Someone I used to work with at Borders Books once admonished me to be careful about not confusing coincidence and causality. In the intervening decades, this has proven to be remarkably useful advice. Once you get beyond the micro level, it’s tricky to isolate any single factor as the prime mover of an event, let alone its direct cause. That said, for the past several years it’s been hard to shake the notion that the rise of collective ignorance about the fundamentals of American history and government — not to mention “the three Rs” — can be traced to a generation of kids who didn’t have Schoolhouse Rock as a part of their Saturday morning routine.
Until recently, I’d maintained a belief that this was a truly silly idea. Kids had learned about the federal government, the planets, and the parts of a sentence long before Schoolhouse Rock and, so far as I can tell, still do. On top of that, it’s unlikely that everybody of the target age watched ABC. Admittedly that last part is a bit hard to fathom, because ABC’s Saturday morning lineup featured The Super Friends.
The past few months have made me rethink this particular certainty. When the streets of an American city on 2017 are filled with white supremacists whose only regret about being Neo-Nazis is that they weren’t around 75 years ago to be old-school Nazis, how silly can any idea be? When overgrown children seem to fail to grasp the ideals that America is founded on, is it so crazy to ponder the absence of something that gave such memorable voice to those fundamentals?
I miss the sense of cultural unity Schoolhouse Rock gave my generation. No matter how divergent our views on religion or politics would turn out to be, songs like “I’m Just a Bill” helped ensure that we all had at least a baseline of common understanding about how our country is supposed to work. Whoever was living in the White House, we understood it was part of a relatively rational system.
It wasn’t perfect, but we had been warned not to expect perfection. After all, the stated goal had been to form “a more perfect union.” It took years for that expression to make proper sense. More to the point, it took challenges to my convictions and the need to map their dimensions for myself.
Currently, it’s all too easy to inhabit a virtual echo chamber where, not only can you avoid acknowledging any ideas that don’t mesh with your own, you can also ignore inconvenient facts. I don’t claim for a second that the return of Schoolhouse Rock would cure this, especially since an attempted revival in the mid-90s vanished with little trace. Likewise, I suspect certain circles would take issue with the science on display in “Interplanet Janet.” At the same time, when divisions feel so sharp, we should never underestimate the ability of a catchy song to bring us together.