What It Do: Seriously, PBS Is Important

When Mitt Romney stated flatly during the first presidential debate that he would eliminate the federal subsidy to PBS, social media, political pundits, and a certain Aquarian columnist had a good bit of fun mocking his implied villainization of Big Bird and the rest of the Sesame Street gang.

After all, the subsidy to PBS makes up less than 1/100th of one percent of the federal budget, and eliminating it would accomplish very little in regards to deficit reduction, especially when coupled with the wealth-centric tax cuts and aggressive military strategy that Romney promises would become policy should he be elected.

But if the federal subsidy were to be eliminated, it would mean the end of PBS—at least in any sort of recognizable form—and, jokes aside, that would be a grievous loss to the nation.

A recent New York Times article examined a concept in early childhood education known as “word deficit”—meaning the effect the actual number of words heard by a child in their early years has on their readiness at the beginning of their education and, ultimately, their overall success during their scholastic career.

The article cited a study by two psychologists that found that children of professionals heard around 1,500 more words each day than children of low-income families. This equates to a 32 million word gap by age four. While it may seem like a strange metric to use, this deficit shows up clearly in test scores and academic performance.

Sesame Street and the rest of the educational programming offered by PBS goes a long way to help parents who can’t afford to take time away from their low-paying jobs to give their children a better shot at being prepared to make the most of their education. And there is no viable replacement.

Certainly not The “Learning” Channel, unless you consider following the misadventures of Honey Boo Boo educational. Not the History Channel, unless you want your children to show up to kindergarten ranting about Nostradamus and crackpot theories about ancient aliens and the illuminati.

These channels have drifted so far from any kind of actual educational value because they are for-profit enterprises that depend on ad revenue for success. And quality educational programming simply does not attract as many eyeballs as Honey Boo Boo. That may be somewhat of a sad commentary on our culture, but it is nevertheless an inescapable reality.

And if the federal subsidy to PBS is eliminated, that network will also have to depend on ad revenue to survive, which means programming decisions that are made based on ratings. And, probably sooner rather than later, we would see the same kind of things from PBS that we see from the so-called educational programming that exists on cable television. It’s simple economics.

The subsidy to PBS costs less than $1.50 per American citizen every year. In comparison, the BBC costs the subjects of the Queen nearly $100 per person.

This is somewhat personal for me. As a child of divorce, my family often found it difficult to provide the kind of structure for me that would have prepared me for my life as a student.

It’s not that they didn’t do the best they could with what they had to work with. I never experienced any shortage of affection from anybody in my family, and I was blessed to have step-parents that accepted and loved me as if I was their own blood.

But life rarely cooperates with our plans and intentions, and my rearing was no exception to this rule. Between the time constraints of work and the challenge of trying to make sure that both my mother and father were involved in my life no matter where we lived—or what differences the two of them had between each other—sometimes it was all my parents could do just to ensure I was fed and clothed.

But one thing they did insist on, especially in my younger years, was that if I wanted to sit in front of the tv, I had to watch PBS. Like so many other kids whose families weren’t always able to provide the educational attention they would have liked to, I watched Sesame Street and I learned.

I learned about numbers and arithmetic from the Count. I learned how to get along with others from Bert and Ernie. I learned how things were made, and about outer space and other cultures. And when I got to school, there were things that challenged me, but being intellectually prepared for the concepts being taught was not one of them.

And in seventh grade, I took the SAT as part of Duke University’s Talent Identification Program and did well enough to be invited to Duke—along with several hundred other high-performers—to receive an award for that achievement. And when I took the SAT for keeps in high school, my score was nearly 1,400 (a score of 1,600 was perfect in those days). This meant that, even though a healthy adolescent rebellion left my GPA somewhat lacking, I still had the opportunity to attend a decent university.

Without Sesame Street, I highly doubt I would have had the same experience.