The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The return of ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ could pave the way for better knowledge of history

The popular kids series got history wrong in the 1970s — but it can do better today.

On Saturday mornings, the three-minute Emmy Award-winning musical vignettes of “Schoolhouse Rock” educated children about math, grammar, science, history and finance. (ABC Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

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.

Middle-aged Americans who were immersed in Saturday morning cartoons as children of the pre-cable, pre-Internet era can still quote “Schoolhouse Rock” lyrics about conjunctions (“Conjunction junction, what’s your function?”), the nervous system (“there’s a telegraph line, you got yours and I got mine; it’s called the nervous system”) and the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution (“we the people, in order to form a more perfect union”). Multiple generations now know these songs through DVDs, YouTube, Disney Plus and a popular stage musical that remains a staple of children’s theater programs. Not many instructional projects have matched the lasting popularity achieved by this series of three-minute videos.

And many of the videos have held up well, continuing to provide a strong foundation on subjects ranging from arithmetic to grammar to civics. Yet when the show turned to historical interpretation, its episodes were problematic even in its own time. 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.

As the program nears its 50th anniversary, “Schoolhouse Rock” could accelerate an ongoing process of remixing rather than banishing outdated children’s products. Hasbro has added gender-neutral Potato Heads, Mattel has diversified Barbie, and Marvel has introduced a Pakistani-American Muslim superhero. New “Schoolhouse” episodes might further this modernization process by reframing historical thinking, as well as representation for the United States’ 250th birthday.

“America Rock” suffered from two major shortcomings. First, the episodes alternately ignored and distorted the country’s racist past. “No More Kings,” the episode on American independence, presented the revolutionaries as direct descendants of “the Pilgrims.” This choice allowed writers to avoid the topic of slavery. “Elbow Room,” the episode on western settlement, downplays violence and focuses exclusively on White people, with the exception of four seconds on Sacagawea.

The people of color who did appear in “America Rock” were stereotyped and passive. In “Mother Necessity,” the narrator sings over the melody of “Dixie” that Eli Whitney’s cotton gin “did the work of a hundred men,” while the cartoon shows two smiling men of ambiguous race using the new technology under the supervision of an aristocratic man in a white suit and panama hat who is clearly suggestive of an enslaver. The episode on immigration includes racist images of Asians similar to the ones in the discontinued Dr. Seuss books. It also features Lady Liberty holding a recipe for “The Great American Melting Pot,” with its ingredients including an array of immigrants from Poles to Armenians to Cubans. Yet the diverse continent of cultures from Morocco to Mozambique is amalgamated as “Africans.”

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 small number of history-centered children’s television programs that have followed “Schoolhouse Rock” have improved upon its lack of diversity. The 2005 PBS show “The Time Warp Trio(on which I served as a historical consultant) focused on subjects such as Sacagawea and the 17th-century ruler Nzinga of Ndongo to insert women and people of color back into historical narratives and recognize them as influencers of historical change. Netflix’s 2018 “The Who Was? Show” built each episode around two famous historical figures, juxtaposing diverse individuals such as Marie Antoinette and Louis Armstrong or Genghis Khan and George Washington Carver to illuminate a range of historical perspectives.

However, even these more recent shows continue to struggle with presenting the complicated, often arduous process that historical figures endured to procure changes to their societies. The 2002 PBS animated program “Liberty’s Kids,” which probably offered the most sophisticated historical narrative ever presented on children’s television, taught the American Revolution from the perspectives of patriots and loyalists, women and men, enslaved people, free Blacks and even the small number of Hispanics and Jews in the American colonies. It effectively highlighted how the goals of this diverse combination of Americans did not always align with the interests of the emerging nation.

Yet even “Liberty’s Kids” made story choices that, in the words of historian Andrew Schocket, “obscure the possibility of understanding the structures that bound” many Americans, “much less the architects, builders, and maintainers of those structures.” When the show allowed Sarah, its female protagonist, to wander the colonies without restraint or supervision and Cato, the only enslaved character, to simply run away to freedom, it, in Schocket’s words, left 18th-century America “only distinguishable from 21st-century America in its hairstyles and hemlines.”

With state boards of education currently seeking to ban schools from teaching about racism and sexism as systemic problems, young viewers need programming that further revises the instructional patterns that “Schoolhouse Rock” established. Representing and teaching history in all of its messiness requires programming that provides an understanding of structural inequality in this country, and balances the celebration of national ideals of freedom and equality with an exploration of the persistent, but often unsuccessful, quest by a diverse array of people to achieve those ideals.

This is possible, as illustrated by a small subset of recent children’s picture books that teach difficult historical subjects to elementary school audiences through diverse representation and examples of systemic discrimination. “Freedom Summerhighlights the friendship between a Black boy and White boy in Mississippi in 1964. They are excited to play in their town’s newly desegregated pool, but soon discover that the county government prefers to fill the pool with concrete rather than allow them to swim together. The book ends with the boys consciously challenging Jim Crow policies, as they nervously enter a store to purchase ice pops arm in arm.

Ruth and the Green Bookuses a family’s trip from Chicago to Alabama to visit a grandmother during the 1950s to illuminate how segregation laws increased the difficulty and danger of traveling for Black families. And in “When We Were Alone,” a Native American grandmother explains to her granddaughter how the choices she makes as an adult — wearing bright colors, speaking Cree, growing her hair long and spending time with her brother — are a product of her childhood experiences at a segregated boarding school that did not allow her these freedoms.

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.