Distillations magazine

Unexpected Stories from Science’s Past
April 23, 2019 Arts & Culture

The Case of Continental Classroom

Before Bill Nye the Science Guy, there was Professor Harvey E. White of Continental Classroom.


The first book I encountered at the Science History Institute had a black cover and a camera’s red eye looking straight at me. It was shiny with plastic laminate. On this cover were the words “The Story of Continental Classroom.” I was no stranger to Continental Classroom, a popular television show in the late 1950s, but I had never seen this particular book.

I’m a historian of science and media. My specialty is finding out information about little-known science television programs. Television shows are strange objects of study. Their cultural impacts are ubiquitous, but they don’t leave behind the usual ephemera (such as letters and memos) that historians rely on to tell our stories. So historians of media like myself become sleuths. To piece together the history of TV programs, we make phone calls to broadcast studios (“Excuse me, do you have any material on a show from 1952?”), we track down former television actors and camera people (“Do you remember working on this television program?”), and, if we’re lucky, we’ll find actual papers related to a project. Finding a glossy pamphlet such as this in the stacks? Well, for this private eye, it was my lucky day.

Continental Classroom was a television program that ran on NBC from 1958 to 1963. The series demonstrated a leap of faith for its commercial sponsors: could a TV program be used as a national teaching tool? Its designer was the genial University of California, Berkeley, physicist Harvey White, who organized science lectures and demonstrations that could be filmed and then broadcast to individual television sets. A viewer’s mundane living room was instantly transformed into a television classroom. (NBC was not the first to create such a show. That credit belongs to Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, which created The Nature of Things in 1948.)

Optimistically, White believed that televised lessons would make physics demonstrations literally more visible to students, whether they were watching television at home or in a high school classroom. He believed that TV “brings the visual aids and demonstration pieces right up to touching distance.” He also recognized that the television could attract and retain the attention of the viewer. “All pupils,” White wrote in an opinion piece published in Physics Today, “feel that the teacher is looking directly at, and therefore talking directly to them. . . . In essence this gives rise to the most effective of all communications situations: the teacher and one pupil alone with no one to interrupt.” Harvey’s op-ed was published in September 1957. A month later the landscape of Cold War science education changed with the Soviet’s launch of a small beeping satellite: Sputnik.

National news coverage of Sputnik spoke to the need for reform in science education. Through the 1950s college professors and industrial research scientists had openly fretted about a national shortage of science teachers in American high schools and believed television could deliver high-quality scientific instruction to large audiences. Sputnik gave these same scientists an opportunity to voice those concerns to journalists, who communicated their message to the public. Commercial network executives paid attention, including NBC’s director of public affairs Edward Stanley, the creator of Continental Classroom. NBC believed its show could help prepare students for higher education and educate those who couldn’t attend college because of rising tuition costs. Even more, it would help alleviate the shortage of science teachers by allowing a “TV Teacher” to lecture to larger and larger classrooms.

Continental Classroom students would be taught by Ivy League professors and Nobel-winning scientists. “What you’d have here,” Stanley explained to a scientific colleague, “would be a continental classroom.” (That, anyway, accounts for the origins of the show’s name). Further, NBC claimed that diligent students in the audience could actually earn college credit for watching the program. All they needed to do was follow along with a specially prepared pamphlet that included questions and prompts.

But who could lead such a program? I’m still not sure how, but someone suggested Professor Harvey E. White.

White designed a half-hour program that broadcast sequential lectures five times a week. The press surrounding the series stressed that “Dr. White” had expertise as a scientist and an educator. “As a TV teacher,” one journalist wrote, “Dr. White recognizes that the big educational shortcoming of the medium is that his students cannot ask him questions. Yet he is such a veteran of the regular classroom that he feels he has learned to anticipate every important question that his material is likely to raise in his viewers. He builds the answer right into the lectures.” Press for the series stressed that the show was never edited or retaped, which allowed it to keep a “live” quality. Similarly, they stressed how genial and soft-spoken White was.

Over the next five years Continental Classroom taught students physics, chemistry, algebra, and statistics. White recruited professors from other universities to teach with him. NBC claimed that more than 300 colleges and universities offered accreditation for the classes. Journalists noted that although the series was aimed at high school students, housewives, priests, and persons with disabilities also tuned in to the series. San Quentin Penitentiary recognized the value of the program and broadcast the series for its inmates.

Continental Classroom validated the idea that television could be an effective medium of education. The series was so popular—at its height drawing around 500,000 viewers a week—that rival CBS started its own version, Sunrise Semester. As White had hoped, TV afforded thousands of viewers the opportunity to visit a real scientist in a laboratory. The weekly program made science literally more visible to viewers.

And then the money ran out. Continental Classroom cost around $1.2 million a year for the network to produce. Eventually, executives at NBC decided it wasn’t worth the cost and canceled the series in 1963.

And now what is left? A few program pamphlets scattered across libraries and archives. This one book.

But Continental Classroom reminds us that unusual alliances between groups with different goals (broadcasters, educators, and teachers) can yield incredible results. They created a TV program that presented science to nonscientists in a newly accessible way. While it didn’t last, it validated White’s beliefs that scientists could successfully run a television program. NBC felt so proud of the series that it, in fact, created this beautiful book to celebrate the show. Born of the Cold War tensions, Continental Classroom serves as a positive example of creative collaboration.

Many thanks to Charles Day (Physics Today) and Flori Pierri (Sarnoff Collection) for their help.

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