There’s lots of talk on the Internet, in the news media, and throughout those antiquated communication forms of magazines and newspapers about the Millennials, and how they’re unlike any generation that’s come before them. Actually, they’re a lot like the Great Generation…that wave of children of immigrants that were born between 1925 and 1944 and grew up during the Great Depression. They’re entrepreneurs, and so were those people who really had nothing as kids, and literally built this nation through their sacrifices and sweat equity. The big difference is that much of the life of those individuals centered around their local church. Their faith tradition was an important part of what held their community together.
Today’s Millennials are held together by technology.
But take a look at the Baby Boomers. The first of them were about 8 years old when this new thing called a television began to appear in their homes. It was a new source of entertainment via variety shows, information via newscasts (so you didn’t have to go to the movie house to see what was happening around the world, although you could still hear about it on the radio), and education via government sponsored programming aired on “public” stations. One of those first public television programs originated in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at WQED-TV, and became one of the icons of American culture, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It aired from 1968 to 2001, but the predecessor to that program, “The Children’s Corner,” with Josey Carey as host and Fred Rogers as the puppeteer and voices for the characters on the show, debuted in 1953. In 1961, Rogers moved to Toronto to develop a similar show for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and brought the concept back to the states. The program had four segments – and introduction, and instructional segment, a visit to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and a recap of the shows events that taught an instructional lesson. It was an excellent model of teaching, with the host making sure to speak directly to the person watching the show, engaging them in the experience, and even introducing the people that he interacted with to his “TV friend.” It sent the message that the viewer was important.
That all changed when Sesame Street came along. While puppets were the thread that provided continuity and provided us with some memorable characters like Kermit the Frog and Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird, that offered some potential stereotypes of individuals that viewers would likely encounter through their lifetime, the show had multiple, fast-paced segments that focused on a variety of learning exercises. Letters for a few minutes, then numbers, then word creating, then music, then mathematics, then a lesson on the importance of sharing, and that was just in the first half-hour of the hour-long program. The problem? Schools still stuck to classes that focused on one topic for 45 minutes to an hour, and school became “boring.” The other program is that there was never a constant focus on the viewer. Every now and then a character would speak directly to the viewer, but the interaction between the live characters on the show usually put the viewer in the role as an observer, while the interaction with the viewer was usually done by just one character. This may have helped to foster not only the shorter attention span, but the idea that the viewer was not a part of the community discussion, but only an observer, only being engaged on a one-on-one conversation to help foster a “me” mindset where the viewer was treated as an individual, rather than being a part of the conversation.
Millennials had exposure to both of these programs, but computers were starting to appear in homes in 1985, which is about the time that the generation began. Television programs were repeated in order to fill programming time and save money, allowing the computer to provide a new experience, with hands-on learning, especially through programming such as the “Jump Start” series. My four-year old (in 1989) was quite adept at Jump Start Kindergarten, which prompted me to seek out a fun “keyboarding” program. Whereas I took typing in high school, these children were adept at keyboarding when they entered elementary school, and took to technology like ducks to water. Once again, schools still remained ingrained in the 45 minute to hour-long class sessions, with some moving to block-scheduling to allow for longer periods of time to work on projects that were multi-disciplined in nature. Did every child have a computer to facilitate the educational experience they were having at home? Oh no. The concern of every teacher and administrator was, “What about those families that don’t have computers at home?” Would they be left behind? Certainly not, as our governmental administrators eventually introduced a program which would ensure than no child would be left behind. In the words of MisterRogers, “Everybody’s fancy, everybody’s fine.”
Unfortunately, we took those words out of context. If we would have kept the contextual message around them, it’s the everyone is unique and has gifts. Together, those gifts complement one another to build the community. Unfortunately, education has the expectation that everyone will be excellent at everything. As a result, what happened to the community we call a neighborhood? Ask yourself these questions: Do you know your neighbor across the street? How about the one that lives on either side of where you live? How about the ones on either side of the neighbor across the street? What is our reaction today when we see a group of people just hanging out on the street, as they did on Sesame Street? Are they inclusive? Do they welcome the new person? Or do they exclude and protect? Remember one of the few times that the cast acknowledged the viewer was when the show ended, and they all said, “Goodbye.”
Was this the goal of educational television?