The suite of exhibitions and programs we’re currently presenting at the Skirball under the thematic umbrella Democracy Matters has gotten me thinking about the way I learned some of the fundamentals of American history and government as a kid in the 1970s.
Growing up in San Diego, I was light years away from Washington D.C. and all those historic sites of colonial wars and document signings—and from the key museums and libraries that house the most noteworthy foundational documents. Instead I learned the basics of American history primarily from a series of short animated music videos that aired as interstitial programs on ABC: Schoolhouse Rock (which turns forty today according to the Washington Post and NPR)!
Come now, all you forty-somethings out there. Didn’t many of you, too, learn the Preamble to the Constitution from a Schoolhouse Rock film with an unbelievably catchy tune sung by Lynn Ahrens… and can you recite it today to your own children without singing it to that same melody? Doesn’t Jack Sheldon’s musical rendition of “I’m Just a Bill”—with images of an animated scroll of legislation sitting on the steps of Capitol Hill—remain forever etched in your memory, rearing itself when you think of the three different branches of government and how legislation is passed?
A couple of thoughts come to mind for me in relation to Schoolhouse Rock, the brainchild of Madison Avenue ad executive David McCall. McCall was inspired to create it when he noticed his son struggling to remember facts in school while effortlessly learning all the lyrics and music to current rock songs. My first thought: music and visual art—and yes, I use the word “art” to describe the vivid, clever, and accessible musical cartoons that McCall created—are enormously powerful teaching tools. We believe that at the Skirball very deeply. For us, the arts are vehicles for teaching and inspiring people and bringing them together.
And the notion of “together” brings me to a second, more unsettling thought: while some of us Generation X-ers have introduced the Schoolhouse Rock videos—now owned by Disney and available on DVD—to our own children, there isn’t anything analogous that today’s young people all watch or listen to, regardless of their parents’ politics, in order to learn the basics of American history and civics. The proliferation of infinite stations and programs and podcasts and apps makes even the notion of such a thing a quaint relic from the past… which leads me to wonder whether, in this age of media diversification and political polarization, the notion of any shared understanding of America’s founding principles and government—one that we all learn and embrace whether Democrat or Republican—will also become a quaint thing of the past.
While the Democracy Matters exhibitions aren’t intended for a very young audience, I do think that bringing children ages eight-ish and older to Creating the United States and Decades of Dissent to see documents and objects from the period of America’s founding and the legacy of struggles they gave rise to—and to the participatory exhibition called Free to Be U.S., complete with its own soapbox for visitors’ speeches—is well worth doing and makes for a great family outing. I did just that with my third-grade daughter. And you can bet I was humming the Schoolhouse Rock version of “We, the People” throughout our visit.