Reading Rainbow Soars Free

The extraordinary success of Reading Rainbow‘s Kickstarter campaign — with a record-breaking hundred thousand donors chipping in over $5 million for distributing Reading Rainbow‘s literacy material as widely as possible to children, particularly those in greatest financial need — demonstrates how crowdfunding may shape up as something more than what The New Republic dubs “the world’s No. 1 solver of First World problems.”

Paying up-front for both the fixed costs of developing Reading Rainbow and programming its software platform for an array of devices, plus the marginal costs of distributing it to schools, many of which would be unable to pay for it otherwise, the campaign is a spectacular example of voluntarism funding a public good.

Literacy education is often held up as the public good that could only be adequately supplied by the very involuntary means of the state. Milton Friedman summed up both the mainstream assumptions and the evidence pointing against them:

“At one time I thought a strong argument could be made for compulsory schooling because of the harm which the failure to school your child does to other people. … But the work which Ed West and others have done on the actual development of schools makes it abundantly clear that in the absence of compulsory schooling there would nonetheless be a very high degree of literacy — that self-interest would be sufficient to yield a degree of schooling which would satisfy the social need for a literate society.”

George Carlin countered the notion that reading is something kids have to be forced to do: “Kids who want to learn to read are gonna learn to read. Much more important: To teach children to question what they read.” Which institutions that depend on unquestioned obedience won’t do, but was the basis of the literacy education in the Ferrer schools whose namesake was put to death by their governmental enemies.

Of course, Reading Rainbow had the enormous advantage of its widely-remembered original public television incarnation. And Seth MacFarlane would not have a cool million dollars to spare for the project (or the clout to get a Cosmos revival back on the air) without his commercial media empire built on the industry’s expertly managed monopoly revenue streams.

But such piggybacking on the existing broadcast media infrastructure, while helpful, is unnecessary in a network age. Just as the public schools’ literacy education is a gutted travesty of Ferrer’s, the PBS/NPR model was always a watered-down imitation of the listener-sponsored model of private stations like KPFA, whose founder Lewis Hill was among its radicals who spent WWII in conscientious objector labor camps.

Alternative media and attempts to make private Ferrer-like education available to poor children — like George Dennison’s First Street School that worked and yet failed to survive (as Herbert Kohl’s New York Times review of Dennison’s account The Lives of Children put it) — have languished in the interstices of a centralized economy whose elites have the power to marginalize them. But if given a chance, their successors will soar higher than a butterfly.

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