Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor, Emeritus, Gerald Lesser will be remembered not only as a visionary on the role of the media in shaping a child's educational and emotional development, but also for the impact he made on many among the students and faculty at the Ed School. Lesser died yesterday at the age of 84.
"As a young assistant professor, I assigned Gerry Lesser's work to my students because it illustrated the power of applied developmental science," says Dean Kathleen McCartney, the Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Early Childhood Development. "The first time I met Gerry Lesser, he joked that he was sorry to have saddled me with the name 'Lesser Professor'; he also told me how proud he was that the dean of the school was serving in a chair that honored him. But I am the one who is proud to carry his name along with mine."
Lesser earned his Ph.D. in child development and psychology from Yale University in 1952 where his research focused on child development, the effects of visual media on children, and the design of education programming. He was appointed professor of education at HGSE in 1963 and taught developmental psychology and its application to education until his retirement in 1998. He also served as the chair of the Human Development Program for 20 years, recruiting several generations of developmental psychologists and cultural anthropologists to Harvard whose work reshaped the face of child development and education across the country.
Lesser is perhaps most well known as one of the scholars who - during his time at the Ed School - developed the curriculum for the acclaimed PBS series Sesame Street, a show unparalleled in the history of television. Throughout his 30 years at HGSE, he continued to work on Sesame Street where he served as chairman of the Children's Television Workshop's board of advisors from 1969 through 1996. Lesser was determined to ensure the show's value as a learning experience, establishing a strong culture of assessment and writing the 1974 book, Children and Television: Lessons from Sesame Street.
The impact of Sesame Street over the past 40 years is undeniable. In 2007, Time magazine named Sesame Street one of 17 shows that changed television, observing, "Along the way, kids have learned about friendship, cooperation and even (through Mr. Hooper) death. The show's format has evolved over the years, but Sesame Street remains one of the savviest things ever brought to kids by the letters T and V."
A champion of television as an education tool, Lesser often spoke around the world about how television could enrich children's lives and teach them, much like stories, poetry, art, music, and theater. In 1983, at a symposium on children's culture in Japan, Lesser said, "Television can bring them sights they have never seen, sounds they have never heard, people and ideas they have not yet imagined. It can show our children how things work, how other people use them, what goes on in the world, and how to think about it." However, he cautioned that it was up to humans to determine how to use the "instrument" to the best of their ability to engage, entertain, and teach children.
Beyond Lesser's impact in the world of television and children's learning, he also greatly influenced many at HGSE including Senior Lecturer Joe Blatt, director of the Technology, Innovation, and Education Program. In Blatt's course Informal Learning for Children, students are given the opportunity to work with researchers, creative talent, and senior executives from Sesame Workshop. "Gerry Lesser was a teacher, mentor, friend, and above all an inspiration to me and to other students across three decades at HGSE," says Blatt. "He taught us that researching, designing, producing, and testing learning materials for four-year-olds requires every bit of creativity, dedication, and wisdom that we could muster - and that the work is more rewarding and more fun than we could have imagined."
Lesser earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Columbia University. Throughout his academic career, Lesser achieved many accolades including being named a senior fellow at the Gannett Center for Media Studies in 1988 and 1990, a visiting professor at the Institute for Communications Research at Keio University in Japan in 1986, and a Guggenheim Fellow in 1970. He also received a Distinguished Contribution Award for Applications in Psychology from the American Psychological Association in 1974 for his "sophisticated and imaginative use of psychological research to help develop a new kind of human significance for television."