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    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Reflections on ‘Schoolhouse Rock’

I am a bill, I am only a bill …

January 31, 2023

“I am a bill, I am only a bill …” —My first political science lesson, Saturday morning, 1970-something.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Schoolhouse Rock series of cartoon shorts. For some of us of a certain age, that’s a big deal.

For the uninitiated, you are in for a treat. Check out “Conjunction Junction” or “I Am a Bill.” They’re catchy, energetic, clever, funny and insanely memorable. To this day, the only way I remember the preamble to the Constitution is to start singing it.

Each video was about three to five minutes, featuring a cartoon set to music. Some of the music was much better than it had any right to be; they hired actual jazz musicians for some of the songs, and you can tell. The first time I heard the singer Bob Dorough on a jazz station, my first thought was “Hey …”

As charming as the cartoons were, they resonated the way they did because the media environment in the 1970s was so different than it is now. Growing up outside Rochester, N.Y., we had four television stations. There was no cable. There was no internet. There wasn’t even a fifth station until the early 1980s, unless you count the occasional CBC broadcast from Peterborough, Ontario, that you could sort of pick up on a clear day if you positioned the aluminum foil on the antenna just right. Children’s programs were relegated to a few isolated moments during the week: basically the 4:00 hour on weekdays for reruns of ’60s shows (The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, Batman), and Saturday mornings for cartoons. There was no time-shifting of shows; if you missed them when they were on, you missed them. Nobody I knew had a VCR until at least the early 1980s.

With so few options, anything watchable could command an enormous audience by default. In elementary school, as far as I knew, every kid I knew watched cartoons on Saturday mornings. It was our only chance, and we took it.

(Parenting in the 1970s was somewhat different from the contemporary style. It was more … laissez-faire. The whole “overscheduled kid” thing happened later. Parents still said things like “go out and play.” We ate sugary cereal and watched cartoons on Saturday mornings.)

Scarcity helped. Schoolhouse Rock cartoons were for us at a time when not much was. They were silly and fun and catchy. They were also educational enough that parents couldn’t really complain.

Watching them now, it’s easy enough to nitpick. The history they told was safe for a mass audience in the 1970s. It’s hard now to watch “Elbow Room” without cringing. But the ones about grammar (“get your adverbs here”) hold up quite well, and “No More Kings” has a pleasantly antiroyalist vibe and a catchy chorus. And, of course, “I Am a Bill” became a phenomenon. The line about “dying in committee” still makes me laugh.

A revival of Schoolhouse Rock wouldn’t have the same cultural impact now, if only because the age of four channels is so far behind us. On balance, that’s a good thing. But some of us can still sing, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union …” and smile.

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Matt Reed

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