What you can measure, and what you can’t

My youngest daughter is in fourth grade. As she moves away from the primary grades, her teachers are encouraging her and her classmates to move from concrete, quantifiable thinking into more abstract, qualified terms. As we get older, it’s important to realize that concepts like happiness can’t be measured, but in many ways those are the things we need to have in our lives.

So when Willard M. Romney (I’ve decided I’m not going to use the cuddly little moniker for him anymore) gets on television and tells the world he will eliminate all funding for PBS, it’s just one more reason–and there are many of them already–why I could never vote for him to be president. It’s a simple case of quantities and qualities, and my own life experience.

Back in the early 1970s, before I even started kindergarten, children’s television didn’t really exist. But PBS, and the Children’s Television Workshop, received federal dollars and used them to create programs like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I watched these shows, and learned things that made me who I am today. I learned letters and numbers, yes, but I also learned about things like sharing, cooperation, and the power of imagination.

As a child, we’re more open to all of these things than we’ll ever be again. My parents hopefully provided some of these things in the home, but they couldn’t make me laugh like Kermit the Frog or Count von Count could. So a large part of who I am today is due to these shows.

The costs of producing these shows can be quantified by the level of funding that PBS received and distributed. But the good that this programming did can’t possibly be known. Is society $50,000,000 better off today than it would be if I were in jail for stealing a car or killing someone over a gambling debt? I don’t know. I’ve never done those things, and I never would either, because I started off school knowing things and using that to build my confidence to want to learn more. There’s no dollar figure that can be assigned to that, for me or for anybody else in a similar situation. But whatever money PBS received, it’s all come back to society in ways we can never really comprehend.

So when candidate Romney proposes lowering the boom on Big Bird and his cohorts, he’s writing off the benefits that these shows have undoubtedly brought over the past 40 years. All to save a few dollars. For him, it’s simply a question of quantity over quality. And for me, it’s Exhibit A for why he is unworthy to hold the highest office in this land.

An appreciation of man and muppet

I’m not sure if I can overstate how important the muppets were to me as a child. I started watching Sesame Street at an early age, and Kermit was by far my favorite muppet. There were others, too, and I liked them for their different quirks. But the “Hi ho, Kermit T. Frog here” call was something that always made me smile.

As anyone who has seen the Google doodle knows, today would have been Jim Henson’s 75th birthday. He’s been gone for more than twenty years now, but in some ways his work is still with us. I often tell people that I learned to read watching Sesame Street, not through the muppets but the educational shorts they would appear in between the muppet skits. There’s a reason that the show was always brought to you by two letters and a number, after all.

Not everyone learns to read before kindergarten. Some do, and some don’t, and it really doesn’t have any impact on a child’s life one way or the other. But for me, it made me confident that I could do something well. I’m all about confidence in the situations where I have it, and reading and writing have always been something I believe that I can do. And Bert and Ernie, Big Bird and Oscar, Grover and Kermit once amused me enough to open up the door for this to happen.

My family and I went to Washington, DC for Spring Break earlier this year. At the Smithsonian Institute for American History, I saw a Kermit the Frog puppet and a picture of Jim Henson on display. Seeing Kermit, and the man whose imagination brought him into being, brought a smile to my face.

I wish I could thank Jim Henson for the wonderful gift that he gave to me a long time ago. I can’t do that, but I can at least recognize, and pay tribute to, his legacy in this space. The world is a better place for me, and hopefully for others too, because of Jim Henson.