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Gerald Samuel Lesser (August 22, 1926 – September 23, 2010) was an American psychologist who served on the faculty of Harvard University and was one of the chief advisers to the Children's Television Workshop (later known as the Sesame Workshop) in the development and content of the educational programming included in Sesame Street, with the goal of making the material both interesting and instructive to the young children who were the program's target audience.
Early life and professional career
Lesser was born on August 22, 1926, in Queens, New York City. Raised in Jamaica, Queens, he graduated from Jamaica High School. After two years at Columbia University, he served in the United States Navy during World War II and returned after completing his military service to finish his undergraduate degree and earn a master's in psychology at Columbia. He was awarded his Ph.D. from Yale University in child development and psychology in 1952. Lesser was on the faculty of Adelphi University and Hunter College, and was hired by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1963, where he served as a professor until his retirement in 1986, after which he was a professor emeritus until his death. At Harvard, Lesser chaired the Human Development Program, which aimed to gain a greater understanding of how children are raised in different cultures.
When the Children's Television Workshop was formed in advance of the November 1969 debut of Sesame Street, Lesser served as the chairman of the organization's board of advisers, helping develop programming for the show's target audience of children from disadvantaged backgrounds that would be both attention grabbing and educational, so that children would be better prepared for school, closing the performance gap with children from a higher socioeconomic background. Using his background in psychology, Lesser studied the skills that children needed to learn in advance of starting school and aimed at creating content that children would be able to absorb and retain. The skills offered in the Sesame Street program when it went on air included learning to recognize letters of the alphabet, the sounds that the letters make, numbers to 20, and aided in the development of critical thinking and social skills. Each character, human and Muppet, was designed with a specific educational purpose; for example, Oscar the Grouch was designed to show children that different people view the world differently. Though Lesser never appeared on Sesame Street, he was included in a promotional video for the program to encourage stations to air the program. Talking with some of the show's most identifiable characters in the film, Kermit the Frog asked Lesser "When you get back to Harvard, how are you going to explain that you spent all day in New York talking to a frog?"
Together with Gordon Fifer and Donald H. Clark, Lesser authored the 1964 book Mental Abilities of Children in Different Social and Cultural Groups. His 1974 book Children and Television: Lessons From Sesame Street was published by Random House. Selected for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1970, Lesser was recognized by the American Psychological Association in 1974, awarding him the Distinguished Contribution Award for Applications in Psychology for "sophisticated and imaginative use of psychological research to help develop a new kind of human significance for television."
A resident of Lexington, Massachusetts, Lesser died at the age of 84 on September 23, 2010, in Burlington, Massachusetts due to a cerebral hemorrhage. He was survived by his wife, the former Stella Scharf, as well as by a daughter, a son and a grandchild.
- Marquard, Bryan. "Gerald Lesser; professor kept fun in ‘Sesame Street’", The Boston Globe, September 29, 2010. Accessed October 4, 2010.
- Staff. "Remembering Professor, Emeritus, Gerald Lesser", Harvard Graduate School of Education, September 24, 2010. Accessed October 4, 2010.
- Fox, Margalit. "Gerald S. Lesser, Shaper of ‘Sesame Street,’ Dies at 84", The New York Times, October 4, 2010. Accessed October 4, 2010.
- Yu, Xi. "'Sesame Street' Legend Gerald Lesser Dies at 84", The Harvard Crimson, September 28, 2010. Accessed October 4, 2010.
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