Walt Disney and Education

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

While he never graduated high school, Walt Disney was lauded with honorary diplomas, degrees, doctorates and other kinds of education-related recognition during his lifetime.

Walt said in The Hearst newspaper The American on June 23, 1938, "Get me right, boys. I'm grateful for these honorary degrees and the distinction they confer. But I'll always wish I'd had the chance to go through college in the regular way and earn a plain Bachelor of Arts like the thousands of kids nobody ever heard of, who are being graduated today."

When Walt received a Distinguished Alumnus Award in May 1963 from the Kansas City Art Institute from which he had never graduated, Walt told the press, "Gosh. This goes along with my honorary high school diploma. I had honorary degrees from Yale, Harvard and [University of] Southern California before word got out that I didn't have a high school diploma. Now I have six high school diplomas."

I recently wrote about Walt's limited educational background in The Education of Walt Disney.

During World War II, the Disney Studios did a lot of health-oriented films for the U.S. Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA), including The Unseen Enemy, about the problems of using untreated waste water, and The Winged Scourge, with the Seven Dwarfs battling the Malaria Mosquito.

Walt Disney reads a script on a movie set.

By 1945, the CIAA was doing 8,000 showings each month of these Disney-produced films—like Hookworm, Cleanliness Brings Health and How Disease Travels—and drawing in an audience of almost four million people.

The experience of producing those films led the Disney Studios after the war to produce educational films for a variety of companies. Those titles included: The ABC of Hand Tools (General Motors), Bathing Time for Baby (Johnson and Johnson), How to Catch a Cold (Kleenex) and, of course, The Story of Menstruation (International Cellucotton Co).

During World War II, Carl Nater was the production coordinator of military educational films at Disney. Apparently, he was challenged by the U.S. Government auditors for including overhead on his bills which they called "Mickey Mouse bookkeeping".

Nater remained in charge of the 16mm film division (later Walt Disney Educational Media) for more than two decades beginning in 1945. Schools could rent Disney features to show in the classroom or as fundraisers.

He assured the theatrical film venues that Disney would not even permit schools or PTAs to schedule renting Disney 16mm films on Saturdays since it was considered in direct conflict with motion picture theaters.

In addition, shortened versions of Disney films were packaged for release for school use. Reportedly, Nater tried unsuccessfully to suppress Ward Kimball's Mars and Beyond being released to schools because he felt it "promoted evolution."

Interestingly, the division had released the Rite of Spring dinosaur segment from Fantasia on 16mm with a narration and titled "A World Is Born" that also spurred criticisms about promoting evolution.

Around 1968, the Disney 16mm film rental division became the Walt Disney Educational Media Company with Nater as the president, operating out of an office in Glendale. The company was making close to one million dollars a year renting and selling films and filmstrips to schools, but they were looking to expand production.

WDEMCO was an independent subsidiary of Walt Disney Productions. Around the same time, Charles Grizzle was brought on as a department head and his first accomplishment was the creation of a Bambi filmstrip with sound track.

By 1973, WDEMCO was grossing more than $10 million annually thanks to its expanded catalog, but there was a push by management to explore even more product ideas including topics such as Personal Hygiene, Worldwide Communications, Ecology, The Conquest of Mexico, The Machinery of Justice, American Legendary Characters, Animals of the Primeval World and Native American History.v

Many school children including myself looked forward to seeing a Disney film at school including Donald Duck in MathMagicLand that helped me understand mathematical concepts or Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom that helped me understand music concepts.

This division had the full support of Walt Disney, not only as an opportunity for another revenue generator, but Walt's strong belief that animation was an effective method of teaching. In addition, Walt's weekly television show often showcased educational topics wrapped in an entertainment format.

In the Spring of 1965, California's Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dr. Max Rafferty, stirred up some controversy when he wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times stating that in his considered opinion Walt was "the greatest educator of this century."

In his essay, Dr. Rafferty wrote:

"His name is Walt Disney and he operates out of Hollywood, of all places…. His live movies have become lone sanctuaries of decency and health in the jungle of sex and sadism created by the Hollywood producers of pornography.

Walt's pictures don't dwell on dirt. They show life as something a little finer than drunken wallowing in some gutter of self-pity. The beatniks and degenerates think his films are square. I think they are wonderful.

Many, many years from now–decades I hope–when this magical Pied Piper of our time wanders out of this imperfect world which he has done so much to brighten and adorn, millions of laughing, shouting little ghosts will follow his train—the children that you and I once were, so long ago, when first a gentle magician showed us Wonderland."

Walt Disney is surrounded by film strips from Steamboat Willie.

This love letter to Walt Disney sparked a sharp reply from Frances Clarke Sayers, who was Senior Lecturer at the School of Library Service and Department of English at UCLA:

"It is a pity, in this fairest of springs, to break into the idyllic world of Dr. Max Rafferty and Walt Disney with a blast of anger, but it must be done. I, too, am an educator, and because I am, it will take more than 'a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down' – the medicine of Dr. Rafferty's absurd appraisal of Walt Disney as a pedagogue.

Mr. Disney has his own special genius. It has little to do with education, or with the cultivation of sensitivity, taste, or perception in the minds of children. He has, to be sure, distributed some splendid films on science and nature, but he has also been a shameless nature faker in his fictionalized animal stories.

I call him to account for his debasement of the traditional literature of childhood, in films and in the books he publishes. He shows scant respect for the integrity of the original creations of authors, manipulating and vulgarizing everything for his own ends.

His treatment of folklore is without regard for its anthropological, spiritual, or psychological truths. Every story is sacrificed to the 'gimmick' (Dr. Rafferty's word) of animation.

The acerbity of 'Mary Poppins', unpredictable, full of wonder and mystery, becomes, with Mr. Disney's treatment, one great marshmallow-covered cream puff. He made a young tough of Peter Pan, and transformed 'Pinocchio' into a slapstick sadistic revel.

Not content with the films, he fixes these mutilated versions in books which are cut to a fraction of their original forms, illustrates them with garish pictures, in which every prince looks like a badly drawn portrait of Cary Grant, every princess a sex symbol. The mystical Fairy with the Blue Hair of the Pinocchio turns out to be Marilyn Monroe, blonde hair and all.

As for the cliché-ridden texts, they are laughable. 'Meanwhile, back at the castle…'

Dr. Rafferty finds all this 'lone sanctuaries of decency and health.' I find genuine feeling ignored, the imagination of children bludgeoned with mediocrity, and much of it overcast by vulgarity. Look at that wretched sprite with the wand and the over-sized buttocks which announces every Disney program on TV. She is a vulgar little thing, who has been too long at the sugar bowls."

Walt Disney stands around on a set.

The letter to the L.A. Times sparked such strong feelings that an interview with Frances Clarke Sayers, conducted by Charles M. Weisenberg, Public Relations Director of the Los Angeles Public Library was published in the August issue of F.M. and Fine Arts and was reprinted in the December 1965 Horn Book Magazine.

You can find a reprint of that interview where Sayers gets even more specific in attacking Walt Disney's credentials as an educator online, including this excerpt:

WEISENBERG: What do you say to those people who say you are tearing down and attacking a great American? Walt Disney has become more than just a man, hasn't he? He's almost a household word. The Walt Disney imprint is accepted far and wide as a sign of quality, and certainly the Disney imprint is accepted immediately as something good for children.

SAYERS: You're like the manager of a radio station who said to me, "It's like attacking motherhood to attack Walt Disney." Just let me say that I am attacking Walt Disney in relation to children's literature, not in relation to many other things that he has done. I think he is a genius in many ways.

To the people who think that I am tearing down an American institution, that he is a great educator, and that he is a great patron saint of childhood because he's put these books into his pictures, I have just one thing to say to those people: If you read 'Mary Poppins,' you will see what has happened to it in the film.

If you read 'Treasure Island, 'Alice in Wonderland,' and 'The Wind in the Willows,' you will see for yourself how Disney has destroyed something which was delightful, which was an expression of an individual mind and imagination. I would say that before you condemn anyone who attacks Disney, read the original classics and compare. Form your own opinion. We all have that right.

And while we are talking about Walt Disney as an educator, here is a section of an interview from Fall 1966 where Walt talked candidly with the "Valuator," an official publication of the California Teachers Association (Southern Section). So as part of my goal to share Walt "in his own words," here is an obscure interview that has never been reprinted nor quoted from in the past for the enjoyment of MousePlanet readers.

Walt Disney stands at his TV desk.

VALUATOR: Do you find that producing children's films is limiting?

WALT: Our films are for everyone! We make films that children can enjoy along with their parents. In some ways it is a benevolent trap–and a very happy one for us.

VALUATOR: Is there any way Hollywood can serve the sophisticated tastes of adult audiences without sinking into vulgarity?

WALT: Producers constantly under-estimate the intelligence of the audience. They feel impelled to take that 'extra step' to slap the audience with a crude scene or a four-letter word. Yet, if essential to the story, the same effect can be obtained subtly. Audiences today are better educated, more aware; there is no need to scrawl every idea on the screen for them.

VALUATOR: Is there need for film censorship or movie classification?

WALT: I don't believe in governmental censorship. This usually means one or two people deciding what the public will see. The best censors are the public. Audiences have a way of ultimately rejecting sordid or tasteless film.

The biggest box office hits of all time will be "My Fair Lady," "Sound of Music" and "Mary Poppins," films which can be enjoyed by sophisticated adults or by children.

We have a loyal audience and we tailor our scripts to them.

In fact we are one of the few studios which create original stories. We emphasize good taste and imagination…We are sensitive to the feelings of our audience-to their ideals, their race, or religion. We avoid vulgarity, because this is the most destructive thing that can happen to an artist, or for that matter, the audience.

VALUATOR: How do you react to the negative approach toward life evident in some Hollywood films?

WALT: Many fine films are produced by people with a strong ethical sense of responsibility. There are always the malcontents, or the 'fast dollar' boys who rely on sensationalism.

Unfortunately, the Hollywood studios are no longer run as tight, paternal corporations. They've become financial backers and distributors who purchase a 'package' from a producer.

There is no longer an attempt to sustain a consistent image for quality. Studios in the 1930s and 40s under the leadership of Louis B. Mayer or Jack L. Warner were sensitive of their reputation among audiences.

Walt Disney poses in front of a drawing of EPCOT.

To wrap up this column, I want to point out that Walt talked frequently about education. Here are some examples from my book Walt's Words (Theme Park Press 2016)

  • "More education doesn't mean more common sense."

"Still Attacking His Ancient Enemy – Conformity" by Edith Efron from TV Guide magazine July 17, 1965

  • "Animated films are the most versatile and stimulating of all teaching facilities. The job of the animated film is not to take the place of the teacher but to help the teacher."

"Walt Disney's Last Great Gift to Our Children" by Melisande Meade Lady's Circle magazine April 1967

  • "Don't call the things 'educational'. That word's poison to kids. Nobody wants to be educated. They want to be entertained while they're being informed."

"80 Million a Year from Fantasy" by Frank Rasky (Toronto) Star Weekly November 14, 1964

  • "We are trying to regiment people into education. Everybody does not fit into that pattern. There's other ways that people get educated. These square pegs trying to fit in these round holes in universities and things. I say that we've got too many restrictions on young people today. I did things when I was fifteen that today you wouldn't have a chance to do if you were twenty."

Interview with Pete Martin for Saturday Evening Post June/July 1956

  • "My dad was always for anything educational. If I wanted to go see a show at night, the only way I could go was to tell my dad it was an educational picture on there that I wanted to see. My dad wanted his children to get fully educated."

Interview with Pete Martin for Saturday Evening Post June/July 1956

  • "I don't like to call it educational, but the informative type of film. That's an exciting thing because this era we're in is one that people have no idea of what is actually going on today."

Interview with Pete Martin for Saturday Evening Post June/July 1956

  • "I didn't do well in school. If they'd made me see that education could help me make a living, or that arithmetic might be useful in figuring my income tax some day…but they didn't."

LOOK magazine July 26, 1955

  • "The outstanding teacher of my youth instilled in us a permanent sense of wanting-to-do rather than having-to-do."

"Walt Disney, Showman and Educator, Remembers Daisy" The California Teacher Association Journal December 1955

  • "We know that people like to be informed, especially if they are being entertained at the same time. We learned this from public reaction to our True-Life Adventures films."

"Walt Disney Views His First TV Season as Most Challenging" by Walt Disney The Radio Annual and Television Yearbook 1955

  • "I don't regret having worked like I worked. I can't even remember that it ever bothered me. I mean I have no recollection of ever being unhappy in my life. I look back and I worked from way back there and I was happy all the time. I was excited. I was doing things. And I think that I got a greater education by doing that then you can ever jam into anybody by going through this methodical business of going to school every day."

Interview with Pete Martin for Saturday Evening Post June/July 1956

  • "I ran into a lot of educators and they kept talking of the need of good films and keep emphasizing the fact that we could do a lot in that field. But it puts you in a spot where every educator is ready to jump on you because he has his own ideas of what's educational."

Interview with Pete Martin for Saturday Evening Post June/July 1956