Chapter One: Putting Down Roots in the Vast Wasteland CHAPTER Putting Down Roots in the Vast Wasteland
In the spring of 1961, Newton Minow, the newly appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, was gearing up to deliver the keynote speech at the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters—addressing the very people he was charged with regulating. He had a lot to say about the state of television, both in a professional capacity and as the father of three young girls growing up in a TV-saturated age.
“My big interest was, from the beginning, children,” he later said. “Because I realized that children were spending more time with television than in school. I felt that television was not living up to its potential for kids.”
The thirty-five-year-old Minow, a lawyer from Chicago, had come to the attention of the country’s forty-three-year-old president, John F. Kennedy, through his friendship with the president’s kid brother and attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy—all of them the parents of young children. RFK and Minow, born two months apart, had become close while working on Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 campaign for president against Dwight Eisenhower. Even back then, television had been a frequent topic of conversation between the two men.
“When I was a child,” the younger Kennedy told Minow, “there were three great influences on children: the home, the school, and the Church. Now I see in my home a fourth great influence: television.”
Indeed, the speed with which TV was transforming America was troubling to the country’s intelligentsia. In 1946, only about eight thousand homes had television sets. By 1961, that number had surged to 47 million, accounting for 90 percent of all U.S. homes. The average American was watching six hours of TV a day.
Minow was no TV prude. To the contrary, he was a dedicated consumer of it, and, in his capacity as an attorney, represented one of the medium’s earliest national stars, Burr Tillstrom, the creative mastermind behind the Chicago-based breakout hit Kukla, Fran and Ollie
. (Though it aired at 6 p.m. and featured puppets, Tillstrom’s wry, mostly improvised show was not expressly aimed at young children. Among its devoted fans was a gangly teenager in Maryland named Jim Henson.) But the FCC job was an opportunity for Minow to address TV’s growing incursion into American life, and to make sure it didn’t reach a crisis point.
While writing the speech he was to deliver before the NAB, Minow leaned on another of his friends, a journalist named
John Bartlow Martin, for help. Martin happened to be at work on a series of articles for the Saturday Evening Post
about the state of commercial television. As part of his series, Martin had pulled an immersion stunt, watching NBC’s Chicago affiliate, WNBQ, for twenty straight hours. The onslaught of soap operas, game shows, and ads proved stultifying to Martin, leaving him cranky, disillusioned, and resistant to the bandleader Mitch Miller’s importunings to sing “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” on the program Sing Along with Mitch
. (“The author did not join him,” Martin dryly noted.)
To Minow, Martin suggested that the FCC chairman refer to television, in his speech, as a “vast wasteland of junk.”
The speech that Minow actually delivered to the broadcasters was gentler and more complimentary. He began with some disarming self-deprecation, telling his audience, “I was not picked for this job because I regard myself as the fastest draw on the New Frontier.” He proclaimed that he was a fan of The Twilight Zone
and CBS Reports
and promised, “I am in Washington to help broadcasting, not to harm it; to strengthen it, not weaken it; to reward it, not to punish it; to encourage it, not threaten it; and to stimulate it, not censor it. Above all, I am here to uphold and protect the public interest.”
But Minow, echoing Martin, noted that, at its worst, TV was “a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.” This version of television, he said, was indeed a “vast wasteland.”
Nevertheless, Minow believed in TV’s potential to be better, and, in his speech, he specifically cited children’s television as an area ripe for reinvention. “Is there no room on television to teach, to inform, to uplift, to stretch, to enlarge the capacities of our children?” he asked. “Is there no room for programs deepening their understanding of children in other lands? Is there no room for a children’s news show explaining something to them about the world at their level of understanding?”
Minow thought his speech went well. If there was any phrase in it that he expected to resonate with his audience, it was “the public interest.” But, to his surprise, the phrase that the broadcasters fixated upon was “vast wasteland”—a term that would enter the lexicon even though he never intended for it to describe the whole of the television landscape. For this coinage, adapted from Martin’s words, Minow received not only blowback from the industry—Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of the sitcom Gilligan’s Island
, named the show’s shipwrecked charter boat the SS Minnow
as payback—but also the unwelcome embrace of Luddites and snobs, who, for years thereafter, would proudly announce to him, upon discovering who he was, that they didn’t even own
“To which I would say, ‘Well, you’re missing something very important in your life,’?” Minow said.
One person who clearly did get the gist of what Minow was trying to say was Joan Ganz. She had moved to New York from her native Phoenix, Arizona, in 1953, when she was twenty-three years old, to pursue a career in television: a still-novel path, especially for a woman. The daughter of a Jewish banker and a Catholic homemaker, Ganz was raised Catholic in a well-to-do household. She harbored dreams of becoming an actress but, facing her father’s disapproval, instead took a degree in education at the University of Arizona. Fresh out of college, Ganz became inspired by the teachings of the Christophers, a Catholic group whose progressive leader, Father James Keller, encouraged not only civic engagement but also the embrace of mass media as a means of furthering humanitarian goals. For a time, Keller himself was a TV personality, hosting a syndicated show called The Christophers
(later renamed Christopher Closeup
), a benignly low-key, brimstone-free interview program.
In New York, Ganz found a niche as a TV publicist, one of the few options then available to women in the industry. Television in the fifties abounded with highbrow anthology drama series, among them Playhouse 90
, Cavalcade of America
, and the one that Ganz worked for, CBS’s The United States Steel Hour
. It was a good job, though it did little to fulfill her interests in social activism, and it wasn’t particularly challenging: Ganz tended to finish up her Steel Hour
work in half the time she was allotted.
Casting about for a way to fill out her schedule and engage herself politically, Ganz volunteered to arrange live events—debates, talks, and the like—for William Phillips, the cofounder of the leftist quarterly the Partisan Review
. In so doing, she fell in with the city’s notoriously argumentative crowd of public intellectuals and literati, among them Lionel and Diana Trilling, Norman Podhoretz, and Norman Mailer.
It was heady stuff for Ganz, if occasionally humiliating. Like the snobs whom Minow encountered, this group had nothing but contempt for the medium that she so believed in.
“I became a very looked-down-upon person because not only was I in television but publicity
of television,” she said. “You can’t imagine a lower status among the Partisan Review
crowd. But they had to put up with me because of William Phillips wanting me to help him put on fundraisers. I got to know everybody. I loved Lionel Trilling. Diana was a bitch.”
One of the few in the group with whom she developed a genuine friendship was, of all people, Mailer, America’s foremost pugilistic man of letters. Mailer embraced Ganz as a platonic confidante, someone he counted on to calm him down in his dark moments. She was, he joked, his “unpaid psychiatrist.” Ganz, for her part, found Mailer “very weird and scary, but irresistible.”
In 1960, this friendship came close to costing Ganz—and, by extension, the children of the United States—dearly. In the wee hours of November 20, her phone began to ring. “And I knew exactly who would be calling,” Ganz said, “because it was the only person who ever called me at four in the morning. I didn’t answer it.”
Her restraint proved wise. In Greenwich Village, as a party at their home was winding down, an inebriated Mailer had stabbed his wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife. Though Morales would recover physically and choose not to press charges against her husband, the stabbing became a lurid press sensation. Had Ganz taken Mailer’s call, she believes, her life might have unfolded differently. “He would have come to me, and I would have had to take him to the police station,” she said. “My name probably would have been associated with it. I never would have been chosen to lead Sesame Street
Fortunately, bad press did not become an issue for Ganz. Indeed, in a decade’s time, when she was married and known as Joan Ganz Cooney, she acquired the nickname “Saint Joan” for her tireless, pioneering work in reinventing children’s television. But she wasn’t the field’s only saint. Sesame Street
was destined to be thought of in tandem with, and occasionally in opposition to, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
, the other revolutionary children’s program to emerge in the late 1960s. Together, the shows constituted a kind of Big Bang, abruptly shaking up the TV landscape and shaping the sensibilities of at least two generations.
Fred Rogers, as it happened, overlapped with Ganz during her early days in New York City, though the two did not know each other. In some respects, they were quite similar: young altruists who didn’t like much of what they saw on TV but were nonetheless excited by the medium’s potential. Like Ganz, Rogers had moved to the big city to work in television out of a sense of calling as much as career. In Rogers’s case, the religious overtones were even more explicit—he put off attending divinity school in his native western Pennsylvania to give TV a try, going to work for CBS’s chief competitor, NBC.
Rogers had attended Dartmouth College for two years before transferring to Rollins College in central Florida, where he majored in music. Home for spring break during his senior year, in 1951, Rogers had his first chance to watch television at length. Like John Bartlow Martin, he was appalled by most of its content, which he found lamentable. But he was fascinated by TV and announced to his parents that he was going to take some time after graduation to live in New York and give the field a try. They were flummoxed by this decision, noting to their son that he knew little about television. “Yes, I know,” Rogers later recalled telling them,
“but I’ve seen enough to think that this is something I should do in the world before I go to the cloisters again.”
A child of even greater privilege than Ganz, Rogers grew up as a rich kid in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a factory town where his parents owned the factories. His mother, Nancy McFeely Rogers, came from a family that had made its fortune in bricks; his father, James Hillis Rogers, was an industrialist who owned a die-casting company and assumed the management of his wife’s family’s firm. His parents were compassionate capitalists, philanthropic and devoted to the arts. Fred grew up a de facto only child, alone until his parents adopted his sister, Nancy Elaine, when he was eleven.
The original expectation had been that Fred would follow in his father’s footsteps and take over the family business. But Rogers, asthmatic as a young child and therefore compelled to spend a lot of time indoors, developed a more contemplative, ministerial disposition. His parents, observant Presbyterians, did not object to his seminarian path.
The TV thing, however, was a curveball. His parents had connections at NBC, since one of Nancy’s forebears had been an original investor in RCA, the parent company of the network at the time of its founding. At NBC, Fred started out as a gofer and ascended to floor-manager positions on the network’s music programs, which abounded in those pre-rock days. He worked on the popular-song showcases Your Hit Parade
and The Kate Smith Hour
, and the classical-music-oriented NBC Opera Theatre
and The Voice of Firestone
. Among his tasks for the latter, he recalled, was
“hiring handsome but mute men for Risë Stevens”—an acclaimed mezzo-soprano—“to smile at while she sang.”
With his music background and affable, can-do manner, Rogers proved an adept TV hand, and NBC was happy to have him. He gave little consideration to getting involved in children’s television, though, until he was asked to. For NBC’s local New York affiliate, WNBT, he was assigned to work on The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour
, a Sunday-morning variety show that had migrated to television from radio, sponsored by the then thriving Automat chain. The program was devoted entirely to child performers, but Rogers, far from being charmed, was disturbed by the hustling, pushy stage parents and prematurely poised kids.
“I think it was then,” he later said, “that I decided that children should never entertain children.”
He was more disturbed still by Pinky Lee and Soupy Sales, comedians who broke through with programs for kids in the midfifties, on NBC and ABC, respectively. In part, it was a simple clash of sensibilities—Lee (né Pincus Leff), a manic, baggy-pants refugee from vaudeville, and Sales (né Milton Supman), a young, urbane Jewish hipster, were the antithesis of wholesome, Presbyterian Fred. Rogers was especially put off by the violence, as he perceived it, of their signature schticks: in Lee’s case, squirting his adversaries in the face with seltzer water, and in Sales’s case, receiving a pie in his face. Some kids might have laughed, but others, sharing Rogers’s childhood sensitivity, to which he still had ready access as an adult, might have found the wocka-wocka antics downright frightening.
Suffice it to say, the young teetotal Fred Rogers did not travel in the same circles as Joan Ganz. Though he and his new wife, Joanne, a fellow Rollins alum and a trained concert pianist, would not become parents until 1959, children were already on Fred’s mind in the early 1950s, intuitively a part of his ministerial calling.
“I don’t know why,” he remembered years later, “but practically every weekend while I was in New York, I took time off to visit day-care centers, orphanages, schools. It was probably some sort of a need to understand who I had been as well as who these kids are.” As for children’s television, Rogers came to believe that it represented the very worst of what his chosen medium had to offer—but, at the same time, it presented him with an opportunity to do better.
In 1953, Rogers heard that in Pittsburgh, the nearest big city to his hometown of Latrobe, a group of civic-minded educators, activists, and business leaders were starting up the nation’s first publicly supported television station. It would be founded explicitly for the purpose of offering educational programming. (There were already four other educational-TV stations in the United States, but they were funded by and affiliated with universities.) The new station’s foremost champion, and its first president, was a woman named Dorothy Daniel, a journalist and one-half of a Pittsburgh power couple with Royal Daniel, the managing editor of the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph
. Dorothy Daniel named the station WQED, after the abbreviation for quod erat demonstrandum
(“thus it has been demonstrated”), the Latin phrase used at the end of mathematical proofs.
For Rogers, the news of WQED’s founding was a sign. He moved back to western Pennsylvania, where he eagerly offered up his services to the fledgling station. He had been on a fast track at NBC, and might very well have enjoyed a long career there as a producer or executive—his New York friend Paul Bogart, later to direct such programs as All in the Family
, told Rogers he was nuts to forfeit his position at the network. But by 1954, Fred and Joanne were living in Pittsburgh.
Ganz, too, was looking for a job in which her dual interests in public service and television would jibe. Her quest took longer, in part because it wasn’t until 1962 that New York got its own noncommercial educational-TV station, WNDT, whose call letters stood for “New Dimensions in Television.”
Newton Minow played a role in WNDT’s getting off the ground. The station that it took over for on the TV dial, WATV, had been an anomaly among New York’s seven television channels, in that it was based in Newark, New Jersey. WATV, occupying channel thirteen, was always the poor relation among the New York metro area’s commercial stations, and by the beginning of the 1960s, its owners wanted to sell it.
Several big-ticket bidders lined up, including Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox. But Minow, keen for the United States’ largest media market to have a public television station, set up hearings about channel thirteen’s fate. This proved a turnoff to the commercial bidders and opened the way for the Educational Broadcasting Corporation, a nonprofit citizens’ group that was partly underwritten by the Ford Foundation, to have its lowball bid of $6.45 million accepted. Though its FCC license still placed it in New Jersey, WNDT—which took to calling itself “Channel Thirteen”—set up offices in New York, beckoning Ganz. In 1963, she finally left CBS, accepting a pay cut to take what she considered her dream job: producing public-affairs shows and short documentaries for Channel Thirteen.
The following year, she married Tim Cooney, a charismatic, well-connected figure in New York’s Democratic Party who was then working as the public-relations director for the city’s Department of Labor. Drawing public-sector salaries, the Cooneys lived simply in an apartment to the east of Gramercy Park. What they lacked in material wealth they made up for in shared political fervor. Joan’s documentaries, whose titles included Poverty, Anti-Poverty, and the Poor
and A Chance at the Beginning
, reflected her intensifying focus on alleviating the effects of poverty. The latter film was about an experimental early-childhood educational program in Harlem, founded in 1962, that anticipated Head Start, the Johnson administration’s 1965 initiative to better prepare disadvantaged preschoolers for kindergarten—which itself anticipated Sesame Street
The Cooneys effortlessly fit in with a set of young urbanites and suburbanites who self-identified as New Frontiersmen, fully invested members of the JFK generation. One of the couples with whom the Cooneys occasionally socialized was Lloyd and Mary Morrisett. Lloyd, a Yale-educated psychologist, had grown up in Los Angeles, where one of his closest childhood friends was a cousin of Joan’s named Julian Ganz. When a job opportunity prompted the Morrisetts to move to New York in 1958, Julian suggested to Lloyd that he look up his cousin “Joanie.” It took Morrisett until 1961 to do so, but he and Joan quickly established a rapport.
Morrisett regarded education as a sacred duty. His father had been a professor of education at UCLA and, before that, a teacher and principal. But rather than becoming a professor himself, the younger Morrisett was drawn to cognitive psychology. In the aftermath of World War II, when he was in graduate school, psychology was undergoing a boom in popularity—and respectability. Much of this was a consequence of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s establishment, during wartime, of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency. The OSS brought together large numbers of psychologists and social scientists for the first time, forging personal and professional connections that would endure after the war.
The OSS used psychologists for a variety of purposes, from creating dark-arts programs to undermine the enemy to developing strategies for optimizing the performance of U.S. soldiers. Two of Morrisett’s mentors were psychologists with OSS experience. His favorite professor at Yale,
Carl Hovland, specialized in the field of persuasion and attitude change, and had conducted studies on how effective U.S.-made propaganda films were in boosting the morale of servicemen—studies that themselves anticipated the ones that Sesame Street
’s research team would conduct two decades later on preschoolers. Another OSS alum and psychologist was Morrisett’s future boss, John W. Gardner, whose duties as an intelligence officer included assessing potential operatives’ fitness to join the agency.
Gardner became the president of the New York–based Carnegie Corporation in 1955 and hired Morrisett four years later. Like his young protégé, Gardner was an evangelist for the power of education, and, though only in his forties, was already considered a wise old head on the subject, an adviser to presidents and universities. (In the late fifties, he coined the phrase “the pursuit of excellence”—a term that, due to its overuse, became almost as much of a millstone for Gardner as “vast wasteland” would be for Minow.)
Morrisett was hired by Gardner to be a program officer at Carnegie in psychology, essentially charged with seeing how new and innovative developments in his field could be applied to further the foundation’s aims in education. What made this an especially exciting proposition in the early sixties was that cognitive psychologists were increasingly focusing on early childhood, with new studies indicating that the preschool years were a far more crucial phase of a child’s development than had previously been understood. As a result, Carnegie, which had historically invested heavily in programs devoted to higher education, began allocating more of its resources to early-childhood programs.
“We found that too many children were entering school unequipped to benefit from it,” Morrisett said. “And the way Carnegie worked is that when we defined an area of concern—early-childhood education, reading—it was the program officer’s job to become aware of the good work going on in such a field, how it could be magnified and better used. So that was my job.”
Why weren’t 1960s kids getting a leg up on learning in
nursery school? Because nursery school barely existed, at least not in the organized, codified form that we know it today. In 1970, just 20 percent of all U.S. three- and four-year-olds were enrolled in a preschool program. Half the country’s school districts didn’t even offer kindergarten to their five-year-olds.
While the 1950s and 1960s did witness a burgeoning movement of parent-run cooperative nursery schools—accelerated in 1960 by the foundation of a national organization, the American Council of Parent Cooperatives—these existed by and large in privileged communities, serving just a small percentage of the country’s pre-K kids. Most American families took an ad hoc approach to managing the days of their preschool-age children. With women still making up only about a third of the labor force—33 percent in 1960, 38 percent in 1970—this hard work generally fell to stay-at-home mothers.
And the more scant a household’s resources were, the greater the chance that its children were underprepared for elementary school, relative to their middle-class peers. The studies that Morrisett read determined that a black child from a poor neighborhood in New York was likely, as he recalled, to come to school “a few months behind in first grade and be a year and one-half behind by third grade.”
For Carole Demas and Paula Janis, two young women who were teaching kindergarten in the New York City school system in 1962, this sad state of affairs wasn’t a theoretical construct but a vivid reality. Friends since their days at Midwood High School in central Brooklyn, they weren’t long out of college when they were hired, together, to teach one hundred kids a day—fifty in the morning session and fifty in the afternoon—at P.S. 7, an old redbrick primary school that stood in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Built in 1882, it had served, in its early decades, the Jewish and Italian children of the families who lived in the neighborhood’s nearby tenements, among them an incorrigible troublemaker named Alphonse Capone. By the time Demas and Janis came along, P.S. 7 had fallen into decrepitude, and the tenements were now occupied primarily by black and Latin American families.
Unruliness was seldom a problem in their classroom; intimidation was.
“The reality of what we found was children who had never had any schooling. No prekindergarten. No nursery school,” Demas said. “Many of them lived in homes that were troubled. They were all terrified. They arrived at this building, which seemed enormous. We worked with them in a huge room, and everything about it was kind of crumbling. When you pulled on the shades, you were in danger of having them land on the floor.”
Demas and Janis, both of whom were raised middle-class, discovered that their students needed lessons in such rudimentary skills as how to hold a crayon correctly (with a three-finger grip rather than balled up in the fist) and how to use safety scissors. They smuggled a Christmas tree into their classroom, against city policy and the fire code, because they had learned that few of their kids’ families could afford to have a tree at home, let alone presents. Together, the teachers and students trimmed the tree with empty half-pint milk cartons wrapped in colored paper and milkweed pods foraged from a vacant lot across the street. Janis, for her part, went on a few dates with a toy importer she knew but didn’t particularly care for, “and conned him out of a hundred toys,” she said, “so every kid could have a toy for Christmas.”
“Idealism just seemed like a normal part of life” in that era, Demas said. Hers and Janis’s extended beyond the bounds of the classroom, to the point where they scrounged together funds to ensure that each of their students had a coat warm enough for New York’s winters. But more important than these acts of kindness was how the two women connected with the children as teachers. Janis was a guitarist and folk singer. Demas was an aspiring actress and trained vocalist. Singing together, the duo performed such classroom standards as “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” along with some Spanish-language songs that Janis had learned on the folkie circuit—and therein lay the breakthrough. The kids started joining in, and soon thereafter began to engage with their teachers in lessons and arts-and-crafts projects.
“They just started to bloom,” Demas said. Unwittingly, she and Janis landed upon a formula—integrating the arts and performance into their curriculum—for achieving the supposedly unachievable goal of reaching at-risk young children raised in poverty. It wasn’t until a decade later that Demas and Janis were given the opportunity to apply this formula to television. But when they did, with the sweet, low-budget The Magic Garden
, a local children’s program that aired on the New York station WPIX, the two friends became beloved gurus of the preschool set, their instincts ratified by critical acclaim and a twelve-year run in the nation’s largest TV market.
In the 1962–63 school year, though, Demas and Janis were marooned in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard neighborhood, oblivious to any notion that their methods might be scalable. Lloyd Morrisett, for his part, encountered a similar hurdle: he and Carnegie knew that they were doing good, but the experimental programs they were underwriting reached only so far, aiding children in the hundreds rather than in the millions.
Soon, however, these well-intentioned actors would acquire a powerful ally: the federal government.
Lyndon B. Johnson, running to retain the office he assumed when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, won the 1964 presidential election in a landslide, carrying forty-four of the fifty states. His campaign successfully portrayed his opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, as a nukes-mad, far-right extremist bent on cutting down the social safety net that had been put in place three decades earlier by FDR’s New Deal. Johnson, by contrast, was keen to widen the safety net, and now had the political clout to do so; the same election season gave the Democratic Party two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress.
The result was a storm of progressive legislation and action—Johnson’s expansion of and elaboration upon Kennedy’s New Frontier vision, which he called “the Great Society.” On April 9, 1965, Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose crucial section, Title I, distributed federal funds to school districts with a high percentage of low-income families, like the one in which Demas and Janis taught. A few weeks later, Johnson’s administration launched an eight-week trial version of Head Start, in which educators, during the summertime run-up to the 1965–66 school year, prepped poor children for their entrance into elementary school. (In the late sixties, by which time Head Start had achieved critical mass, Janis ran the Head Start program at P.S. 20 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and marveled at the resources at hand relative to her P.S. 7 days: “Fifteen kids in a classroom, with not only a teacher, but an assistant and a parent coordinator. And fantastic lunches. It totally worked.”)
More auspiciously for Morrisett, the summer of 1965 saw Johnson tap his boss, John Gardner, to serve in the president’s Cabinet as secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, the federal agency that oversaw U.S. education policy. (Later, in 1979, this agency would be split into two separate agencies, the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.) For the position of U.S. commissioner of education, the highest-ranking education post after his, Gardner brought in Harold Howe II, who had been his friend and neighbor in the New York City suburb of Scarsdale.
Howe, known as Doc, was a formidable figure in education. One of his grandfathers, Samuel Chapman Armstrong, a Union general during the Civil War, was the founding president of the Hampton Institute in Virginia, established in 1868 as a trade school for freed slaves. (Today it is Hampton University.) Upon joining the Johnson administration in January 1966, Doc Howe took charge of the U.S. government’s effort to desegregate public schools in accordance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His leverage was the vast amount of federal money that Johnson had set aside for education—in order for school districts to qualify for it, they had to meet the integration goals that he set. In some southern statehouses, Howe was referred to, derisively, as “the Commissioner of Integration.”
This alignment of circumstances—Gardner and Howe in charge of U.S. education policy, the sudden availability of federal money, the advance of cognitive psychology, and the newly heightened interest in early-childhood development—created an ideal environment for grand experiments in education. It was a fortuitous time for the Cooneys to invite
the Morrisetts to dinner.
Lloyd Morrisett and his wife, Mary, accepted the invitation from Joan and Tim Cooney. The dinner took place at the Cooneys’ apartment in the winter of 1966. Also attending was Lewis Freedman, the station programmer at WNDT and Cooney’s boss. For the occasion, Joan made boeuf bourguignon.
A few weeks before the dinner, Morrisett, who had recently been promoted to vice president of the Carnegie Corporation in the wake of Gardner’s departure, had experienced a parental episode that piqued his curiosity as a psychologist. Early one Sunday morning, he was awakened by a shrill, high-pitched sound. He followed it into the living room of his house in Irvington, New York, where he found his three-year-old daughter, Sarah, watching the FCC-mandated test pattern that TV stations would broadcast before their regular programming began: a static grid overlaid with concentric circles and an image of an Indian chief’s head. Morrisett immediately understood that his daughter was waiting for something—cartoons, probably—to come on. But he was struck by the tractor-beam lock that the TV set had on his daughter: the inherent fascination that the glowing screen itself held.
Over the course of the Cooneys’ dinner party, Freedman, echoing Newton Minow, spoke passionately about the unfulfilled potential of TV as an educational medium. His talk bloomed into a conversation, which carried over into the dessert course. Turning to Joan Cooney over coffee, Morrisett, mindful of what he’d witnessed with Sarah, posed a question: “Do you think television could be used to teach young children?”