The discussion of children's television in Washington has tended to center around a constitutional question: Does the government have the right to impose content controls on broadcasting? Broadcasters have a ready answer for this. Of course not, they say, any more than government has the right to tell newspapers or magazines what to print. But they are tripped up, struck dumb, when the discussion turns away from their rights and toward their obligations - - their duty as good citizens to have a concern for the welfare of the next generation. Even if broadcasters have a right to produce mind-rotting junk cartoons for children, are they justified in doing so?

Newton Minow, who famously called television "a vast wasteland" when he was President Kennedy's FCC commissioner, asks just this question in his new book, Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television and the First Amendment ( written with Craig L. Lamay). Are broadcasters like tobacco companies, whose indisputably legal activities are nevertheless increasingly regarded by the press and the public as morally tainted? Minow and Lamay conclude that they are. But they do so only by virtue of having made the same assumption that nearly everyone involved in the debate makes -- that it is easy to define what the Children's Television Act of 1990 calls "the educational and informational needs" of America's TV-addicted children.

After all, everybody knows that Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow and Bill Nye the Science Guy are "educational" (partly because they usually app ear on PBS, which, older readers will remember, used to be called National Educ ational Television); everybody knows, too, that the commercial cartoon series Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, and Batman are not "educational" -- at least not in the sense of being thought wholesome and desirable for children to watch. But is what everybody knows the truth?

Evidence is hard to come by. Indeed, the entire research history of the study of the effects of children's programming is relegated to a single footnote in the FCC's 50-page "Notice of Proposed Rule Making" of April 7, 1995, on new ideas for the enforcement of the Children's Television Act. Proponents cite a new study by Aletha C. Huston and John C. Wright of the Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children at the University of Kansas, which concludes that Sesame Street and its like are good for kids because "preschoolers in low-income areas around Kansas City who had watched educational television programming, including Sesame Street, not only were better prepared for school but actually performed better on verbal and math tests as late as age 7 than would have been expected otherwise. " Better than what? Better than a control group of children who watched "adult programming and educational cartoons." Oh, by the way, the study was sponsored by the Children's Television Workshop, producers of Sesame Street.

Even supposing that the findings of Huston and Wright (from a sample of only 250) are accurate -- who is to say that the researchers are not trying to establish, as Dr. Johnson put it, the precedence between a louse and a flea? If it is marginally better to watch Sesame Street than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, does it follow that it is good to watch either? And what about the effects, if any, after age 7? Thomas D. Cook of Northwestern University concluded the opposite -- that "kids who watched for a season gained about two letters of the alphabet."

The truth that everybody really does know, but doesn't quite say, is this: TV, whether "commercial" or "educational," isn't good for you. It isn't good for adults, and it's worse for children. Given that we do not live in the sort of society in which it is possible to ban it, but rather in a society in which parents are eager to offload their responsibilities for limiting the damage onto politicians and policymakers, the latter have a strong incentive to foster the illusion that TV can be made into a Force for Good. If only the government regulates it properly, the adherents of educational television fondly suppose, the cathode-ray tube will become a window on the world, a universal access point to the arts and sciences of mankind, one that will transform us through the miracle of technology into a nation of scholars and poets, of connoisseurs and craftsmen, of geniuses and gentlefolk.

This is sheer self-deception. At its best, television is light entertainment. And anything that was not light entertainment before being translated into televisionese, like Masterpiece Theatre versions of literary classics, becomes light entertainment by the mere fact of appearing on it. Opera, ballet, serious drama, serious discussions, all approach the condition of soap opera when adapted for television. Occasionally, educated adults may profit by watching a lecture or a documentary, but even such "high-brow" programming is characteristically superficial and liberally livened up with the tricks of commercial entertainment.

And what, then, of children? They, who have no intellectual context in which to place the constant stream of moving images, will never gain anything of any educational use from it. For learning is never passive. Learning requires the active participation of the learner in answering questions, repeating or re- enacting what he has been told, and formulating out of reading and discussion a point of view that is not ready-made for him -- a point of view that is his own. But television is the passive medium. Recent studies suggest that even supposedly "interactive" computer learning is too passive an activity to have much in the way of measurable effects on children's learning. How much more instantly forgettable are the totally passive experiences of television?

To prove the point, watch a program like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, which is meant to teach geography and history. The show features a routine chase cartoon of a bad guy (or in this case gal -- the titular Carmen Sandiego) pursued by a committee made up of a young man, a young woman, and an old man. The day I watched with my 9-year-old son, Carmen Sandiego stole some artifacts from the Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which allowed the show's producers to graft on some information about Santa Fe and the museum. My son watched in rapt attention. Afterwards he remembered the story but, when asked where it took place, he thought for a moment and then ventured: "Mexico?"

This is not (I say fondly) a stupid child. He merely takes from the succession of images presented to him that which its own logic has determined is important. In the same way, the internal logic of Sesame Street dictates that the songs and the sketches and the jokes occupy the 6 foreground while the "numbers and the letters are incidental. Why should we expect children to think these have more importance than the show itself attributes to them? The makers of these "educational" shows know that the educational substance has been relegated to an invisible background, but it is the fundamental premise on which they work: Kids will watch only if they don't know they're going to learn something.

Thus, the makers of educational television reveal themselves beholden to the most basic principle of educational theory of the last 60 or 70 years. Even before television, there was a dangerous tendency among the most highly regarded educators to turn schools into inferior amusement parks. Learning can be fun, they said; tear down the walls in schools, let the creativity of children run free, and all will be well.

It is certainly a nice idea, but it flies in the face of common experience: We all know that learning, particularly in its early stages, is actually painful. Happily, nature has made the most painful bits least painful to the young. Practicing scales is tedious in the extreme compared with playing Mozart, but it is less tedious to small children who don't yet know what Mozart is. Learning irregular verbs is an awful chore, but the irritation is more easily borne by those who are as yet innocent of the ambition to read Proust.

Along the way -- and here television played a crucial role -- the educational establishment altered its maxim from "learning can be fun" to " learning must be fun." It must be transmitted through computers, and through television sets, and through games -- must, in other words, be delivered by the same means that children receive their entertainment. And thus it short- circuited nature's way of preparing us for serious scholarship -- learning patience, and attentiveness, and the rewards that come from the careful perusal of a subject over time.

Few outside what William J. Bennett called "the education blob" believe the " education must be fun" theory has been anything short of a disaster. And still Washington is so committed to the idea that it feels compelled to require the broadcast of shows developed according to its assumptions. The idea that education al television isn't educational never comes up in public policy debates. And it should.

This is not to say that children learn nothing from television. Indeed, they learn quite a lot of things not traditionally thought of as priority items in the catalogue of "educational and informational needs." But they should not be dismissed, because, like it or not, they are part of the cultural glue that binds America together. Television teaches a language -- and it is a language that, from the time of radio onward, every American child has learned to speak. What a universal entertainment medium can teach is a certain sophistication, a sense of irony, and an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture -- and no legislation is needed to generate it.

Right now, the best example of this is a cartoon show called Animaniacs, a Steven Spielberg production that is the second most popular children's series on television, next to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. It brings to life the supposed Warner brothers, Wakko and Yakko, and a Warner sister called Dot, who have supposedly been shut up in the Warner Bros. studio water tower for misbehav-/ ior. They sing and dance and perform little sketches-like singing the ingredients listed on a carton of ice cream or enacting the gravedigger scene from Hamlet in the original (Wakko and Yakko play Hamlet and the sexton). Dot provides a slang translation from the lower left-hand corner of the screen.

At the end of the show, the three of them trundle out "The Wheel of Morality" from which they obtain "Today's Lesson." This might go something like this: " The answer is blowing in the wind -- except in New Jersey, where what's blowing in the wind smells funny." It might seem troublesome that "morality" is being made fun of. But what's being parodied here is not true morality, but rather the "educational messages" that appear at the end of other shows for children -- messages that are tacked on to make broadcasters feel as though they are adding a little "education" to shows that are otherwise half-hour toy advertisements.

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which is intended for much smaller children than Animaniacs, features highly moralistic plot lines and clearly identified g ood and evil characters, topped off by some explicit preaching at the end, main ly about the environment. This kind of cant always causes a backlash; my own ch ildren take it as a mark of their maturity that they can make fun of it. That i s what Animaniacs plays upon -- the ways in which popu lar culture plays upon itself and helps children to develop a sense of irony that happily alerts them to crude attempts at indoctrination or to the hypocrisies of their elders. One of the cartoons on Animaniacs features a baby girl called Mindy who, like Sweetpea in the old "Popeye" cartoons, is always wandering off and innocently placing herself in situations of the utmost peril -- from which she always contrives to escape with a fool's luck. Back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl were all frantically in pursuit of poor Sweetpea, fearful in their quaint adult way of what might happen to him as he wandered on skyscraper girders or along canyon ledges. Mindy, by contrast, is shadowed only by her dog, Buttons, who tries to keep her out of various disasters in her path and inevitably succumbs to them himself. Her parents are not only absent; they are usually off at a "better parenting conference" or a lecture on the endangered rain forest.

Even more remarkable are the examples of self-irony. On yet another segment of Animaniacs, Katie Kaboom, a pretty cheerleader type of high-school age, is immensely pleased with herself for landing as her "steady" the very popular CB. Her parents, however, are faced with the melancholy duty of pointing out to her that the guy is unsuitable. In spite of a clearly strong academic and athletic record, and the consensus that he is a real campus leader, he is not the guy for Katie because he is, well, a chicken. Katie, whose claim to cartoonish distinction is, as her name suggests, her explosive (and essentially infantile) temper, becomes furious with her parents. "You never like my friends!" she screeches at them, as she swells up and turns red. Then, as everyone runs for cover, she literally explodes.

Later, she also lets CB have it: "Why didn't you tell me?" Though she has demolished the family home, she turns to her mother in tears, expecting and getting her sympathy, and says: "Morn? CB and I broke up!" This startling refusal to take teenage suffering seriously-this willingness to make fun of it, in fact -- represents something of a psychic and cultural advance by the children of baby boomers, for whom the narcissism and self-dramatization typical of the early days of the youth culture are still among the cultural shibboleths of their generation.

Idon't want to oversell the wit and wisdom and sophistication of commercial programming for kids, but its techniques do help one understand the post- modern style now so common in film, theater, fiction, and all the arts and sure to become still more common. Another example is provided by the Fox Saturday morning cartoon show, The Tick, which offers what might be called " second-generation irony." First there were the superheroes; then there were the ironic superheroes; now there are the really ironic superheroes. The children of those who enjoyed the campy, ironic style of Batman back in the 1960s are now watching send-ups of the send-ups that their parents enjoyed. The Tick is one of a group of crimefighters costumed as unlikely or imaginary animals (others are Duh Fledermaus and the Sewer Urchin) who take a road trip, looking for fun, and wind up at a hotel advertising "Superheroes Welcome."

Sidekicks, alas, are not quite so welcome. And so the Tick's assistant, Arthur the Moth, is told to go round the back to the Sidekicks" Lounge, a cramped sergeants" mess where he pals up with a lugubrious caped Wonderdog. "I been kickin" all over this country for a superhero with a brain the size of a walnut," says Wonderdog, who is himself in therapy trying to transform himself from a violent to "a more centered, whole person." Aggressive remarks from others he treats as primitive manifestations: "This is just what my therapist was talking about: Violence never solves anything. Put violence in the happy box," he says -- amusingly appealing, perhaps, to a considerable population of more or less cynical little boys whose littleboy pugnacity, deemed " inappropriate" in the 1990s, has landed them in counseling.

Meanwhile, in the club for superheroes, the Tick meets an extremely campy fellow in a toga with a model of a vaguely classical ruin on his head who describes himself as "Agrippa, the Roman God of Aqueducts" and a foxy little superheroine called Jett Valkyrie. When his companion makes a suggestive remark to American Maid (dressed in a red-white-and-blue apron), she replies with an almost feminist tartness: "You've got "arrested development" written all over you, Fledermaus." In another episode, where the club of superheroes is threatened by a giant clown, American Maid gets all atwitter when Fledermaus offers his protection. "You would stay just to help me?" she asks.

"Sure," says Duh Fledermaus. "Besides, what could you do anyway? Hit it with a shoe?"

"Don't start with me!" she cries, once more on her guard. But when the gang r eturns from yet another defeat by the giant clown, American Maid is baref oot, having thrown her shoes at it after all.

Other shows, most of them on the Fox network, are equally sophisticated -- among them Tiny Toon Adventures, Eek the Cat, and even a cartoon Batman$ N -- and, like the Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1940s, they require a comprehensive knowledge of grown-up popular culture to enjoy them fully. They also help supply that knowledge. Although many of their allusions pass over the heads of younger viewers, they are flattered by being treated as more sophisticated than they are -- and will tend to grow into that sophistication by the time they are teenagers.

Now compare this with the much-beloved Sesame Street, and what you discover is that what is good about it is precisely what is also good about the commercial cartoons: It is funny and clever and teaches a sort of sophistication that would have been remarkable a generation ago but is the birthright of kids born into the age of electronic media. On Sesame Street,$ N one musical number is done as a Whitney Houston-style torch song called "How I Miss My X" and involves movie-style flashbacks to romantic scenes between the singer and a Gumby-like figure in the shape of the letter X.

Contrast the imaginative sophistication it took to write that bit with two separate lessons in the same show on the difference between "up" and "down," and another about the various positions in which people sleep. Is there anyone who could even begin to understand "How I Miss My X" who would not already know what up is, what down is, and how people sleep -- not to mention numbers, letters, and maybe a year or two of a foreign language? In any case, what could they learn from all this that they could not learn as well from those Fox cartoons? Parody is the common currency both of Sesame Street and of the commercial cartoons, and such training in postmodern irony is undoubtedly the chief educational product of both kinds of program.

It's possible they might remember, later in life, that the Tokyo String Quartet appeared to play a minuet to which Big Bird and Mr. Snuffieupagus, the latter in a powdered wig, did a galumphing dance. But the Tokyo String Quartet is not introduced in a way that differentiates it from other musical acts on $ ISesame Street. No one is there to tell four-year-old kids that they are now being exposed to high culture; that might devalue "How I Miss My X." Indeed, the fact that the minuet is the occasion for a funny sketch places it firmly in the same category as the other music and dancing. Elegance is rendered ridiculous for the sake of the children.

Yet even those conservatives who would abolish PBS without a moment's hesitation still run for cover when the alleged peril to "Big Bird" is brought up against them. In truth, the potency of the "Big Bird" argument, and the reason that the idea of "educational television" continues to have such widespread appeal is simple: parental guilt. The Children's Television Workshop, which produces Sesame Street, lives on parental guilt. The CTW is currently engaged in an aggressive marketing campaign called Project PEP ( Preschool Education Program) to sell the show to as many day care centers as possible. The company's marketers promote the show as an analgesic for More and Dad. "Parents could stop won&ring whether their children are watching TV at the child care center," says Alice Cahn, director of children's programming at PBS, "and hopefully focus instead on the truly important questions: What are my kids watching?"

Parents want desperately to believe that the "truly important" question here concerns content, not television itself. They want to be reassured that television itself is not eating away at their children's minds, and they will pay handsomely, either through tax dollars or donations, for such reassurance. The sad truth is that educational programming for children is really directed at their parents.

James Bowman is movie critic for the American Spector and media critic for the New Criterion.

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