Knowledge IS Power: Rebooting Schoolhouse Rock to Fix our Civics Education Crisis
As summer ends, many of us are turning our attention to the start of the school year. What will our kids learn? Will it resonate? Will it be relevant to the world in which they live today and the future they will inhabit? These questions seem especially acute as we contemplate the November mid-term congressional elections. We are still recovering from the most partisan, divisive and damaging presidential election in recent history. As someone who has dedicated her career to designing strategic conversations, I find myself asking, “What can be done to reinvigorate constructive public debate, public discourse and, ultimately, public good?”
Today, the conversation is visual, viral and visceral. But it does not have to be filled with vitriol. We can build a positive and productive dialogue based on evidence and mutual respect. These were — and are — the foundations of our democracy.
So, let us fight viral with viral. It is time to revisit the lessons of the animated 1973 cartoon series “Schoolhouse Rock!” that asserted: “It’s great to learn because Knowledge is Power!”
“Schoolhouse Rock!” turned core educational ideas into catchy, simple visual music videos. What started as an advertising executive’s attempt to teach his son multiplication turned into a series of thematic videos that made learning accessible, social and engaging. The first release on multiplication led to a multi-decade series on the basics of math, grammar, American history, science, money and computer science (although the latter was discontinued because the content became outdated so quickly).
The TV series worked because it was visual. It was simple. It was objective and factual. And it was fun. Recent studies in neuroscience have shown that visuals are an exponentially more effective way of communicating information than oral and written communication. Visuals not only enable us take in information more quickly and efficiently, but also help us remember what we saw more accurately. It is our ultimate innate critical thinking and learning superpower.
By today’s standards, the animation may seem dated, but its foundational lessons are timeless and remain culturally “sticky.” Recently, late show host Stephen Colbert riffed on the program’s “Conjunction Junction,” parodying Trump’s “would/ wouldn’t” gaffe following the July Helsinki Summit with Vladimir Putin. Last year, Jimmy Kimmel recast the show’s popular song, “I’m Just a Bill,” as “I’m Just a Lie,” empathizing with younger viewers about the confusion that is created when the President of the United States openly lies to the public about basic facts. Kimmel’s remake has almost as many YouTube downloads as the 30-year-old original.
But core civics education is no laughing matter. A 2016 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) at the University of Pennsylvania found that just 26 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial), a significantly lower number than just five years earlier, when 38 percent could name all three.
“Schoolhouse Rock!” has not been aired on television since the late 1980s, but most of the videos are still available on YouTube — and are well worth watching. The first, “No More Kings,” reminds us why America became a representative government and not a monarchy. Using the metaphor of a three-ring circus, the “Three Branches of Government” reminds us that “no one part can be more powerful than the other…Everybody’s act is a part of the show. And the audience is kind of the country, you know.”
Those are just the basics. Do most Americans understand the difference between “policy,” a point of view about how to govern on behalf of the public good in relation to a specific issue, and “politics,” the activities one party or individual undertakes to ensure their victory in securing votes or a job/position? Do they realize that once a president is elected, his or her job is to focus on policies that protect all citizens of the United States, not the politics of getting elected?
Do they know that Supreme Court judges are appointed for life because they are supposed to be above politics, which makes it essential that they are selected to be stewards of the Constitution, and not because they share one president’s political beliefs? And that Senators confirm those selections, which means that the citizens who elected them have an opportunity (responsibility?) to voice their opinions on the preferred choice?
In recent years, there have been significant responses to the crisis in civics education, such as iCivics, founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and Civics Renewal Network, a nonprofit education coalition. Both do a wonderful job of creating free and accessible lesson plans for educators to use in their classrooms.
Unfortunately, the classroom is no match for the daily barrage of talking heads, “alternative facts” and social media echo chambers that distract from the foundational knowledge required to educate our future voters about what democracy is, and inspire them to take action to protect it.
As technology continues to accelerate the pace of change, it will bring new challenges and opportunities for education. We may have to work harder to understand and support the fundamental values and truths that are the foundation of America. As citizens, it is our responsibility to proactively inform ourselves and to ensure aspiring citizens of all ages and backgrounds receive a civics education that is defined by these values and truths, not by the loudest voices, aggressive tweets or mysterious algorithms.
We need a 21st century “Schoolhouse Rock!” to produce visual and viral videos that ground us in core lessons of civility, civics and engagement. We need Pixar animators to partner with historians and hip-hop lyricists, perhaps, to break through the noise and chaos and create messages that empower and inspire positive change for all Americans (Lin Manuel Miranda, are you listening?). Let us reboot “Schoolhouse Rock!” and turn real knowledge into power and help all voters — present and future — see and shape the world more clearly.
Special thanks to Nancy Murphy, Denise Brosseau, and Bonnie Kay for their contribution and editing prowess on this article.