IT'S good to see Children's Television Workshop taking another major plunge into what used to be called "educational TV."
That was a gray, forbidding world before CTW took the curse off it more than 20 years ago with "Sesame Street." The innocent-looking series fomented a revolution in kids' viewing, through its brilliant subversion of popular notions about how the tube could be used to help kids learn.
This time CTW is offering a new literacy series called "Ghostwriter," launched Sunday on PBS (check local listings), and if it does half as much for its target audience of disadvantaged seven to 10-year-olds as "Sesame Street" did for younger kids, it will be well worth the huge investment of time, talent, and money ($21 million or so).
I know more than one sophisticated adult who found himself planning his day around catching "Sesame Street" in its early years, turned on by the creative vibrancy and electric pace of its episodic format. When CTW later debuted "The Electric Company," even more adults were hooked. That fetching series, designed to teach reading to pre-schoolers, was also an adult's bonanza of slyly comic meanings that often went beyond the grasp of the show's immediate target audience. CTW's then-president Joan Ganz Coon ey told me she was deliberately operating on several age levels, partly to involve family members. After all, CTW had to sell the radical notion of employing the compact inventiveness and eye-dazzle of TV commercials as a teaching tool instead of a sales technique.
The advent of "Sesame Street" supplied a missing ingredient to educational TV: big money. With top funding came top writing and production talent, like Jim Henson and his Muppets. Now "Ghost Writer" is apparently spending even bigger money on this new effort, one with a beguiling but markedly different format. It's a detective yarn about six young boys and girls who solve mysteries and get out of trouble with the aid of an unseen ally. He's a benign but elusive blue flash who writes scrambled messages an d semi-ominous warnings on everything from young Jamal'ss computer screen to the school bulletin board. And he can communicate with his friends only in writing.
Only in writing! Get it? Jamal and his friend Lenni discover this in the first episode, and by that time, the show has glued young viewers' attention so closely to the written clues that they probably won't pause long enough to say, "Hey. I'm reading!" They're too eager to read Ghostwriter's next message.
That's the same device "Sesame Street" has used so long and successfully in a different format: lessons slipped in sideways - call it education through indirection. In both series, kids' main reason for tuning in is to follow the action. But that action is, of course, merely a means to end. Both "Sesame Street" and "Ghostwriter" are Trojan horses with a hidden cargo of learning.
Not everyone likes the idea that teaching should be done by sleight-of-hand, that the learning process should not only be painless, but subliminal. What happens, the argument goes, when kids finally realize that learning may ultimately require grit and application, self-discipline, deferred gratification. Can you always expect to like what you're doing as you study? And what if every teacher cannot be as appealing as the Muppets or as the "Ghostwriter" cast? Is that the right approach? To make sure kids
don't realize they're being educated?
One answer is that neither series is even attempting to teach the value of learning. That's a different lesson, one perhaps beyond TV's capacity. But after "Sesame Street" debuted, teachers found that their pupils knew the alphabet sooner, and some classrooms had to increase the pace of their teaching.
I suspect "Ghostwriter," too, will achieve its goal: to help kids over what one spokesman called the "fourth-grade wall," an obstacle they face on the road to actually utilizing the reading skills they may already have acquired.
"Ghostwriter" may not be able to impart final lessons in the psychology of education, but it represents a big step forward, one that's vastly preferable to most things on TV today.
So let kids get over the fourth-grade wall first. Then they can learn what learning really is.