Everything I Need to Know, I Learned from Schoolhouse Rock (The Essays)
Elbow Room (Everything I Know I Learned from Schoolhouse Rock pt.1) — August 15, 2009
“The Politics of Schoolhouse Rock” began as a random blog post I put together after going to see an anime exhibit in downtown L.A. On the way back with the kids I started thinking about anime and cartoons and Saturday morning television and got kind of nostalgic over my lost youth. Since I’m now living in THE FUTURE(TM) where we have this whole Information Superhighway thingy at our disposal, I wondered whether I could find some of the artifacts of my misspent childhood. Sure enough, it turned out that there’s simply no element of pop culture that’s so obscure that it doesn’t have at least three or four fan pages on the Intertoobz.
That’s how I spent a pleasant and entirely non-productive afternoon on YouTube showing my kids the legendary Schoolhouse Rock interstitials. If you’re not familiar with Schoolhouse Rock it’s undoubtedly because you’re a Baby Boomer or a member of Generation Y or some similarly noxious group and didn’t spend your childhood in that transitional period between the psychedelic cartoons of the 1960’s and the 23-minute Hasbro toy commercials of the ’80s. It was a magical time when “Challenge of the Superfriends” had to deal with the fact that no one was allowed to punch anyone else on kid’s TV and Scrappy Doo became the anti-John the Baptist for Jar-Jar Binks’ Anti-Christ.
Still, in that cultural Kalahari we call the 1970s, Schoolhouse Rock was one of the few bright spots. Schoolhouse Rock was the brainchild of adman David McCall who noticed that his son was having trouble with the multiplication tables but could remember all the lyrics to every song on the radio. He thought that by using music, he might get kids to remember their times tables. That begat a whole series of three minute pre-MTV music shorts designed to teach kids math, science, history, grammar and more that aired in three minute segments between shows on ABC TV. It worked. Ask someone of a certain age what “Conunction Junction” is or to sing the preamble to the US Constitution and odds are they’ll be able to do it. I’m now 40 years old and I still think about “I’m Just a Bill” when I see a news report about a potential veto.
That was when I decided to start writing these essays about the politics of Schoolhouse Rock and what they can teach us about America today. These songs and videos are very much artifacts of their time yet they’re also timeless. While they tend to lean a bit left, they’re the kinder, gentler small-l liberalism of the 1970’s — the brand I myself tend to espouse. The irony of that is that what might have been considered “liberal” back then has become the province of the American center-right today. This is the sort of semi-libertarian place I find myself now that the American left has headed to an ugly place I don’t want to follow. It’s a mark of how far we’ve fallen that patriotism itself is now fought over like it’s the unique province of one political outlook rather than assumed by people who have otherwise differing opinions.
For the record, my kids were pretty bored after about fifteen minutes of these. It shows how short attention-span theater our culture has become that sitting through a three-minute cartoon now takes a Herculean effort of will. Hopefully you’ll feel differently.
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