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How Lloyd Morrisett Built Sesame Street, From the Foundation Up

Sesame Street's most famous origin story centers on a 1966 dinner party. But the program was actually the culmination of a career that began much earlier.

Lloyd N. Morrisett, a psychologist who forged a career in philanthropic foundations, died in San Diego last month at 93. He is best known as the co-founder of Sesame Street, and yet, in the collective memory of Sesame Street’s staff and fans, he primarily has been credited with only two interventions in the show’s creation. One was his role in formulating the initial idea for Sesame Street at a 1966 dinner party, during which he noted his young daughter’s attraction to television and asked his friend, TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney, if she thought television could teach preschoolers. The other was Morrisett’s willingness to mobilize his connections in government and philanthropy to secure funding for the 1968 establishment of the Children’s Television Workshop, the nonprofit organization created to produce the program. Those contributions were indeed critical to Sesame Street’s existence, but over the course of his career, Morrisett’s influence on the program was considerably more extensive and profound.

Morrisett gave Sesame Street the characteristics that made it unique and that were critical to its reputation and longevity: its experimental nature, its educational curriculum, and its structure as a collaboration between academic psychologists and television producers. For Morrisett, the 1966 dinner party discussion represented not the first glimmer of a radical new idea, but rather the continuation of years of work in psychology and philanthropy. It was the moment he put all the pieces together and saw a way to address the increasingly urgent problems of racial and economic inequality. As a program officer at Carnegie Corporation, Morrisett was skilled at seeing connections between concepts, and turning them into relationships between people by facilitating new research and collaborative endeavors. He knew people with commitments to new ideas, people with the skills to implement those ideas, and people with the resources to support them. In short, he recognized that an experimental program for preschoolers was possible and could offer the opportunity to put psychology research and philanthropy to use for public service on a national scale.

The early 1960s seemed full of promise for Morrisett. Along with the rest of America, he witnessed the power and possibilities of television: in 1960 as underdog presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s agility with the medium turned the tide in his favor; in 1961 as FCC Chairman Newton Minow challenged the broadcast industry to produce something better than the “vast wasteland” of programming it had created; in 1962 as ABC began broadcasting in color to the 90% of Americans who owned a set; and in 1963 as civil rights activists expertly used the medium to bring nationwide attention to the Black freedom struggle. The early 1960s were a hopeful time for Morrisett personally and intellectually, too, as he embarked on an exciting new career: philanthropy. Born in Oklahoma in 1929, he had grown up in New York and Los Angeles and earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Yale in 1956, fully expecting to follow in his father’s footsteps as a professor. At UC Berkeley, however, he did not find teaching satisfying and he was unsure what to do instead. He left academia first for the world of nonprofits with the Social Sciences Research Council in New York, but within a year, fellow psychologist John W. Gardner offered him a job at Carnegie. “This was a bolt from the blue,” he remarked later, “I knew nothing about foundations.”[1]

At Carnegie, Morrisett found a mentor in Gardner, and a role in shaping the cutting edge of the field of psychology. Historian Ellen Condliffe Lagemann describes Gardner’s leadership style at Carnegie as one that centered on “a process of continuous, collaborative group reflection,” and a recognition that his staff’s “time, thought, knowledge and expertise constituted a resource at least as valuable as the Corporation’s endowment.”[2] Gardner, himself a psychologist, focused the foundation’s priorities on social science research in the service of education. Under his leadership, Carnegie financed what Morrisett described as “the ferment, really, that led to the flowering of cognitive psychology,” including the establishment of a Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard University led by Jerome S. Bruner. The foundation also supported research on the role of environment in development and the possibilities of compensatory education to level the playing field for “disadvantaged” children. Morrisett’s own study of psychology had been concerned with human learning, creativity, and communication; for his work at Carnegie, he developed additional expertise in early childhood education.

The issue, as it was framed at the time, was that children from poor households often entered first grade with reading skills six months behind those of middle-class kids –– a gap that continued to grow as the children continued through school. To address this, Carnegie committed around a tenth of its 1965 budget to experiments with more rigorous academic curricula for preschoolers. This was at a time when educators were uncertain how much young children could really learn. “We financed five to ten different programs,” Morrisett recounted, including one in Illinois in which Carl Bereiter and Siegfried Engelmann used drill and memorization to teach reading skills, “and the evidence was coming in from them that they were successful, that is, that you could teach children a great deal before they entered school in first grade. And the children that had advantageous education early did better in the early school years.”

By the middle of the decade, from backlash against demonstrators in Selma to the rebellion in Watts, evidence of the limitations of civil rights gains relentlessly playing out on national television highlighted the urgency of addressing racial injustice. Gardner left Carnegie in July of 1965 to join the War on Poverty and build the Great Society as Johnson’s Secretary of Heath, Education, and Welfare. Carnegie, too, began to broaden its scope in order to respond to the social moment. Whereas Gardner had oriented the foundation more towards academic research, his successor, Alan Pifer, encouraged his staff to be more active in creating new demonstration projects, supporting reform, and shaping federal policy. Morrisett became Carnegie’s Vice President. “You might say I was the production manager in the office,” he explained. “The particular things [staff] were bringing in for funding and recommending had to go through my office.”

This new position gave Morrisett a unique vantage point – and even a responsibility – to understand the political climate, the social need, and the state of cutting-edge research surrounding antipoverty, early childhood education, and broadcasting. “The job of a person at a foundation, my job, was to be aware of all the programs that you could find that had any relevance to that, or in some cases, if you couldn’t find a program, you could find a talented person in research or education or teaching who would be interested in doing it if they had the resources.” At a philanthropic foundation, he continued, “if you’re really doing your job, you should know, practically speaking, everybody in the country who is doing anything that is relevant to that work.”

He was really doing his job at that dinner party with friends in early 1966 when the conversation turned to the subject of television’s educational potential. He knew that the Carnegie-funded programs, although successful, were limited in scope, only reaching a few thousand students. With four million children entering school each year, as Morrisett put it, “the problem was far greater than we were able to deal with on an experimental basis.” He knew that Cooney had plenty of television experience – something Carnegie staff lacked – and a similar drive to address racial and economic inequality. Cooney had produced an award-winning documentary about an experimental preschool that became the forerunner for HeadStart, but she also wanted to address the problem more directly. Morrisett connected the dots: TV could make a preschool experiment grounded in cutting-edge cognitive psychology scalable to a national level, and Cooney had the experience and drive necessary to complement the research expertise of his network of psychologists in a productive collaboration worthy of Carnegie’s resources.

Morrisett sprang into immediate action with follow-up phone calls and meetings between Cooney and the Carnegie staff. In September 1966 he published an editorial in Science that laid the groundwork for the experiment. “Children of poverty need help to break out of the cycle of inadequate education, low occupational skill, low pay,” he wrote. Society was increasingly expecting more from education “and people are asking why children cannot acquire significant intellectual skills before entering first grade and thus accelerate their progress.” He predicted preschool would thus become more widespread, but to systematize it effectively, more research needed to be done about a range of different approaches. For instance, “television is an untapped resource, and its potential for early education should be fully tested.”[3] Morrisett hired Cooney at Carnegie, to spend half of her time on a policy advisory committee called the National Citizens Committee on Broadcasting, and the other conducting a feasibility study for an experiment to determine what and how television could teach young children.

To prepare the report on “The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education” that she presented to Carnegie in October of 1966, Cooney traveled the country talking with researchers at the forefront of cognitive psychology and early childhood education. Morrisett told me in 2017 that “her interviews were based largely on people I knew or knew about. I was her rolodex.” She found Bereiter and Engelmann particularly helpful – although regimented drills and recitations seemed an odd cultural milieu for a classroom, the experiment showed the effectiveness of repetition, a strategy that was a natural fit for the medium of television with its ads, formulaic shows, and reruns. Bruner advised that the experiment itself take the form of producing a program, considering both the urgency of the need and the impracticality of conducting experiments first and then producing a program based on the results. Instead, the show itself could be the material evaluated for concepts and methods best conveyed through the television medium.

In 1967, as Cooney worked to turn her feasibility report into a proposal for an experimental show, the Carnegie Commission on Educational Broadcasting released its final report, acknowledging that television had become “a technology of immense power, growing steadily more powerful” and that society had “the obligation to bring that technology into the full service of man.” It was no accident that the report specifically addressed themes that Morrisett and Cooney had been discussing throughout their project: that public television could be experimental, should reflect diversity, and “should give great attention to the informal educational needs of preschoolers, particularly to interest and help children whose intellectual and cultural preparation may otherwise be less than adequate.”[4] Congress’s enactment of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, based largely on the blueprint laid out in the Carnegie report, placed firmly in the public mind the idea that television could be a tool of antipoverty work.

Meanwhile, Morrisett began to realize the shape that a nonprofit organization needed to take in order to carry out this experiment. Like the other projects Carnegie had funded, it needed to be a collaboration; in this case, one between creative staff, content and curriculum design, and formative and evaluative research. Morrisett had eagerly anticipated the November 1967 premiere of the Ford Foundation-funded Public Broadcast Laboratory, an experimental magazine show createdto demonstrate the potential of public media. But it was canceled after only two years – a failure that Morrisett attributed to the program’s overreliance on advisors intent on fulfilling a civic mission but unversed in television production. The failure confirmed his conviction that “the creative people, really, had to be the final arbiters of what went on the air.”

Throughout the proposal process, Morrisett also guided Cooney’s networking internally within Carnegie. He spoke with her daily about the project, and brought other Carnegie staff members into the fold, laying the groundwork for Cooney to lead and for Carnegie to support the project. Morrisett was able to overcome “considerable staff resistance at Carnegie to doing anything in television” through his position and longevity in the organization, and because he had cultivated sufficient staff involvement to not be alone in his “personal commitment to the idea.” In January 1968, Carnegie pledged a million dollars to the project, which Morrisett thought “was probably the largest single commitment of the decade, and it was a considerable departure for Carnegie.” That grant proved the critical demonstration of the project’s legitimacy Morrisett and Cooney needed to convince the U.S. Office of Education and the Ford Foundation to back the proposal. Cooney formally announced the establishment of the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) at a press conference on March 20, 1968, to widespread press acclaim and keen anticipation from a nation eager to support the new program.

If the Carnegie Commission primed the U.S. public to see television as a tool for antipoverty, the Kerner Commission prepared them to look to the medium to address racial injustice. Released February 29th, 1968, less than a month before the public announcement of CTW, the Kerner Commission report highlighted media’s power – and responsibility – to help cool racial tensions and prevent further unrest. It explicitly recommended increased minority representation on television as a place to start. A program with an integrated cast that targeted urban, minority children seemed like just the salve the nation needed. As Cooney framed it in a 1993 speech, throughout the upheaval of the 1960s it felt as if “people were saying to their television sets ‘so do something!’ and finally the TV set said okay. And that was Sesame Street.”[5]

The promise of CTW also stuck in people’s minds as distressing events followed so closely in the wake of its creation. Producer Sam Gibbon had wanted to leave the world of children’s television behind, but after King’s assassination in April 1968, “it felt to most of us as though the country was in real danger of crumbling, as though the center would not hold.” At a memorial service for King in Central Park, he explained, “the notion that maybe it was time to do something useful was pretty overpowering. And it did seem as though CTW was a place to put your energies, a place to do what we had learned, and to do it for poor kids and minority kids.”[6] “This was a very turbulent time,” Morrisett confirmed. “All of us were very affected by the events” of the 1960s, and “Sesame Street was in part born out of a belief in civil rights that we all had.”

Over the years, Morrisett and others involved in CTW have frequently attributed Sesame Street’s success to the confluence of circumstances that made various stakeholders, from funders to media critics to educators and parents, receptive to the experiment. That the Children’s Television Workshop’s mission and methods resonated with Americans in the 1960s, however, was not an accident. It was the culmination of years of work by Morrisett and Cooney, and before that, Morrisett’s years of experience in psychology and philanthropy. Over the next year and a half, Morrisett mobilized his connections in the world of cognitive psychology and applied his canny understanding of project management, finance, organizational operations, and collaboration, continuing to shape what Sesame Street became by its November 10, 1969 premiere. For the next 30 years, Morrisett ably guided Sesame Street as president of CTW’s Board of Trustees, and the experience in turn profoundly shaped his view of philanthropy.

In February of 1969, mere months before Sesame Street’s premiere, Morrisett was recruited to be the president of the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation. Throughout its existence, the philanthropy’s priority had been on medical research, but its charter was flexible, and its mission was “to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge among the people of the United States to promote the general good of mankind.” Morrisett took this mission and focused it on supporting the civic potential of one of “the great socializing, educational, and moral forces in society, mass communications.”[7] There were few academic or nonprofit groups conducting research or experimental projects in new media, so as he had done with CTW, he cultivated his own new partners. Markle funded a network of communications policy research centers at universities, supported independent software designers, established journals where studies of new media could be published, created training programs to increase diversity in journalism, and provided media producers with resources to enhance their news coverage of candidates and elections.

The successes and struggles of Morrisett’s decade at Carnegie, 28-year presidency of Markle, and 30-year guidance of the Children’s Television Workshop, offer many lessons as our society continues to grapple with new media, education, and democracy. Morrisett’s career path also provides inspiration. He initially entered academia to study human learning. When he left university teaching and scholarly research for the nonprofit world, he was unsure he made the right move. He could not have imagined how profoundly it would shape his career but mused later that “when you’re in the process of making such decisions, the things you say yes to open up roads that you can’t see.” As the tumultuous 1960s wore on, Morrisett felt increasingly compelled to contribute something positive to the world around him. Working in philanthropy enabled him to do just that: to advance research across disciplines and to support policies and productions that had a direct impact on society more broadly. In our own historical moment, as academia is under strain and many scholars are unable to pursue the careers they thought they would have, Morrisett’s path is a reminder of other spaces in which collaborative, innovative, fulfilling, and socially transformative work can happen.