Do we need another 'Schoolhouse Rock'? Celebrating 50 years of the educational songsPlay
“Schoolhouse Rock” premiered on television 50 years ago. The series taught a generation about math, grammar, history and civics, including how a bill becomes a law. The three-minute animated songs appeared in the 1970s between Saturday morning cartoons.
An advertising executive developed the idea for the series when he found his son struggling with memorizing multiplication tables for his math homework, but had no problem memorizing lyrics to popular rock songs.
“He picked up on this idea that maybe music was the way to go to teach him the math he wasn’t getting,” says Paul Ringel, history professor at High Point University in North Carolina who has been writing about the history of "Schoolhouse Rock."
The executive sold the idea to the network ABC, and “Three is a Magic Number” was the first segment of “Schoolhouse Rock.” Robert Dorough, the musician and composer who developed the first episodes, produced several segments with seasoned jazz artists performing at Hollywood recording studios including “Conjunction Junction.” He is credited with creating songs that didn’t talk down to kids.
The series debuted during the heyday of Saturday morning children’s television, which doesn’t exist anymore. Kids around the country would get up early on Saturday mornings and watch cartoons for hours.
“While the cartoons were thriving, there was a kind of a backlash against them,” says Ringel. “There was a lot of pressure especially from a grassroots organization called Action for Children’s Television about trying to include more educational content on Saturday mornings.”
The Federal Communications Commission threatened to step in and start regulating Saturday morning television. So ABC “used this as a way to try and jump in and regulate themselves before the federal government actually did anything,” says Ringel.
Ringel describes “Schoolhouse Rock” as “one of the most successful educational projects we’ve ever seen in the United States.” He says the impact goes far. “It’s just incalculable. Millions of people have learned everything from what a conjunction is to what the nervous system is to the preamble to the constitution from these songs,” Ringel says.
But he also points out some limitations in the series. The third season of “Schoolhouse Rock,” including several history segments, dropped in 1976, the year of the U.S. bicentennial. One segment called “Elbow Room” focused on Manifest Destiny.
“The [1970s] is this moment you are getting this explosion of Black studies and gender studies,” Ringel says. “‘Schoolhouse Rock’ was not at all hooked up on that.”
As a historian, Ringel says he would like to revive “Schoolhouse Rock” and make it more representative of the wide range of people who live in the United States.
Shirley Jahad produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Jahad also adapted it for the web.
This segment aired on March 13, 2023.