The Department of Education has done a tremendous disservice to America’s children. In early February, newly appointed Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings sent a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell, lodging “strong and serious concerns” about the network’s plans to air an episode of Postcards From Buster, a popular kids TV program.
The reason for the DOE’s alarm: In the backdrop of the show—whose title character is a cartoon rabbit—was live-action footage of two moms raising children together. Given the culture of fear we are living in, the complaint against the “Sugartime” episode and its inclusion of a family headed by lesbians who like maple syrup proved unnecessary. Hours before the missive’s arrival, PBS had decided to pull the episode from its broadcast. Individual member stations wishing to air the show had to obtain it from WGBH, the Boston-based station responsible for the production. Approximately 40 of the 349 stations that make up the nation’s public broadcasting system have done so.
Still, the DOE was not satisfied. It chose to dis-invite the show’s executive producer to speak at a Ready-to-Learn conference it was hosting in Baltimore. The agency with the mission to “promote the educational excellence of all Americans” was unnerved by one woman’s potential participation in a discussion of what it means to prepare kids for schooling, and ultimately for life. Carol Greenwald was no Armstrong Williams, a radio commentator secretly paid (a cool 250K) by the DOE to promote its educational policies. Her credits include Arthur, Between the Lions, Zoom, and Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego?, garnering her both Emmy and Peabody awards. After some behind-the-scenes wrangling, Greenwald was reinvited to the conference.
The disservice does not come simply from the removal of images supposedly taken by a bunny who’s handy with a video camera and the chilling effect this has on future productions. Nor is it derived from some grandiose vision of the world young people ought to live in—be it described as “tolerant” on the left or “safe” on the right. As subsequent coverage and commentary in The New York Times and WNYC’s On the Media has suggested, making invisible any segment of society is neither tolerant nor safe. What this is about is the kinds of skills we want children to have—and, in this case, denying them the opportunity to develop them.
There is a lot of hoopla about what demands the 21st century places on students growing up in today’s technologically advanced world. In their digitized 24/7 universe, young people must learn to decipher unprecedented amounts of information, multitask, make their way through complex simulations, and comprehend radically divergent cultures and beliefs, just for starters. But as children grow, increasingly the skill they need most is the ability to question.
Young people must be given opportunities to inquire why something is the way it is and to give voice to what confounds them. And the more they are able to do this with adults who care about them—in their homes, schools, and after-school programs—the better able they will be to seek answers that are personally meaningful to them. Questioning is particularly crucial when it comes to television programming and other powerful sources of information.
Each day children are bombarded with screen images that carry convincing messages about what they are to think and feel. The same goes for adults. While choosing not to watch a particular program is always an option—even President Bush recently offered the reminder, “They put an off button (on) the TV for a reason”—it is impossible for parents and other caregivers to block everything they deem objectionable. That is why Spellings’s approach, as well as full-fledged censorship, is easy in the short term, but in the end, media literacy is the only effective option.
To be “media literate” is to think critically about what you are seeing and hearing, to be an active viewer rather than a passive one. Children who are media fluent form the habit of wondering about media representations rather than accepting them as truth. Having many opportunities to engage in conversations about what adults around them think and feel only strengthens their ability to do so.
Should an adult and child discuss how their experiences do not exactly match those portrayed on TV—as some families would have discovered had they been given the chance to watch “Sugartime”—that would be okay. Around the age of six or seven, children begin to understand that people have different views from one another. Refusing to air the episode denied families who talk to one another the opportunity to point to their TV set, announce “They are not like us” or “They are just like us,” and continue the discussion. It also gave kids short shrift as it sheilded them from questions that some of their elders did not want to deal with.
As adults we have to accept that it is all right to let kids stump us. They have to be given the freedom to ask questions that are beyond our skill level and exceed our base of knowledge. As a nation our hardest collective question cannot remain, “Got milk?” If it is, bunny or no bunny, we’re all going to be left flat busted.
Shelley Pasnik is a senior researcher at the Center for Children and Technology and the independent producer of The PBS Parents Guide to Children and Media.