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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

It's only Schoolhouse Rock (but I like it)

I'm so old I don't know the words to Conjunction Junction. Schoolhouse Rock, animated musical shorts on grammar, history, civics, science and math first aired on ABC in 1973 when I was in college.

ABC celebrated Schoolhouse Rock's 50th anniversary with a primetime special. Photo: ABC

ABC aired a 50th Anniversary Singalong -- now streaming on Hulu and Disney+ -- Wednesday night, featuring Kermit the Frog, the Black Eyed Peas, Retta, Raven-Symoné and other 21st-century stars.

Schoolhouse Rock is "a reminder of a time when network TV gave us a common culture, language and lyrics, before we were sliced into subcultures and demographics," writes James Poniewozik, a New York Times critic. The show featured "psychedelically colorful" animation, "slapstick gags" and "sophisticated music," he writes. "Like the early years of Sesame Street, the shorts had an anarchic spirit and a pluralistic sensibility."

Even though Americans were divided by Vietnam and Watergate in the '70s, they subscribed to "basic common facts and civic principles," writes Poniewozik. Historians and educators have pointed out the series' blind spots, he concedes.

In particular, “America Rock,” an upbeat celebration of the bicentennial, covers the American Revolution and women’s suffrage but skips over the Civil War and slavery. (The Roots filled in this hole in a 2017 episode of “black-ish” with “I Am a Slave,” about Juneteenth.) “Elbow Room” is a jaunty story of westward expansion from the point of view of white settlers, with little note of who got elbowed out. (One scene shows a settler taking a toy arrow through his hat.) America’s unflattering history didn’t make the cut because mass broadcasting meant not alienating the masses.

There are shows like Schoolhouse Rock today, writes Poniewozik. "What you couldn’t create again today is the mass audience, or the context in which we assembled, one nation, sitting cross-legged in front of our cathode-ray teacher."

The fact that people can go online to critique what they see . . . Is that a bad thing? Yes, the extremists are very loud, but we can ignore or laugh at them. I think most of us still share a common culture and common values.

If Schoolhouse Rock has a grandchild, it's We the People, a 10-episode series of musical videos on civics airing on Netflix. The show targets high school students with shorts on subjects such as active citizenship, taxes, the First Amendment and others, writes Robert Ito in the New York Times.

The show was created by Chris Nee, who also created the wildly popular children’s show Doc McStuffins. Nee recruited Lin-Manuel Miranda for The Three Branches of Government, which pits "a Black female president, the two houses of Congress, and a levitating, multicultural Supreme Court against one another in a rap battle," writes Ito. (One sample: “Every state elects two of us”/ “We’re proportionately population-based, there’s a slew of us.”)


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