Schoolhouse Rock: A Trojan Horse of Knowledge and Power

There are generations that have no idea what the hell Schoolhouse Rock is. Yet the series was every bit Sesame Street’s equal in lovingly shaping the minds of kids in the '70s.

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I watched a ridiculous amount of TV as a kid. (Of course, I watch even more now, but that’s a different story.) And while I can precisely reel off the names, characters and actors from all those childhood shows like it was yesterday, I’m much fuzzier on details like plots and dialogue. What exactly were Snorks, again, and what actually happened in any episode of that show?

But 30 years later, say the phrase “Schoolhouse Rock” to me and I can sing you songs like “I’m Just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction” verbatim, and describe exactly what was happening onscreen at almost every moment. Those animated musical shorts, which aired as interstitials during ABC’s Saturday morning cartoon lineup, are as indelible and heartwarming as they were when I first discovered them.

There are now several generations that have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. But back in the early ’80s, my life revolved around racing downstairs each week for Saturday cartoons, and eagerly awaiting that glorious moment in between ABC’s lineup of Super Friends, Scooby-Doo, Richie Rich and The Fonz and Happy Days Gang (no, I am not making that last one up), when that famous intro would kick in—“As your body grows bigger/Your mind must flower/It’s great to learn/’Cause knowledge is power!”—and I’d get treated to another euphoric three-minute dose of Schoolhouse Rock.

Schoolhouse Rock (the songs were often folk rock, but also an intoxicating blend of several genres, including funk, pop, and country) aired regularly from 1973-1985, and was later revived in the ’90s. I’m one of the millions for whom it still holds a special place in my heart, which is why I’ll be watching ABC’s new retrospective on Sunday (7 p.m. ET/PT), The ABC’s of Schoolhouse Rock, hosted by Chandra Wilson.

The special seems a bit tardy—Schoolhouse launched in early 1973, so its big 40th anniversary was last year—but with school back in session, it’s still an ideal time to reflect on the show’s lasting legacy. While it doesn’t often get its due, Schoolhouse Rock was every bit Sesame Street’s equal in lovingly shaping the minds of us kids who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s.

In fact, there’s no need to wait for ABC to take you down memory lane on Sunday: you can find all your favorite Schoolhouse songs right now on YouTube. (My top five: “Three is a Magic Number,” “I’m Just a Bill,” “Electricity, Electricity,” “Interjections!” and “Conjunction Junction.”) Instead of waiting weeks or months for your favorite songs to rerun, like we used to do, they’re all there for your immediate enjoyment.

It’s no accident that the songs remain burrowed in my brain—and probably yours as well—after all these years. Schoolhouse was the brainchild of ad agency exec David McCall, who noticed that one of his sons had trouble remembering his multiplication tables, yet knew all the words to the latest songs from the Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead. He commissioned singer-songwriter Bob Dorough to set the multiplication tables to a rock music song.

The result was “Three is a Magic Number,” still my favorite Schoolhouse song. It effortlessly combined a catchy tune, an emotional arc and a surprisingly easy way to remember multiples of three. The song was so marvelous, the decision was made to add animation and pitch it to networks. ABC snapped it up, and launched Schoolhouse Rock, rolling out the songs by themes: “Multiplication Rock,” followed by “Grammar Rock,” “America Rock,” “Science Rock,” “Computer Rock” and during its ’90s revival, “Money Rock.”

Each song was a perfectly constructed Trojan horse: it was entertaining and infectious, while clandestinely packing an astonishing amount of information about lessons about word usage (“Verb: That’s What’s Happenin’”), America’s expansion (“Elbow Room”), women’s rights (“Sufferin Till Sufferage”), health (“The Body Machine”), the solar system (“Interplanet Janet”) and much, much more.

Like nothing before it, Schoolhouse Rock made learning fun and effortless. Multiplication tables were suddenly a breeze thanks to songs like “Lucky Seven Sampson,” while “The Preamble” was essential for anyone who had to memorize the Preamble to the Constitution in school. “I’m Just a Bill” is so concise and catchy that my high school U.S. History teacher played it in class to explain exactly how a bill becomes a law.

Not all of the songs have held up over the years. The “Computer Rock” tunes, with references to BASIC programming, were almost immediately rendered obsolete. Others, like Schoolhouse Hall of Famer “A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing,” impressively manage to be both outdated (“I put a dime in the drugstore record machine”) and eerily prescient (it’s silly tale of a trip to the Statue of Liberty that ends with a freak snowstorm in the middle of summer nicely sums up Sharknado 2).

And like many of the best songs, their resonance has only deepened with time. “Three is a Magic Number” becomes stunningly poignant to any couple that welcomes its first child. Others are surprisingly inspirational, like “The Great American Melting Pot,” which explains how a pair of key ingredients—“liberty and immigrants”—made our country what it is: “It doesn’t matter what your skin/It doesn’t matter where you’re from/Or your religion, you jump right in/To the great American melting pot.” Let’s just say this isn’t a song, or a sentiment, you’d ever hear today on Fox News.

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More than 40 years later, despite the rudimentary yet serviceable animation, Schoolhouse Rock is as effective and engaging as ever. I recently showed several segments to my kids, who are now around the age I was when I first discovered them. At first, they watched patiently, but announced that they only really liked “I’m Just a Bill.” Yet a couple hours later, they suddenly began singing “Electricity, Electricity” and “My Hero Zero” on their own, and asked to hear several other songs again and again. Just like I had been at their age, they were hooked.

And that continues to be the brilliance of Schoolhouse Rock; it’s completely irresistible, and endlessly rewarding, whether you’re watching it for the first or the hundredth time. Even if you don’t catch Sunday’s ABC special, be sure to set aside time to dive down the Schoolhouse Rock YouTube rabbit hole. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll remember that all these years later, it’s still great to learn—‘cause knowledge is power!