• children;
  • poverty;
  • IQ;
  • education;
  • television;
  • surplus population


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Surplus Brains and Lives: Defining the “Disadvantaged Child”
  4. The History of IQ and Early Childhood Intervention
  5. Teaching by Television: Sesame Street Moves In
  6. Conclusion: Educating Surplus Populations in the Other America
  7. References

In the early 1960s, the US federal government deemed poverty to be a national crisis, and actively intervened to solve this problem. My question for this article is how did preschool education become a key site to remedy this crisis? Government interventions were a combination of poverty research, racialized politics, and child development. I show how the discipline of early childhood education cohered around the term “disadvantaged child”, in turn influencing the War on Poverty policies, including the basis of Head Start preschool education. During this same decade proponents of Sesame Street—with private funding, along with extensive testing mechanisms by consultants—argued that the television could reach more children, therefore be more cost effective. This paper investigates how surplus populations became determined and demarcated, as early as three years old. I question how televised preschool taught “affective skills” and proper social relations during times of political crisis.

In 1969, two events encapsulated how US experts judged preschool children: the premiere of Sesame Street and the publication of Arthur Jensen's research on children's IQ scores, and the ensuing public outcry. These two events reflected opposite poles of debate over the crisis of the “disadvantaged child” that raged during the 1960s. The fall premiere of Sesame Street in New York City was a feel-good event, a celebration of innovation within early childhood education. The television show was 3 years in production, extensively funded and intensely researched. During the 1970s, Sesame Street became a cultural phenomenon, as that one city street—a set built on a sound stage in midtown Manhattan—came to define the preschool experience for the nation.1 While earlier that year, in Berkley, California, the educational psychologist Arthur Jensen published an article in Harvard Educational Review entitled “How much can we boost I.Q. and scholastic achievement?” For liberals, Jensen's article was unpopular as Sesame Street was beloved. Jenson declared that the previous decade of progressive compensatory education programs had failed, specifically criticizing Head Start (the pre-school program that had been heralded as a success in President Johnson's War on Poverty). His article stated that because poor African-American children had not inherited abstract reasoning skills they scored low on IQ tests, and no government intervention in education could compensate for this biological “fact”. This academic paper caused a political uproar. In Berkeley, campus groups and students for a Democratic Society protested in his classrooms. He was called a fascist. His colleagues attempted to censure him. “Fight Racism. Fire Jensen” became the refrain. As this local campus controversy went national, Jensen was widely discussed in the press; segregationists cited his work; and his full article was put into the Congressional record. The work was widely read in President Nixon's cabinet, brought in by the controversial urban sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Edson 1969).

In the 1960s, the United States began to recognize poverty and urban disinvestment and tackled these crises under the banner of the War on Poverty. Many experts—specifically child psychologists, educators, and pre-school policy planners in the US government—sought to intervene in the lives of “disadvantaged children” and compensate this population. For these experts the effectiveness of national policies could be measured by assessing the brains and daily lives of poor preschool children.

In this article, I examine how experts constructed and evaluated children's mental growth in their home environments. I emphasize how this expert knowledge informed the production of preschool education and television. This article is not a children's geography. I chose not to research how these programs were consumed in order to critique the pre-occupation in the education literature of the 1960s with testable or measurable metrics. This “audit culture” and calls for neoliberal education reforms have now become pervasive (Apple 2005). I explore how this audit culture solidified in the 1960s to emphasis how the “testing” of students and programs did little to alleviate the persisting intersection of poverty, race, and education (see Fine and Ruglis 2009). This education “innovation” cycle continues to gain traction in the USA through charter schools, online education, home schooling, tracking/streaming, pharmaceutical fixes such as Adderall, and attacks on teacher unions. Simultaneously the edutainment pioneered by Sesame Street was another purported fix that emerged during the 1960s as a solution to social conflict. Edutainment claimed to bridge divides within nations (Barnett 2004) through what Sesame Street has dubbed “muppet diplomacy”.

Surplus Brains and Lives: Defining the “Disadvantaged Child”

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Surplus Brains and Lives: Defining the “Disadvantaged Child”
  4. The History of IQ and Early Childhood Intervention
  5. Teaching by Television: Sesame Street Moves In
  6. Conclusion: Educating Surplus Populations in the Other America
  7. References

The discipline of early childhood education cohered around the term “disadvantaged child” in the early 1960s. However, the term became an overburdened concept. The concept seemed neutral. Though it contained elements of hope for the future and the nation, it was steeped in racist and classist fears of the time. The term was empty, so “experts” defined it according to their needs or theories (for some other accounts, see Lubeck and Garrett 1990; Raz 2011; Urban 2009). These experts researched poor children, predominately urban and black. During the 1960s, race and education was a site of political struggle in which educational expertise clashed with civil rights organizing and urban uprisings. It would be politically problematic for policymakers and child experts to overtly state that they were separating poor black children as a population, so the term “disadvantaged child” obfuscated this “profiling”. As Stuart Hall shows, “mystifications” of racism are part of creating categories that “imprison and define”. The term “disadvantaged child” was a way “different, often contradictory elements can be woven into and integrated within different ideological discourses”. The term then informed struggles over the “common sense” of race and education (Hall 1986:27). During this time many terms2 were coined to avoid talking about race and class (see Apple 1999). “At-risk”, the current version of the “disadvantaged” concept, would not be invented until the 1980s. These terms locate a specific age-based population to target in order to intervene and alleviate the “culture of poverty”.

The official government definition of “disadvantaged” came from the US Congress, in Title I of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act and included all “children of low-income families”. The National Advisory Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children reported that these children “have not lived in a world of books, or of ideas … Our failure to educate these children helped to make a fact of our pre-judgment of ‘little potential’.” The call for reform was clear: “unless the children of our land can be freed from the chains of disadvantage which bind them to a life of hopelessness and misery, battles may be won in the War on Poverty, but the final defeat will be inevitable” (Wilson 1966:1–2). However, the discipline of early childhood education gave a more nuanced definition of “disadvantaged”. Martin Deutsch, the director of NYU's Institute of Development Studies, in the introduction of the new journal called The Disadvantaged Child, Deutsch writes:

it is easy to refer to the population as “The Disadvantaged” … as constituting a homogenous group. This … is not true: there are wide and vast variations between sub-groups—and between individuals—of population labeled “disadvantaged”. These variations have to do not only with broad ethnic and racial differences, with geographical and urban–rural differences, but also with the more specific and individually applicable familial differences (Hellmuth 1970:7–8).

From my reading of the literature, Deutsch's warning against homogeneity and the limits of labels went unheeded. Yet, if race, ethnicity, language, where people live, and inherited traits of disadvantaged children differ, what then holds this concept together?

To parse the many countervailing tendencies, my definition of the “disadvantaged child”—as a historical relic and a negative definition—makes sense only in direct relation to “advantaged”. The characteristics of “advantaged” include white, rich, suburban, English-speaking, and with an IQ score above 84. In the USA, “disadvantaged” was the urban black child; however the “dis” modifier could incorporate geography, language, poverty, attitude, and test scores. The concept of “disadvantaged child” contains the notion of compensation, a leveling spurred by civil rights political organizing. However, the implicit suggestion around children is the condemnation of families and mothers (as these experts were not primarily concerned with orphans). Poor families could be inferred as failures through the test scores of their children.

I want to define the “disadvantaged child” as a historically and geographically specific category, a “thinner abstraction” (Marx 1993 [1858]:100) of the concept of surplus population. For Marx (Marx and Engels 1971:109; Marx 1990 [1867]:799) surplus populations are produced, and intimately linked to dispossession, alienation, and profit. Surplus populations emerge from the internal relations of capital. For educators and economists during the 1960s, these surplus populations were understood through culture or biological inheritance, and deemed “the other America”, immigrants, inner-city residents, or in this case, “disadvantaged” children. This article follows how surplus populations can be demarcated as early as 3 years old. The historical details around the emergence of the category of the “disadvantaged child” contributes to the ongoing discussions in geography on how surplus population, race, waste, and neoliberalism (Gidwani and Reddy 2011; Katz 2011, McIntyre 2011; Yates 2011) became determined over time.

This article builds upon Katharyne Mitchell's work and writes a prehistory of her research on at-risk children and “pre-black futures”. Mitchell tackles “surplus life”, defined as those “‘abandoned’ in the process of securitizing valued life”. Mitchell (2010:240) wonders “what the production and abandonment of this surplus life tells us about the inter-relationship of differing forms of power in contemporary liberal democracies”. In distinction, this paper looks at how during the 1960s experts and scientists attempted to intervene in “surplus lives” rather than abandon this population. Mitchell asks how “specific individuals and populations become positioned as these pre-known risk failures and hence subject to constitution as surplus?” “Who will fail?” she asks and argues an individual or group “determined to fail is bound up with historical and spatial processes of racial formation” (Mitchell 2010:243). I contribute to this project by showing how the practices concerning the “disadvantaged child” reinforced historical and spatial process of racialization in preschool children during the years leading up to the neoliberal era.

During the 1960s, “the racialization of risk in the everyday practices and codings” was through children, similar to Mitchell's arguments. However, in contrast, children were demarcated as a site to intervene in, and perceived deficits would be compensated for. The rationale: future generations of Americans were at stake. The War on Poverty was a nation-building project, and achieving future goals meant that experts got involved in the daily lives of poor children. My claim is this intervention was based on the notion that the developing preschool child was a discrete problem that could be feasibly fixed. This paper dovetails with Cindi Katz's (2008, 2011) “childhood as spectacle” project by illustrating how experts constructed preschool children as “waste”. The term “disadvantaged child” was “a technical and political artifact” within a longer history of waste. Gidwani and Reddy explain waste as a “mobile description of that which has been cast out or judged superfluous in a particular space–time” (Gidwani and Reddy 2011:1649). The US government invested in early education through a “rescaling of childhood” (Katz 2001), intervening in the cast out child to secure the nation's future. A particular liberal articulation of the United States was loaded onto “the figure of the Child” (see Edelman 1998; Hannah 2011) that informed much of the cultural politics and social relations bound up with the neoliberal era. In liberal America, racism became codetermined with the national crisis, through the saintly call “Won't somebody please think of the children?” The “thought-of” child helped to weave together a range of factors that could be tested and quantified: race, IQ, housing, geography, family, rural, Spanish-speaking, poverty, and how much television was viewed in the household. Those experts, who defined and defended the child, wanted to save the future “wasted” generations.

While the debates in the academic and policy circles of early childhood education during the 1950s and 1960s had long-term political impacts, I do not condemn preschool education or government-supported education. Instead, I want to question how the debate over poverty elimination was co-opted, how structural problems were hijacked to see children as investments (and how to quantify a return on said investments). This paper speaks to the extensive literatures on education, class, and race (besides the work done by Henry Giroux and Michael Apple, see Althusser 1971; Bernstein 2003). However, I do so by examining educators who added their expertise to the project of trying to understand poor children, rather than trying to eliminate poverty. In the process these educators merely reproduced the conceits behind poverty research or poverty knowledge (see Katz 1989; O'Connor, 2002; Quadagno 1996). Similarly with Sesame Street, I am not against the show; rather I call attention to how media and cultural producers jumped into this growing field of poverty research. While media, television, and edutainment has been discussed widely (Giroux 1999), for this article I do not want to focus on the content of media. Instead, I want to interrogate the “uses” of television (Hartley 1999), the belief that television could be a process of child formation, that children could be taught or influenced into having productive lives. In contrast, I do not want to give television too much power, a version of technological determinism (Williams 2003). Sesame Street did not produce the at-risk child of the 1980s. My position is that children cannot be reduced to mere effects of genetics, environments, education, or television. Sesame Street, as a television program, must be put into its historical context of the 1960s and 1970s. During a decade of prolonged protests and urban uprising, the show's goals were to teach social skills and ways of proper behavior, what the program came to call “muppet diplomacy”, and this should not be ignored. All these educational interventions were circumscribed by debates over how scholastic “disadvantages” could be determined by inheritance and/or environment. This was a revival of an old ghost that had haunted science since the late nineteenth century. Was intelligence determined by nature (Jensen) or nurture (Sesame Street)?

The History of IQ and Early Childhood Intervention

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Surplus Brains and Lives: Defining the “Disadvantaged Child”
  4. The History of IQ and Early Childhood Intervention
  5. Teaching by Television: Sesame Street Moves In
  6. Conclusion: Educating Surplus Populations in the Other America
  7. References

During the early twentieth century eugenic period, IQ was introduced to the USA and became a static biologically determined attribute. For experts and policymakers, an IQ score became an indication of who was productive or unproductive, a contributor or a burden. IQ showed who was a drain on the nation's productivity. A low IQ score meant the individual was surplus, and would always stay surplus. IQ became a way to quantify the “feebleminded” population, a population that many policymakers and scientists thought should not reproduce. After IQ's introduction to America, educating “the masses” was seen as waste of resources (Gelb 1989; Gould 1996; Tucker 1996:181–184). But following World War II, eugenics became taboo, as the extent of Nazi atrocities became known. Scientific communities pushed against the overt politics behind eugenic science. These eugenic ideologies persisted, as this article will show, but not always under the name of eugenics.

By the late 1950s, the academic debate over whether inheritance or the learning environment determined IQ—nature versus nurture (a debate recently called unresolvable or even “meaningless” by Keller 2010)—had been established. What emerged during the 1950s and became solidified in the beginning of the 1960s was that IQ could change. This challenged eugenic assumptions and racist applications that intelligence was acquired and inherited through families. But this did not automatically unburden science and educational policies of bigotry. Instead older worries resurfaced over urban and national decline, along with the drive for improvement. If IQs could increase, then they could also decrease. Children could get smarter, but they could also become dumber; therefore, the earlier the intervention, the better. Hence the “disadvantaged” pre-school child became the key stage in the formation of a future adult problem. During the War on Poverty, as the government became increasingly involved in the lives of the poor, IQ scores persisted as a metric.

War on Poverty Policies and Head Start Science

The particular emphasis on disadvantaged children must be contextualized by the politics, policy, and ideologies of the 1960s. Dealing with poverty through research existed long before the twentieth century (see O'Connor 2002), but after World War II and the rise of civil rights organizing emerged a new phase of poverty research. The Carnegie Foundation funded the massively influential Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma (Myrdal, Rose and Sterner 1944). While damning, the report hoped that liberalism and democracy would overcome structural racism. Oscar Lewis (1959) published his widely taken up “culture of poverty” thesis. Michael Harrington's popular The Other America spoke of another nation in United States “beyond history, beyond progress, sunk in a paralyzing, maiming routine” (Harrington 1997 [1963]:158). The crisis of poverty and the growing social and racial conflicts flew in the face of the postwar optimism generated from economic prosperity and scientific progress. This widespread poverty shattered American idealism and exceptionalism, highlighting an unjust class structure.

Race emerged as the defining feature of the 1960s welfare state of the USA. According to historian Jill Quadagno, policymakers attempted to appease increasing demands by re-jigging the New Deal's racialized welfare state. An “equal-opportunity welfare state” was produced, as the War on Poverty “collided” with the civil rights movement (Quadagno 1996:4–9). As Ruth Gilmore explains, “Part of the post-war civil rights struggle had been to extend eligibility for social welfare rights and programmes to those who had been deliberately excluded”. The defense of disadvantaged children was seen as deeply intermeshed with “the discourse of urban crisis” and “white supremacist demagoguery over Black motherhood and welfare” (Loyd 2009:417; for more on US domestic spaces, see Loyd 2011). The problem with America became “individualized”, seen in the figure of an “unruly African American woman whose putative dependency on the state, rather than a husband, translated into criminality” (Gilmore 1999:177). The advantaged white home was put into contrast with Moynihan's “Negro family” (1965), as the black home was constructed as an environment that produced deficiencies. In the 1960s, child experts directly intervened into the lives of children who were “deprived” a white middle class mother.

Simultaneously, studies of early childhood, child rearing, and child behavior became a growth industry during the postwar period (O'Connor 2002); the most famous was the work of Dr Spock. This research reflected the shift to “culturally determined” poverty, a move away from seeing traits like IQ as biologically determined, inherited, and fixed. Yet Oscar Lewis concluded that a “way of life” could be inherited (Katz 1989:17). The social psychologist Frank Riessman's (1962) highly influential book The Culturally Deprived Child concluded that the “deprived” child would become “alienated, not fully a part of society … individualistic, introspective, self-oriented”, and generally lacking in social skills (Katz 1989:21). The educational psychologist Joe McVicker Hunt also argued against biological determinism with his book Intelligence and Experience (1961). He disputed the genetic basis of fixed intelligence and predetermined development. His book introduced Jean Piaget, the Swiss developmental psychologist, to an American audience. For more than 30 years Piaget had been working on, in Hunt's words, the “continuous interaction between organism and environment” (Hunt 1961:109). As the 1960s progressed, Piaget's work would increasingly dominate the field. While Hunt's book was for a specialist audience, he gained a popular reception when Reader's Digest interviewed him in an article entitled “How to raise your child's IQ by 20 points” (Zigler and Styfco 2010:16). However, this unfixed IQ did not automatically lead to more progressive assumptions. Charles Silberman in 1962 Fortune Magazine's article “The City and the Negro” took this development in a different direction and stated that for many black students “their learning ability itself becomes atrophied; I.Q. typically drops twenty points as the Negro child progresses through school” (Passow, Goldberg and Tannenbaum 1967:13). These urban environments were producing the wrong type of people—a new environmental viewpoint that would deeply inform the thinking behind the production of Sesame Street.

The War on Poverty Targets Children

As ideas of IQ and “cultural deprivation” were being transformed, the federal government began to take action toward Harrington's “other America”. President Lyndon Johnson passed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 that created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) as an incubator for anti-poverty programs and research. With Sargent Shriver as the head the OEO, the War on Poverty began. But where could Shriver find poverty? Shriver remembers how he was shown a pie chart of poverty in America, and was shocked that children were the “biggest chunk”, close to 50%. He pushed for children to become a key front in this War. To defeat the enemy, Shriver took inspiration from the Kennedy Foundation's work with “mentally retarded” children (Eunice Kennedy Shriver, his wife, ran the foundation). He was impressed by research by Susan Gray at the Peabody School of Education in Nashville that indicated, in Shriver's words, if one:

intervened early enough with children living in slums … you could change their IQ. Well, that shocked me … I had always thought if you had an IQ of 90, that's what you had. That was what you were given by nature. That was your genetic endowment. The idea that you could take somebody with an IQ of 85 and make it 88 or 90, I had never heard of. But she proved you could do that with mentally retarded children (Gillette 2010:260).

Shriver's “mental leap” inspired Head Start. This association between poverty and “mental retardation” had long implications, as many of the Head Start's early scientific experts and advisors worked in the field of “mental retardation”.3 But what Shriver had grasped upon was the new wave of childhood psychology: IQ could change.

Intellectual disability research was “in a somewhat euphoric state” due to unprecedented federal attention and funding, including a 1962 President's Panel on Mental Retardation that strongly pushed the environmental paradigm. The panel led to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which had a Division for Mental Retardation. In the fall of 1964, Shriver began to poach this field in the planning of Head Start. He enlisted Robert Cooke (John Hopkins and advisor to the Kennedy Foundation); Dr Zigler (with 10 years of experience and protégé of Eunice Kennedy Shriver); Dr Julius Richmond (studied “developmental decline” or “development attrition” of very low-income children at Syracuse); and Dr Martin Deutsch (who had done research on stopping the “cumulative deficit” observed in disadvantaged children at NYU) (Gillette 2010:260–264; Zigler and Styfco 2010:14). These experts formulated early childhood education and research within the US government. Deutsch was profiled in Harper's magazine in an article titled “Give slum children a chance: a radical proposal”. The reporter summarized this new paradigm through the work of Piaget and Hunt that saw “the child as an ‘open system.’ They are interested less in what the child is than in what he can become” (Silberman 1964:41, italics in text). The dream of the Great Society was to improve and reach the full potential of the nation. However, research on preschoolers focused on deficit, cumulative deficit, attrition, decline, and progressive retardation. These “open system” children—adorable as they must have been—were in crisis.

With the help of these experts, the Head Start program was launched during January and February of 1965 in Washington and New York. Sargent Shriver declared: “I want to prove this program valuable. I'd like to say how many IQ points are gained for every dollar invested.” (Sealander 2003:242) The initial summer program was extended into yearlong funding, and by 1967, 5-year funding was being given out. The policy planner of Head Start, Jules Sugarman, remembers the goal was “to try to intervene at a point in the life of the child in ways which would keep deficits from developing” and the hope was that intervention would allow them to achieve the “maximum potential in latter life …‘a life readiness program’” (Gillette 2010:271). There were some real material benefits, as Head Start programs included a hot meal, along with medical and dental examinations. Looking back, Shriver declared Head Start as an incredible success story in government. Because of the community action title of the War on Poverty, Shriver was able to create a program of national magnitude using $50–70 million without any debate, consultation, or oversight (Gillette 2010:280).

Preschool Research Shifts and Jensen's Backlash

The launch of Head Start had ripple effects in the academic and research worlds. “Mental retardation” had been a growing field prior to the War on Poverty; now the “disadvantaged child” became the hot research topic. The subject was widely discussed in newspapers and magazines. Programs and theories were discussed in journals such as The Elementary School Journal, The Phi Delta Kappan, and The Journal of Negro Education. In the introduction to the newly released journal, The Disadvantaged Child, Dr Deustch explains that the field has grown rapidly because of “sudden availability of funding” (Hellmuth 1967).

The Disadvantaged Child journal, endorsed by Head Start, illustrated the range of what could be said in this field. The first issue contained arguments over the culturally deprived, the development of new testing machines, the problem of urban education, and an article that was blatantly eugenic. The second issue gave the reader an “operational overview of Head Start”. Arthur Jensen entered into the debate in the lead article, titled “The Culturally Disadvantaged and the Heredity-Environment Uncertainty”. The article began, as was Jensen's style, “Is the disadvantage of the ‘culturally disadvantaged’ only cultural? Or is it also genetic and biological? Is this the one forbidden question in the study of the “culturally disadvantaged?” (Hellmuth 1968:29). I can find no outrage sparked by this publication that would foreshadow the national controversy these same assertions incited 1 year later. Jensen's race- and class-based conclusions were not exceptional within his discipline and the world of Head Start.

Arthur Jensen was not an isolated academic. As described in detail by the historian William Tucker, Jensen was deep in the orbit of the Nobel Prize winning Stanford physicist William Bradford Shockley. Starting in 1965, Shockley had been speaking out over his concerns with overpopulation, and claimed that the War on Poverty was causing the increase of “defected” populations. He predicted a future of “genetic enslavement”. In 1966, he began making a yearly plea to the National Academy of Sciences to study the “heredity–poverty–crime nexus” (Tucker 1996:181–188). From his perspective, the War on Poverty had been based on genetic assumptions of equality. But Shockley wanted funding to prove blacks “acquired” a genetic disadvantage and needed a metric to test. Arthur Jensen's research on IQ and disadvantaged children gave him that metric. Shockley was refused funding and dismissed by the scientific community, so he turned to the International Association for the Advancement of Ethnology and Eugenics (IAAEE), which had been organizing since the late 1950s to stop the racial integration of schools. This organization was connected to the Pioneer Fund, a non-profit organization founded in 1937 to promote eugenics. These groups supported Shockley's projects, including the Voluntary Sterilization Bonus Plan in 1971 and the public relations for the Foundation for Research and Education on Eugenics and Dysgenics (Tucker 1996:194).

When Harvard Education Review asked Jensen to write an article about heredity and intelligence in 1968—“How much can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement?”—it is unclear whether they knew the extent of his connections to racist organizations. However, after the article was published, the journal attempted to control the damage and minimize the controversy (Edson 1969). Jensen publically attacked Head Start and outcry ensued. Jensen's article caused massive debates throughout the academic community and his findings were scrutinized. Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin attacked the article as inaccurate and a waste of journal space. Many academics went to the media to debunk his conclusions (Pinescambridge 1969; for a compendium of the academic retort to Jensen, see Montagu 1999). As Tucker (1996:232) highlights, what is notable was how similar the debate was to the early decades of the twentieth century: was intelligence one-dimensional or multi-dimensional, nature or nurture? In Berkley for years afterward, the Students for Democratic Society would use Jensen as an example of “government supported racism”. Jensen, Shockley, and Harvard's Richard Harriensten—who would cause a similar flare-up again in the 1990s with The Bell Curve (1996)—became examples of how the academy furthered racist ideologies. Activists looked to stop these practices in classrooms, professional organizations, journals, and expose the “unscientific character of racist ideas” (Committee Against Racism at the University of Connecticut 1973; Students for a Democratic Society ; New York Times 1973). Jensen defended himself under the guise of objectivity, saying his work was not political; he was just speaking truth with evidence that had been taboo since the Nazi era. Jensen's paper was not only contentious because of the company he kept. Its first sentence declared: “Compensatory education has been tried and it apparently has failed”. Head Start was offered as evidence this failure.4 Jensen's race-based condemnation of compensatory education dovetailed with a cost–benefit analysis based attack on the War on Poverty.

By 1969 the entire War on Poverty was under review or abandoned. While Head Start had been declared a success, with two million children enrolled by 1967, when Nixon entered the White House the benchmark of success shifted. The OEO's new evaluation division began to question whether Head Start raised test scores. Nixon, speaking to Congress on 19 February 1969, mentioned that the preliminary results of the evaluation indicated, “the long-term effect of Head Start appears to be extremely weak”. The media began reporting that preschool compensation did not level the playing field and that the intellectual boost of Head Start began to “fade out” later in the school experience. For the Nixon administration, analytics and cost/benefit evaluation of programs became the way of the future. Nixon killed the OEO and Head Start was moved into the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Even though Head Start exists to this day the program was deemed a failure, too small and too expensive.

Teaching by Television: Sesame Street Moves In

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Surplus Brains and Lives: Defining the “Disadvantaged Child”
  4. The History of IQ and Early Childhood Intervention
  5. Teaching by Television: Sesame Street Moves In
  6. Conclusion: Educating Surplus Populations in the Other America
  7. References

Sesame Street was born in this education policy environment of the late 1960s. Compared with the pace of Washington, the television program was implemented at lightning speed. Head Start was too slow in reaching all the disadvantaged children in the USA. Cultural and television producers rushed into the world of the “disadvantaged child” to improve on these numbers. To adapt Christopher's (2009) insights on the political economy of media, these cultural producers “enframed” the education of disadvantaged children, through the medium of television and the production of content. At the time, the notion of educational television was outrageous. Television was called a “vast wasteland”. But in 1966, at a midtown Manhattan dinner party, television producer Joan Ganz Cooney and the Vice-President of Carnegie Corporation Lloyd Morrisett came up with an idea: TV could teach. Morrisett had observed his own children repeating commercial advertisements with ease. Could such learning behaviors be harnessed to educate all preschoolers? Morrisett had seed funding from the Carnegie Foundation's mandate to tackle poverty in the USA through social science research (Lagemann 1989:216). Cooney was hired as a television consultant.

Cooney spent 3 months preparing a report called The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education. The report re-stated much of the “disadvantaged child” literature: an aggressive intervention in early education could compensate for what neglected children were not getting at home. “A five-year-old disadvantaged child, due to environmental deprivation, was perhaps at the same level of development as a three or four-year-old middle-class child” (Cooney 1966:17). The report looked into the uses of open-circuit television to “simulate the intellectual and cultural growth in children of preschool age”. The report's education science was squarely in the environment camp, citing the work of Jean Piaget. But for these cultural producers the site to research was the television-viewing environment: the living room. In the initial report Cooney laments that children in the “average slum home” could not learn from television because they are “overcrowded; there are a large number of children in the family; the television set is on from early morning until later at night”. Therefore “the din and confusion characteristic of most impoverished homes” needed to be compensated for (Cooney 1966:45).

Cooney's report directly dismissed the federal Head Start program and National Education Association proposals that all children should be able to go to school at the age of 4 years. In Cooney's estimation that proposal would “encounter staggering obstacles”, as there were not enough schools or teachers, and the costs of putting 4- and 5-year-olds into the school system was estimated at $2.75 billion, not even counting the building of new classrooms. Instead Cooney proposed “we must begin to search for new means and techniques to solve our educational problems” (Cooney 1966:7). This new means of education would be modeled after commercial advertising, and the technological medium would be television (for more on political uses of television, see Light 2003).

Morrisett's connections secured the financial backing for a children's television project. The project appealed to the Carnegie Foundation because it met many aspects of their mandate: media, education, and poverty reduction (Lagemann 1989). Cooney pitched the idea of preschool educational television vigorously and partnerships were made so the program would be aired on 170 stations. The audience was projected to be half of the nation's 12 million children (compared with Head Start's 2 million). By February 1968 they had secured around $8 million in funding. In March 1968, the Children's Television Workshop (CTW) was launched at a press conference held by the Office of Education, Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation. The CTW was framed as an experiment between television professionals and educators, psychologists, and child development specialists to “close the gap” between disadvantaged and middle class children (Morrow 2006:65). However, according to Gerald Lesser (1974:13), as a poverty alleviation program Head Start could be “legitimately withheld from middle-class families … our television series was planned to reach as large a national audience as possible including middle-class children as well as the poor”.

All these influences shaped the content and feel of the show. Muppets and actors were integrated so poor children would keep the “eyes on the screen” in their “crowded” and “loud” homes. The inner city “ghetto” set was chosen as a familiar environment to poor black audiences. Oscar the Grouch taught children how to live with difference. Gordon was a strong black father role model. But what Sesame Street taught was not based on IQ, cognition, and abstract reasoning, it was aimed at literacy, numeracy, and coping skills. Lesser positioned the CTW model against the deficit model of education that led to isolating, then compensating, for perceived defects in children. As Lesser explained, the aim of compensatory programs was to make the “disadvantaged” child “like everyone else”. Since the deficit model had not shown results, the CTW model would give “children what they need in order to learn to cope with their environments” (Lesser 1974:52).

The Sesame Street model had three related aims: “school preparation, the inner-city families’ stress on basic skills, and the effort to teach both what and how to think” (Lesser 1974:49). Children were taught “affective skills”—overall well-being and emotional adjustment to cope with their environments. Sesame Street taught awareness of the “Social Environment” through relation to authorities (a mayor, a policeman, a fireman, and a solider) and institutions (the family, the neighborhood, and the school) that established “role-defining characteristics”. The goal was to teach children “to see situations from more than one point of view, [to] begin to see the necessity for certain social rules, particularly those insuring justice and fair play” (Ball and Bogatz 1970:appendix A). As Lesser (1974:24) declared “By watching televised models, children learn both socially desirable and undesirable behaviours.”

Testing the Preschool Audience

Whether or not the retention happened is incidental to my argument. I want to focus on how these experts rationalized the utility of their interventions. When Sesame Street needed to test whether preschoolers retained these skills, IQ scores would not reflect the audience's reception of the show. Sesame Street would fail if it had no audience. The producers feared the show would be unpopular with poor African American children. The CTW went into poor black homes in North Philadelphia to research the target audience, black urban children, as they watched the show. They soon realized that this “disadvantaged” audience did not have the advantage of actual TV sets. Televisions were donated to the black community from corporations such as RCA and Con Edison, including paying to bus poor audiences to watch Sesame Street in daycares and Head Start Centers. CTW hired the Educational Testing Service to organize collective viewing in poor neighborhoods in order to get a large sample, what they called the “encouraged-to-view group” (Ball and Bogatz 1970). In 1969 CTW allocated $600,000 for these “utilization centers”, and $1 million in 1970 (Cook et al. 1975:318). CTW measured the effects on four population subgroups that represented the nation: inner-city disadvantaged children; suburban advantaged children; rural advantaged and disadvantaged children; and disadvantaged Spanish-speaking children (Ball and Bogatz 1970:13–14). The testing service further subdivided this. ETS defined disadvantaged children, as “living in ghetto-type, inner-city areas…usually marked by low incomes, high unemployment, poor housing, insufficient health care, and educational retardation.”

These child audience populations were mapped onto areas and a geography emerged that stood in for the entire USA. Northeast Boston was the sample of the “black ghettos (e.g., Roxbury)”. East Boston was to sample “white poor families of mainly Irish or Italian extraction”. Dorchester was chosen for the racially and ethnically integrated sample where the “children live in areas that include public housing projects, old tenements, and multi-family dwellings … a considerable number of mothers on welfare”. To represent the US south, Durham, North Carolina was chosen whose population lived in “ramshackle houses” and many children played in “dusty surroundings”. Spanish-speaking “poverty-engulfed south side” of Phoenix, Arizona represented the US West. The US rural population was aggregated from Northeastern California. The fifth study area was suburban Philadelphia where “there is a well-to-do air that rises from manicured lawns and the two car garages” (Ball and Bogatz 1970:appendix L).

Head Start leaders became the gatekeepers that gave permission for the testing service to study how communities watched the show. CTW found resistance to these tests, perhaps due to recent controversies over IQ or study fatigue by poor communities. The major concern “in the more militant areas” was that the evaluation would focus on the children's intelligence or aptitude, which could then be compared with middle class children (Ball and Bogatz 1970:17) For CTW, this was not a problem. The show was evaluated, not the children and increasing or comparing intelligence was no longer the goal of the show. The test results demonstrated that the show's goals were achieved. What these metrics did for Sesame Street, similar to all television ratings, was to “render the television space coherent, calculable and orderly—and hence investable” (Christophers 2009:293). After the testing, ETS repeated Cooney's rationale and support for educational television, instead of Head Start schools. Sesame Street was part of the larger trend away from testing children to auditing educational programs. The aim transitioned away from researching how the “disadvantaged child” learned how to retain a viewing audience.

Due to early fears that Sesame Street would be unpopular, the audience was expanded to all American children. The target of the program, the “disadvantaged child”, was subsumed. Cooney and the CTW staff initially resisted this; the focus of the show was to be for impoverished youth to compensate for their lack of resources. As a poverty research TV program, Sesame Street contained a tension between universalist and selective strategies. To achieve direct gains for “disadvantaged preschoolers poverty and structural racism needed to be compensated for … [but] compensatory goals by means of a universalist strategy is extremely difficult, and compensatory programs are politically unpopular” (Cook et al. 1975:23) CTW's Edward L. Palmer admitted that the goal to narrow the learning gap was dropped because a television series for “all children” could not be a vehicle for “compensatory education” (Lagemann 1989:237). By 1974 Morrisett claimed that Sesame Street was one educational element in an environment, along with school and the family, that “foster[s] constructive cognitive and emotional growth from birth onwards” (from Morrisett's introduction to Lesser 1974:xxvi). However, what remained was a show produced for all American children set in environment constructed for the “disadvantaged child”—an inner city street.

Conclusion: Educating Surplus Populations in the Other America

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Surplus Brains and Lives: Defining the “Disadvantaged Child”
  4. The History of IQ and Early Childhood Intervention
  5. Teaching by Television: Sesame Street Moves In
  6. Conclusion: Educating Surplus Populations in the Other America
  7. References

With Sesame Street, Harrington's hidden and invisible Other America was now in the nation's living room, becoming the familiar learning environment for the majority of America's children. Sesame Street was a cost-effective solution, a public–private partnership that appealed to all children, including the disadvantaged. Metrics, analytics, and ratings backed the program up. However, in this conclusion I want to return to the problems that the War on Poverty was trying to solve, that led to government intervention into the lives of poor children.

Alice O'Connor argues that during the War on Poverty economists led the poverty research. Walter Heller, as the Chairman of Council of Economic Advisers of the Kennedy administration, with other liberal economists began to define poverty in their own terms, a problem to be solved as part of a broader economic agenda of growth and full employment. The press at the time called this turn “new economics”, a “commercial Keynesianism” that incorporated Chicago School ideas by the likes of Milton Friedman that were turned to justify investments in education and training (O'Connor 2002:141–142). This also paralleled a rediscovery of human capital, by the likes of Jacob Mincer and Gary Becker at the Chicago School (for more on this, see Adamson 2009). As the 1960s ended the “golden age of US capitalism” (Gilmore 1999) or “embedded capitalism” (Harvey 2007) came to a close. Head Start and Sesame Street were created during this period, as embedded liberalism began to break down and neoliberalism began to emerge. “Investments in children”, according to Cindi Katz (2011:50), can be a temporal fix, even though children's futures are rarely “the weapon of choice in defusing crises of overaccumulation”. Head Start and Sesame Street were rare investments in children that contained many good intentions. Yet, as Harvey has said, for neoliberalism as a “way of thought … to become dominant, a conceptual apparatus has to be advanced that appeals to our intuitions and instincts, to our values and our desires, as well as to the possibilities inherent in the social world we inhabit” (Harvey 2007:5).

These economic concerns fed into the crises of the city and race relations. After the 1965 Los Angeles Watts Riots, as Gilmore (1999:175) asserts, urban uprisings became a way for African Americans to “hold court” in “in the streets to condemn police brutality, economic exploitation and social injustice”. The Right responded to this “activism, both spontaneous and organised”, by framing it as disorder for political gain, claiming “the power to defend the nation against enemies foreign and domestic. And so the contemporary US crime problem was born. The disorder that became ‘crime’ had particular urban and racial qualities.” As the economic crisis and social crisis collided and combined, prisons would later become the solution. But at the time, as illustrated in the 1965 McCone report from the Watts uprising, education was proposed as a fix. The report stated, “In examining the sickness in the center of the our city … the dull devastating spiral of failure … awaits the average disadvantaged child in the urban core” (Platt 1971:266). The “disadvantaged child” was one problem and one site that could be solved. However, since the school system failed the black child, one of the Commission's recommendations was for preschool education “we recommend a new and costly approach to educating the Negro child … an emergency program … The cost will be great but until the level of scholastic achievement of the disadvantaged child is raised, we cannot expect to overcome the existing spiral of failure” (Platt 1971:269). However, investments in classrooms were marginalized and the easy fix of television was exalted. As civil rights increasingly became Black Power and protests became more militant, preschool education shifted towards lessons that emphasized affective skills, relationships with authorities, fair play, and socially desirable behaviours. During the 1960s, the poor transitioned from the “other America” into individuals. These individuals increasingly failed to recognize authorities (or sit quietly and play well with others in the diverse and accepting Sesame Street fantasy). In the lessons of Sesame Street speaking out or acting out became one step on a path of behaviours that led to juvenile delinquency, crime, “riots”, and at-risk behavior.

Calls for structural transformation of the 1960s and 1970s (in terms of racism, jobs, housing, health care, etc.) became scripted as stories of personal failure. Focusing on the child individualized these structural crises. The consequences of this articulation led to the 1980s’ A Nation at Risk as discussed by Mitchell, but also clearly shown by many other geographers (in particular the work of Ruth Gilmore, and Cowen and Siciliano 2011). Though the term “disadvantaged child” was a passing trend within poverty research, the 1969 debate over the source of the problem of “disadvantaged” children—nature versus nurture—was not an aberration, but the norm. My conclusion is not to determine which science is right, or which definition is the most accurate, since all can be used to justify and rationalize white supremacy, structural racism, and naturalization of poverty. Instead the question should be how the state and poverty experts moved between the concepts and practices of inclusion and exclusion. Mitchell speaks of the current period as one of expulsion, but this expulsion was built on the making visible and knowable surplus life through inclusionary practices of the 1960s.

On Sesame Street, where liberal, anti-conflict, “can't we call just get along” dominates, those who don't “get along” become failures. In the present day, this failure is individual, perhaps even on a revanchist register. While believing in race and biological inheritance is now a “faux pas” on the left, researchers are isolating other biological markers and inherited behaviors (such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, fetal alcohol syndrome, behavioral addiction, video games, and lack of role models). Mitchell's pre-black or pre-known risks are a reminder of the dangers of fixity, or viewing populations with a static nature, which worryingly echoes eugenic categories. While this return of a prefigured fixity is a cause of concern, I assert that the greater concern is the constant liberal-conservative shell game that moves around funding, programs, and government interventions that never intended to conquer poverty. Because eliminating poverty would require a radical transformation of social relations and a massive redistribution of power and wealth.

In the 1960s the fear was over the accumulation of deficits, learned experiences, traditions, and habits in children. To halt that accumulation both Head Start and Sesame Street circumnavigated politics and public school structures to create new “innovative” interventions. As the neoliberal era emerged, surplus life was debated and appeased through the racialized “disadvantaged child”. This was a site to intervene and demarcate who was inside and outside, one illustration of “how race and racism are inextricably embedded in the neoliberal project” (Roberts and Mahtani 2010). Further, I must lament what possible futures did not happen, what radical educational programs and organizations were destroyed.5 To close, I want to position Jensen, Head Start, and Sesame Street as historical artifacts.

While Jensen and Sesame Street are relics, this does not mean they went away. These ideologies continue, and are subject to additions, spin-offs, and copies. In 1984 Jensen, still defending himself and getting published, stated “we need not be helpless puppets of one social ideology or another … I view research as potentially playing a much more valuable role in society—as a unique and independent force, which might be termed ‘the Reality Principle’” (Jensen 1984). This “science is apolitical” merry-go-round needs to stop. To call for the elimination of ideology—in the realms of research, funding, and censorship—is a political project. During the 1990s, the IQ debates flared up again with the Bell Curve and repeated Jensen's old arguments. These reactionary researchers are neither “helpless puppets” nor a force of reality. In contrast, the hopes of Sesame Street—the self-proclaimed fantasy world of actual puppets—to solve social problems sounds completely archaic. To propose that a television show could end social conflict, structural racism, and urban crises seems quaint. Yet this dream persists, as seen in Sesame Street’s 2009 annual report, in the section entitled “How do you promote respect and understanding in some of the world's most embattled regions?”

We call it Muppet diplomacy. In regions with histories of conflict, Sesame Street co-productions promote respect and understanding among children of all backgrounds … The show provides kids with a solid foundation of open-mindedness, empathy, and appreciation of diversity, thanks in large part to Muppet role models … When [two Muppets] become frustrated sharing their space, they divide it in half with tape. Soon, however, there's stuff on the other side that each of them wants, so both have to cross over the line to get it. On one trip across the room, [one Muppet tells the other] some news that she's heard, and they both realize how good it feels to share. And that's the end of the divided room—a powerful metaphor in a region moving toward a shared future.

The message has not changed since the 1960s. Sesame Street’s intervention into the crisis in urban America was a dream that children's television could end social conflict, a quick and cheap fix. Social scientists and policymakers still propose that; focusing only on the child can solve poverty, separate from family, communities, and a living wage. As Mitchell and many others have shown, these interventions did not work in the USA. This “shared future” of diversity, empathy, and understanding is a historically specific vision, constructed as neoliberalism emerged. A vision that, as the War on Poverty failed, rationalized and reformulated the USA, and those excluded from America's Great Society were, yet again, abandoned. This raises the question, who did not learn to share?

  1. 1

    This article expanded on a book chapter about Jane Jacobs, Sesame Street, and the urban crisis of US cities (Siciliano and Jackson 2013). The chapter contains more information on the production, content, and reception of Sesame Street.

  2. 2

    These terms included “culturally deprived”, “educationally deprived”, “underprivileged”, “lower socio-economic group”, “culturally handicapped”, “educable mental retardation”, “slow learning”, “feebleminded”, and “cultural familial mental retardation”.

  3. 3

    Shriver's wife's sister was mentally disabled. Accordingly, the Kennedy family was a major funder for IQ improvement research. Shriver was also not the only expert to confuse poverty with “retardation” (Barksdale 1970).

  4. 4

    Jensen attacked many compensatory preschool programs, including the HighScope Perry Preschool Project that demonstrates the benefits of preschool education (the economist James Heckman has made a career from these findings, which has seen a resurgent of attention in the post-2008 recession).

  5. 5

    Some examples are the Freedom Schools of the Mississippi Summer Project and Tennessee Highlander Center's Citizenship Schools. The Child Development Group of Mississippi's Polly Greenberg argued the radical education program had to be “neutralized” in order for white professionals and middle-class blacks “to build a federal program … [that] transformed schooling from an arena for liberation into a social service” (Perlstein 1990:322; see also Adickes 1993; Greenberg 1969).


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Surplus Brains and Lives: Defining the “Disadvantaged Child”
  4. The History of IQ and Early Childhood Intervention
  5. Teaching by Television: Sesame Street Moves In
  6. Conclusion: Educating Surplus Populations in the Other America
  7. References
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