illustrate what I want to convey.

Justin said...

Katty - I agree that the relationship between mass media, education and empowerment needs to be further explored. It is amazing how mass media are guided by their owners who themselves are heavily influenced by the media. Of course media needs to play a much more important role in empowering people because it is an educational instrument, contrary to popular belief.