J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Can America Rock Again?

Earlier this month the Washington Post pubished Prof. Paul Ringel’s essay about Schoolhouse Rock, A.B.C.’s interstitial Saturday morning cartoon, and how it handled the nation’s history.

Ringel wrote:
“Schoolhouse Rock,” the animated Saturday morning children’s television series that ran on ABC mostly from 1973 through 1979 (though there were also new episodes in 1995-1996 and 2009), has reached millions of viewers over the past half-century. . . .

Its history-centered season, “America Rock,” ran from September 1975 through July 1976, as the United States was celebrating its bicentennial. Not surprisingly, the show adopted a celebratory rather than a critical perspective on the nation’s past, focused almost exclusively on White people’s stories and predominantly on men. . . .

These interpretations were a product of “Schoolhouse Rock’s” limited budget and cautious ideological mandate. ABC launched the program in response to criticism from grass-roots organizations like Action for Children’s Television about the excessive commercialism of Saturday morning television, and then handed the project to its advertising firm with no funding for support from educators or historians. Any hint of ideological controversy made the network executives skittish; an episode titled “Three Ring Government” was shelved due to fear that its comparison of the U.S. government to a circus would offend the FCC.

The representations that emerged from this process also exemplified “America Rock’s” less obvious shortcoming: its broader pattern of presenting historical narratives of progress without conflict. These episodes relied on an outdated model of history that honored the past without investigating it. When “No More Kings” presented an American Revolution with no actual warfare, and “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage” explained that female suffragists “carried signs and marched in lines, until at long last the law was passed,” they overlooked the struggles required to bring about these transformative changes. Instead they suggested that people merely had to set their mind to the task and it was done.

The approaching 50th anniversary of “Schoolhouse Rock” offers a ripe opportunity to bring these sorts of lessons to television. The program’s three-minute format seems particularly suited to online viral culture, and to young viewers’ growing preferences for watching videos online.

As young people grow up in an era of heightened disinformation, amid a battle over the nation’s history, bringing them the best version of that history—one that teaches them to think critically—will be crucial to raising the next generation of U.S. citizens. A remixed “Schoolhouse Rock” that helped to achieve this goal could enhance the program’s already formidable legacy.
A longer version of Ringel’s article was published in The Public Historian. It also discusses Liberty’s Kids and The Time Warp Trio, two more recent attempts to explore history through television cartoons for kids.

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