01/22/02
Schoolhouse Rock
    by Kevin Shortsleeve

In the early 1970s, wrapped in blankets and crunching bowls of Trix and Captain Crunch, children all over America gathered, sleepy-eyed on Saturday morning to witness the weekly delights offered by the likes of the Pink Panther, the Road Runner, and Speed Racer. As children surfed among the networks looking for their favorite cartoons in late 1972, a new and unusually informative cartoon swung into the TV room.

"Conjunction Junction - What's your function?
Hooking up phrases and clauses that balance - like
Out of the Frying pan AND into the fire,
He cut loose the sandbags BUT the balloon wouldn't go any higher,
Lets go up to the mountains OR down to the seas,
You should always say thank you OR at least say please.
Conjunction Junction - What's your function?"
This was Schoolhouse Rock - one of the most inventive and original educational offerings ever to be zapped through network satellites. It was the brainchild of advertising executive, David McCall. Hiking with his son in the Rocky Mountains, McCall noted that while his son had trouble memorizing his multiplication tables, he did not seem to have any difficulty memorizing the lyrics of songs by the Rolling Stones.

Back in New York, McCall hired songwriters like Bob Dorough, and Lynn Ahrens and animator Phil Kimmelman, - he filmed a pilot episode and offered the program to ABC.

Nearly thirty years later, Schoolhouse Rock is still on Saturday mornings, and characters like Conjunction Junction, Interplanet Janet, that Hero Zero and that hopeful and patient Bill - are known to millions. One of the secrets of the success of Schoolhouse Rock is undoubtedly the respect the songwriters had for a child's intellect. These cartoons were not in any way condescending. Note the lyrics of Three is a Magic Number:

Somewhere in the ancient, mystic trinity
You get three as a magic number
The past the present and the future
Faith and hope and charity
The heart and the brain and the body
Schoolhouse Rock challenged the child, even including sophisticated concepts like infinity - and all within the framework of expert melodies. Lynn Ahrens even managed to rhyme the Preamble to the Constitution. One middle school teacher reported that when asked on an exam to write the Preamble, several students quietly hummed the melody from Ahren's song as they completed the answer without a problem.

Now that's cool.

Works Consulted:
Engstrom, Erika, "SchoolHouse Rock: Cartoons as Education," Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 23, No. 3, Fall 1995.
The Best of Schoolhouse Rock, Rhino Records and ABC Television, CD, 1998.
www.jacksheldon.com.school.htm

Copyright 2002 by Kevin Shortsleeve

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Wednesday, 04-Sep-2002 22:21:34 EDT


"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."