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Larry Womack Headshot

Maybe Mitt Should Watch Sesame Street More, Threaten It Less

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Most adults under 45 recall Sesame Street as quality children's entertainment. Heck, even older people like Mitt Romney claim that they love Big Bird. But what some of us seem to have forgotten is that Big Bird isn't just a lovable Muppet; he's also an inexpensive and very effective tool of the American education system.

Sesame Street was created to be a sort of at-home preschool for poor kids. The idea was to capture children's attention and use the opportunity that presented to efficiently teach them the basic skills they would need to begin their formal education. Its goals were optimistic, clearly defined and quantifiable.

The program exceeded them, greatly. Since its earliest days, studies have consistently found it to be a fantastic educator. One even found its impact to reach into high school. It's especially lucky that it's so effective because today over 80 percent of children aged 2-8 are tuning in.

Sesame Street isn't the only educational service provided by public broadcasting, either -- it was just the worst possible example Mitt Romney could have used in threatening it. While children are learning their A-B-C's, parents and other adults are becoming more educated citizens through programs like Nova, Frontline and Newshour. Many of those programs (Nova in particular,) are used for instruction in high school and junior high courses, as well. Then there's National Public Radio, which brings listeners the most accurate news around.

Compare this record of achievement to the "educational" programming offered by commercial networks and it becomes painfully obvious why public broadcasting is so essential. The most talked-about Learning Channel program at the moment is the Toddlers and Tiaras Honey Boo Boo spinoff (which is admittedly still better than most reality shows). The History Channel is even less valuable as an educator -- Ancient Aliens peddles embarrassingly dimwitted Erich von Däniken nonsense before another program tells you that the Mayans could see the future, or that the Nostradamus Effect is about to hit. The homepage menu of the Discovery Channel -- the good one -- currently invites you to browse the following categories: Adventure, Cars & Bikes, Gear & Gadgets, Life and News. In that order.

But what of the cost? Federal subsidies for PBS and NPR combined amount to just around .01 percent of the federal budget. Anyone who wants to balance the budget this way needs to watch more Sesame Street. In fact, public broadcasting provides these wildly successful lifelong education programs at a cost of just $1.35 per American, per year.

So tell me again how someone can be, as Mitt Romney claims, pro-education, pro-fiscal responsibility and anti-federal funding of such an incredibly effective, low-cost education program? Was the second series of Downton Abbey really that disappointing?

Some will say that that, in a way, is indeed the reason. A popular argument against PBS has always been that it also pays part of the bill for entertainment programs like Masterpiece and Great Performances. Many of you may disagree, but I happen to think that's a great thing. Even a BBC/PBS period piece soap opera like Downton is of a much higher quality than the programming you'll find on other free television networks. These shows are great, they're influential and they very often endure in a way that more popular entertainment usually does not.

Shows like Masterpiece are a minute investment in our culture, in our civilization and in our basic humanity. Think about any great civilization in human history. he first thing that comes to mind will be their art: their architecture, statues, paintings and plays -- even their fashion will likely spring to mind. Soon after that you will likely consider their ultimate fate. It horrifies me that we argue about spending .01 percent of our budget because a fraction of that goes to the former while gladly devoting one in every five dollars we take in to programs that, if ever put to use, would speed us to the latter. If we at all valued our place in human history, we would be increasing public funding of the arts a hundred fold, not talking about eliminating the miserly amount that's currently given. They are, after all, the marks we will leave upon the world.

I'm optimistic enough to believe that this isn't really the problem some conservatives have with PBS, but also pessimistic enough to believe that the real reason is nearly as foolish.

You see, certain conservatives have spent years claiming that PBS has a liberal bias, because factual reporting does not always happen to reinforce their prejudices. My advice to them (and anyone else facing the same predicament) is that if the facts do not support your beliefs, you need to get new beliefs. Since they'd prefer new facts, however, taxpayer subsidies for public broadcasting are perceived as an ongoing assault on their beliefs by the federal government.

This is exactly the kind of myopic bluster that we've come to expect from the modern conservative movement. The reality, of course, is that if PBS were forced to subsist entirely on donations, the possibility of true pandering to liberal donors would actually emerge. That isn't a threat now because PBS, as a publicly-subsidized institution, is held to a much higher standard than other news organizations. But believe me, the last thing far-right Republicans really want is to unleash a bunch of eggheads with a reasonably large audience and urgent need of cash.

Does Mitt Romney -- or anyone else -- really want to cripple a number of incredibly efficient, successful education programs while simultaneously ticking off a lot of people who happen to like being informed just to satisfy the lowest impulses of some on the far right? For some reason, I'm not thinking that scenario would end well for conservatives.

If I were them, I'd probably just leave Big Bird alone.