What You Do with a B.A. in English

Societies consternate themselves over how to teach the next generation to become quality citizens.

Art tends to be dragged into the crosshairs of this debate, because as much as classroom lectures and textbooks might be the most direct way to educate, we’re all slaves to entertainment over boredom.

Sesame Street is the gold standard for this sort of educational entertainment (or is it entertaining education?), which nascent Steve voraciously consumed. But in high school, Avenue Q became my gold standard.

Wait what?

A NSFW puppet musical instructed me on how to be a person in the world?!

Well, it at least prepared me for what (early?) adulthood feels like. And, in the process, it shed some light on the nature of educational art for children; “Sesame Street for adults!” is Avenue Q’s conceit and sales pitch, a phrase that also speaks to how the musical relates to educational art.

Sesame Street prides itself on showcasing thorny situations for developing brains, then unpacking and repackaging them into takeaway lessons that viewers can subsequently apply to their day-to-day going forward.

Yet as we age and experience the complexities and nuances of life, we might realize that these saccharine platitudes sometimes prove insufficient in dealing with “maturer” realities.

Avenue Q dives headfirst into such realities, attempting to deduce from them similar morals for the adult set. Listen to its cast recording, and you’ll hear some Sesame Street-esque morals like, “When you help others, you can’t help helping yourself.” But most of the songs revolve around Sesame Street morals for grownups. Let’s run through them:

  • What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?
  • If You Were Gay
    • A song about acceptance, of others and yourself (honestly, Sesame Street could air a not-so-blue version of this very same tune today — isn’t that right, red states?
  • Purpose, It’s That Little Flame, That Lights a Fire, Under Your Ass
  • *Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist
  • *The Internet is for Porn
  • A song about the pros and cons of making a mixtape for a crush (which would now be a playlist?)
  • I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today
    • A classic Sesame Street comedic aside about a colorful kook with real world parallels: a dude whose entire day/existence is defined by nothing more than forgetting to wear underwear; adulting is hard sometimes.
  • *You Can Be As Loud As the Hell You Want When You’re Making Love
  • *Fantasies Come True
    • Adults hoping for a childlike happily-ever-after; “don’t worry, everything will work out!”
  • *My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada
    • We’ve all been there
  • There’s a Fine, Fine Line
    • The heartfelt, heartbreaking truth of adult dreams (juxtaposing “Fantasies Come True”)
  • There is Life Outside Your Apartment
    • A reminder for people down in the dumps that, sometimes, the only way through is out
  • *The More You Ruv Someone, the More You Want to Kill Them
  • *Schadenfreude
    • A classic Sesame Street “here’s the definition of a word/concept!”, but one you’ll never find on their boob tube
  • *I Wish I Could Go Back to College
    • The most accurate song (ever??) about college nostalgia
  • Everything in Life is Only for Now
    • My existential philosophy

So what’s up with the asterisked songs?

By virtue of its intended demographic, Sesame Street puts forth sentiments its creators wholly endorse for children; because Avenue Q, on the other hand; is ostensibly for adults, it wades into murkier waters.

Does this mean Avenue Q totally agrees with its score’s sentiments?

Of course not! The show trusts the adults in the audience to think for themselves, to reckon with the validity of the espoused messages. If Avenue Q is about anything, it’s about how adults might be even more confused and troubled than children, with even less of a confident grasp on life’s answers.

You know, like the adults responsible for crafting educational art for children; the Sesame Street creators are as fallible and as imperfect and as flawed as Avenue Q’s characters. As such, can we really trust their conclusions beyond a shadow of a doubt?

Never. Welcome to adulthood.

Avenue Q is as much a satire of educational art as it is a satire of the presumed maturity of elders. For instance, its treatment of race can be interpreted as a satire of how race is stereotyped for the young, stereotypes that corrosively linger long after graduation.

Which calls into question the tradition of handling kids with, well, kid gloves. Are we sure children can’t think for themselves? Do we want to groom them into passive consumers, swallowing hook, line, and sinker whatever’s spoonfed?

Also, are we sure adults necessarily think for themselves any more than their offspring?? Or are a lot of adults locked in their ways, with their accumulated life experience giving them a false sense of knowledge, ignoring the inherent limitations of one person feeling like they’ve lived enough life to know how everything works. Does this conviction/arrogance make adults less open to reshaping their worldviews?

We’re products of our upbringing, and conditioning impressionable brains from the jump to look for easy takeaways might be doing everyone a disservice, from sperm to worm.

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