Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?

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The recent political attack on Sesame Street ignores all the educational and cultural values it promotes. First among these values is the importance of community. Human beings need people and we ignore this fact at our own peril.

I learned a lot from watching television when I was young. I learned about female empowerment from Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman. Star Trek (the original series) taught me about friendship, intellectual curiosity, tolerance for other cultures and duty. The destructive aspects of anger were hammered home in The Incredible Hulk, and I learned about numerous social issues from ABC’s Afterschool Specials. But before any of these came Sesame Street.

Sunny Day
Sweepin’ the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet
Can you tell me how to get,
How to get to Sesame Street

Basing its content totally on laboratory and formative research, Sesame Street was educational and boy, did I learn. I recited my numbers along with the Count and yelled out words that corresponded to The Letter of the Day. I sang songs about the alphabet with Grover and Miss Piggy, and began speaking Spanish with Maria. I wasn’t alone in learning from Sesame Street. A 1996 survey found that 95% of all American preschoolers had watched the show by the time they were three, and in 2008 it was estimated that 77 million Americans had watched the series as children. So, a lot of us were getting prepared for school by watching the show, but that wasn’t all we were being taught. Sesame Street was and is about much more than academic topics. Because it showed different kinds of people and Muppets getting along, I learned about friendship and tolerance. When Mr. Hooper died, I learned about grief. Sesame Street covered music, dance, art, empathy, sharing and many other prosocial skills. But most of all, Sesame Street promoted community.

Come and play
Everything’s A-OK
Friendly neighbors there
That’s where we meet
Can you tell me how to get,
How to get to Sesame Street

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Everyone lived on the Street. People worked there, bought their groceries there, and played and talked while on the Street. Most of the guest stars sing, danced and converse while on the Street. There is even a song about the neighborhood. (The people in your neighborhood are “the people that you meet when you’re walking down the street. They’re the people that you meet each day!”) Long before Cheers hit the airwaves, Sesame Street was the place where everybody knew your name and they were always glad you came. Sesame Street was a safe place where you knew that if you got into trouble, there was always someone happy to help. In this age of disconnection and fast-paced living, that means more than ever.

Sometimes I wonder when it is that we forgot just how important community is to our well-being. Human beings are social animals; we do not do well in isolation. Research continually shows this as study after study finds that people who are disconnected from others die earlier, suffer from poorer health and are just generally unhappier. We need each other. Yet more and more, we act like this is not the case.

Extended families are no longer the norm, so instead of being able to function as a family team in which there are specialists, the nuclear family makes it necessary for us all to be generalists. If you’ve ever tried to change a diaper or charge a battery without knowing what you’re doing, then you understand how stressful it is having to know everything. Neighbors frequently do not know each other, so people may not know where to go to ask for help, or who will be there to share in their good fortune. We don’t have time to participate in traditional celebrations, and television has replaced oral storytelling, a pastime in which people got to interact, stretch their imaginations and just have fun being together. In short, we’ve lost so much of our community, and are in danger of losing more.

This is a precarious place for us to be because, to coin a phrase, we’re all in this together. United we stand, divided we fall and all that. I could go on forever stringing together quotations promoting unity but I think you get the point. Community is how we survive. When communities fall, we’re all eventually in trouble, and history is replete with examples of this.

One of the best illustrations is the rise of the Third Reich. Hitler first attacked the Jews, and followed that with attacks on gay people, union members, intellectuals, political opponents and so on. In many instances, instead of helping each other, neighbor began informing on neighbor until the culture of fear was so widespread that no one could count on anyone else, and that is just what the Nazis wanted. In her fabulous essay, Community in the Face of Tyranny, Bree Despain explained the process: “If you destroy the ability, or simply the desire, to give or to share amongst a group of people, you will destroy the heart of the community. And if you destroy the heart of community and replace it with fear, then you will control the people.”

Is this really where we want to go? Would we truly rather keep everything we can get for ourselves and share nothing with others? Do we no longer want to be a part of something bigger, to spend time in a place where everybody knows our name and are glad we came? I can hardly believe it. Every day I counsel people who long for more connection, for the laughter and fun that comes with being around others who care about us. Every day I encourage people to follow their passions and find people who share their interests and ideas, to be a part of a group. And every day I talk with people about the importance of giving back, of putting everything into a larger perspective, of just getting out and being with others. After all, the best cure for depression is action and getting outside of yourself; the best cure for anxiety is distraction. Connection is the key and, for that, we must interact with the people in our neighborhoods.

Sesame Street has known all about this for years. It promotes that which is the best of us, so I must admit to a great deal of puzzlement when it comes under fire for costing too much, or for encouraging the wrong kind of values. I thought we wanted to improve our educational system, not make knowledge available only to those who can afford it. And if our world is turning into a place where empathy, sharing and tolerance are not valued, then bring on the Grim Reaper. So it seems we need to really do some thinking about who we want living in our neighborhoods and how they should be run. I don’t know about the rest of you, but for me, I want to live where the air is sweet. Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

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