Gone are the days of Schoolhouse Rock


Have you heard about the funny story involving the First Amendment? Recent studies show that Americans surveyed are more familiar with The Simpsons than they are with the First Amendment.

Two amazing thoughts on this to kick off my essay…

First – I blame the current lack of programming like Schoolhouse Rock for this.

Second – I’m one of the ones that can name all of the Simpsons – Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie – but can’t name all five freedoms… speech, assembly, umm, umm, and umm. (I missed religion, which I absolutely should have known… petition for redress of grievances, which I never would have gotten… and press, which I kind of thought was included in the concept involving speech. Hmm… who’s counting to five?)

Why do I blame Schoolhouse Rock for this… or, to be more accurate, the lack of such a show? Well… I don’t really. But let’s take a look at the program first. Schoolhouse Rock began about thirty-two years ago, and ran on ABC until roughly 1986. It made a return to the air, and new episodes were produced for the video/DVD release, but it never again really attained the impact it had in its initial run. Shows ranged from grammar and counting to history and government. Famous songs from the show include “Three is a magic number,” “Conjunction junction,” “I’m just a bill,” and “Unpack your adjectives.” For the most part, if you asked me to run through the lyrics of most of the songs, I could. In fact, I literally remember sitting in junior high school one day, singing (to myself) the “We the people…” lyrics from the Constitution episode in order to take a test. Most of my classmates later admitted to doing the exact same thing. We all passed. Similar events happened while memorizing multiplication tables years earlier.

But kids don’t watch television the same way today that we did thirty years ago. Too many channels… too many options. And even though Baby Einstein exists (and it is amazing to watch kids react to some of those… good stuff), it really isn’t the same.

Should that matter?

I’m not sure. But it is clear that the things we care about are the things we remember more readily. Justin tells me history is tough to remember… but ask him about the next release from Joe Bonamassa or if we owe him money. He’ll rattle off dates and circumstances more detailed than any written record could ever provide.

The story is making international news. Only one person out of one thousand got all of the freedoms. One out of one thousand. How about you? Do you know the five freedoms? Here’s the actual First Amendment of the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I was honest with you. I got two… and would have had three if I knew “the press” was separate. How would you have done? I’d be willing to bet that “to petition the government for a redress of grievances” was the one that at least nine hundred and ninety-eight of the nine hundred ninety-nine missed. (And I still count four, although it does say “or of the press” so I can see it as five.)

What’s so crazy about all of this? Well… five things aren’t that many. Watch… let’s see what other lists of five I can come up with…

Fab five of Disney characters – Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto. (I think that’s right, only because they are the “fab five” of characters, although not the biggest or most successful five from Disney. How about five characters from Winnie the Pooh as a bonus… Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet, and Christopher Robin.)

The Five Academy Award nominees for Best Supporting Actor in 2005 – Paul Giamatti, George Clooney, William Hurt, Jake Gyllenhaal, and, umm. (Matt Dillon. I forgot Matt Dillon. How could I forget… oh never mind… of course I forgot Matt Dillon. You did too. But I still got four right.)

Ok… that’s just two examples… but you get the idea.

In the end, it’s a stupid study. Not because of what it is comparing or what it considers its results. Almost all of that is actually pretty interesting… that most Americans are more familiar with The Simpsons than they are with the beliefs, ideas, concepts and values their country was founded upon. I won’t pretend to know what the results mean, but it is interesting.

The trouble is… the stupid part is… and at the risk of looking like I’m bragging… I consider myself to be a relatively smart person. And I wasn’t even close on the First Amendment. I hit 40%… I’m ticked off because I should have hit 60%… yet I don’t think there is any way I ever would have been able to reach 100%. I never would have remembered the “redress of grievances.” And I had no trouble… not even a slight hesitation… when naming the Simpson family.

And I’m not alone.

In the end, I’m driving at the idea that this study is flawed. It looks to embarrass us by comparing the First Amendment to The Simpsons when there really isn’t a comparison to be made. It seems to miss that our own personal interests are really to blame. What is it that we want to know? What do we want to remember? And… ultimately… why is it that we enjoy being entertained and can recall some very unimportant details, but allow ourselves to be ignorant of so much?

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com