The 1950s TV Show That Set the Stage for Today’s Distance Learning

“Sunrise Semester” gave a generation of women a second chance at higher education

Sunrise Semester sunsmile logo circa 1958
Between 1957 and 1982, “Sunrise Semester” broadcasted lectures from NYU faculty to the general public. Screenshot via YouTube

In May 1962, the New York Times profiled Cora Gay Carr, a 37-year-old housewife and mother of two who was set to receive her Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University (NYU). An impressive accomplishment in and of itself, Carr’s graduation made headlines because she’d earned 54 of the 128 required credits by watching a television show: “Sunrise Semester.”

Launched in 1957, when NYU partnered with WCBS-TV to produce the series, “Sunrise Semester” broadcast lectures from NYU faculty to the general public. (Viewers who wanted to actually receive college credit had to pay a fee and complete additional coursework.) At the peak of its 25-year run, the show attracted an audience of around two million viewers, in addition to garnering multiple local Emmy Awards.

Carr initially registered for “Sunrise Semester” purely for the intellectual stimulation it offered. But tuning in regularly inspired her to return to school, and she became what’s known today as a “hybrid” student, taking courses both from home and in person on NYU’s campus.

“The whole concept of doing this sort of thing on TV is wonderful for someone like myself, who never would have thought of going back to college,” Carr told the Times.

Sixty-four years after “Sunrise Semester” premiered, distance learning has become the new normal, with schools of all levels attempting to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 by transitioning to online platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom.

“These are very, very parallel moments,” says Rosanna Flouty, an NYU scholar of museum studies who wrote her dissertation on the television series’ place in distance learning.

Cora Gay Carr (middle) and Floyd Zulli (right) at a reception for "Sunrise Semester" students in January 1958
Cora Gay Carr (middle) and Floyd Zulli (right) at a reception for "Sunrise Semester" students in January 1958 NYU Archives

“Sunrise Semester” was so named because of its early time slot: 6:30 to 7:00 a.m. One of the two courses offered each semester held lectures on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while the other was slated for Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Initially, the idea of a program that asked viewers to wake up at dawn to watch lectures was met with incredulity. Detractors doubted that such an early slot in the broadcasting schedule would be able to draw viewers; one critic lambasted the notion of a $75 course (almost $700 in 2021) without professor-student interactions as a “fraud.”

But “Sunrise Semester” defied expectations, drawing 74,000 viewers and 177 enrolled students in its first week alone. By the end of the semester, 120,000 Americans were rising early regularly to watch professor Floyd Zulli, a charismatic scholar of romance languages, teach the show’s inaugural course, an introductory class on comparative literature. The Red and the Black, an 1830 French novel and the first book on the course’s reading list, reportedly sold out at almost every bookstore in a 30-mile radius of New York City, prompting Random House to issue a reprint, writes Steven D. Krause in More Than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future.

Variety deemed the program “the first unquestioned hit show of the 1957 television season.” Fan mail sent in from viewers across North America echoed this enthusiasm, with one New Yorker saying, “I don’t usually write fan letters. But if you’ve got a fan club, I’ve just joined it.”

Courses on offer ranged from art history to philosophy, math and astronomy. During the show’s 13th season, in fall 1976, a class titled “Communication: The Invisible Environment” aimed to show “how, on an unprecedented scale, our lives are being changed by new media and technology,” according to an NYU promotional brochure. The pamphlet added that “the natural environment … recedes in the face of ‘mediated’ environments which increasingly govern our way of seeing, knowing and valuing”—an idea that continues to resound today. Other classes aired between 1957 and 1982 included “The World of Islam,” “The Meaning of Death” and “A History of African Civilization.”

Viewers could take a course—consisting of half-hour lectures, a term paper, two mail-in assignments and a final exam—for three points of undergraduate credit from NYU or (eventually) other universities. Classes had in-person components, too: Finals took place on NYU’s campus, and in the show’s earlier years, the school invited students who had completed courses to meet their professors at a gala. For those who had tuned in to lectures but didn’t want to complete additional coursework, the university offered a $35 certificate of completion. Overall, casual viewers made up the vast majority of audience members.

Paul Levinson on Sunrise Semester with Neil Postman in 1976

Few demographic analyses of “Sunrise Semester”’s viewership exist, but a study conducted between 1958 and 1959 revealed that, on average, students who formally registered for credit or a certificate had been out of school for 11 years. Another study conducted by NYU found that the show’s audience during its first year was 70 percent female and 30 percent male. Flouty’s analysis of fan mail revealed a similarly woman-heavy audience, with many viewers identifying themselves as housewives whose children had left the nest.

Flouty theorizes that individuals—especially women—who were unable to pursue higher education in the post-Great Depression era of the 1950s were forced to seek unconventional alternatives like “Sunrise Semester.” The show’s early time slot enabled housewives in particular to fit in learning before housework duties.

“I have this suspicion that there's something very empowering about that moment and women being able to be free from the household chores, maybe existing in this empty nest, so that it's their own time,” Flouty says.

Writing in her 2016 dissertation, the scholar added, “’Sunrise Semester’ sought to mimic a liberal arts education, which was possibly what many of these women gave up during World War II or during the Great Depression.” Though enrollment in higher education tends to rise during economic recessions, with individuals seeking ways to improve their job prospects, a 1932 study found that in 1930, the first year of the Great Depression, women’s enrollment actually fell. The study, which examined the period of 1860 to 1930, concluded that women were more likely to drop out or postpone their studies due to “difficult family financial situations”—in other words, men often had more savings and were better equipped to cover college expenses.

Following World War II, wrote scholar Patsy Parker in a 2016 study, women were released from their wartime jobs at a 75 percent higher rate than men. This mass exodus from the workforce, in combination with a growing apathy, and even hostility, toward women on college campuses, left many with limited options beyond the domestic sphere.

Sunrise Semester sunrise logo
Another "Sunrise Semester" logo SCTV Wiki under CC-BY-SA

As a professor who has herself been teaching online classes during the Covid-19 pandemic, Flouty says she expects to see a similar set of circumstances arise in the coming years.

“The reason that [the women] would have stepped away from their college dreams in the [19]20s would have been there was no money to send anyone to college, and I think we're going to have a similar effect now,” she explains. “It has definitely occurred to me how much more poignant the story is now that we’re actually looking at the economic freefall against the backdrop of a virus that remains unchecked and unsolved.” (Last year, the pandemic took an unprecedented toll on working women: In October, the National Women’s Law Center reported that 80 percent of the 1.1 million Americans who dropped out of the labor force between August and September were women. Many of these individuals were laid off from female-dominated fields like hospitality and education or found themselves unable to continue working while assuming a disproportionate share of responsibilities at home.)

“Sunrise Semester”’s eventual demise came down to finances. As a highly unprofitable venture, the show faced increasing pressure to monetize. Though plans existed to improve the low-budget series’ production value, CBS ultimately canceled the show to make space for early-morning news, a more commercially viable option.

Very few episodes of “Sunrise Semester” are available today. According to Flouty, new lectures were taped over older recordings that had already aired. But while the show has largely fallen out of public memory, its legacy is apparent today in the form of massive open online courses. Better known as MOOCs, these free classes adapt the concept of “Sunrise Semester”—repurposing the most prevalent technology of the day to provide accessible education for learners of all walks of life—for the digital age.

The popular MOOC search site Class Central estimates that 120 million people worldwide enrolled in the courses in 2019. These numbers have surged amid the Covid-19 pandemic: Coursera, edX and FutureLearn, the three most popular MOOC providers, saw as many new users register in April 2020 as in the whole of 2019, according to EdSurge.

Perhaps if Cora Gay Carr were alive today, she, too, would have enrolled in MOOCs. Her success story, despite taking place a half-century ago, holds particular resonance in this time of remote learning: After earning her bachelor’s degree from NYU, Carr went on to earn a Master’s degree in English. She later returned to her alma mater—this time, as a professor.

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