Teaching Civics in the Time of Trump
Do we need a new Schoolhouse Rock! to remind us how to run a democracy?
Many Americans are still going through a whirlwind of emotions as they process November’s election results and the dawning of Donald Trump’s presidency. Although, by the time the official tally is finished, Trump will likely have lost the popular vote by 2 full percentage points, the Electoral College will place him in the Oval Office when a joint session of Congress formally counts the votes in January. Many feel hopeless when it comes to the future of America and criticize the outcome as the result of a broken system.
But while Trump may have won the big seat in the Oval Office, officials in other branches of government at the federal, state and local levels have the power to stand up to Trump’s agenda. For American voters to effectively push these levers of power, however, they’re going to have to understand how government works.
Studies show that at the moment, many Americans lack that knowledge. In one 2014 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, more than one-third of respondents (36 percent) could not name all three branches of the federal government. Fusion’s 2015 “massive millennial poll” reports an even more frightening statistic: 77 percent of people aged 18 to 34 were unable to name a senator from their home state.
If Americans could become as knowledgeable about the way our government works as they are about the lyrics to the catchy raps in Hamilton, they can better stave off the Trump agenda.
In a different time and in a different tune, Americans were able to do just that on Saturday mornings with Schoolhouse Rock! The program started airing on ABC in 1973. David McCall, a concerned dad (and well-known advertising executive), wanted to create a way for his son to learn multiplication that he hoped would resonate better than classroom lectures: rock music. McCall enlisted the help of George Newall, a colleague at his advertising agency, and jazz songwriter Bob Dorough, and together they wrote the first song, “Three is a Magic Number,” which kicked off the soon-to-be-popular series. The tune explains how well things work in a trinity — three tricycle wheels, three table legs — while also teaching multiplication tables.
— George Newall, Schoolhouse Rock!
Newall, who was a copywriter at the McCaffrey & McCall agency, described how he had seen many people try unsuccessfully to pitch their television programs to ABC. But the Schoolhouse Rock! team had an advantage. “At the time we were an advertising agency,” said Newall. “And we got on the air because our biggest client at the time was ABC television. We did hundreds of ads for them.”
Newall had to quickly learn how to keep children engaged while sneaking educational facts into each cartoon. “Whatever you do, don’t write down to the kids,” he said he remembers learning. “Make it interesting.”
And so they did. “Multiplication Rock” made up the first part of the series, featuring songs such as “The Four-Legged Zoo,” “Ready or Not Here I Come” and “Zero my Hero;” a tune that plays underneath Volkswagen’s latest year-end commercial. Newall first understood how popular his creation was when he learned that even though the short songs were intermixed with the commercials, viewers were watching the commericals hoping to see the songs. ABC played five episodes of the program every Saturday and three every Sunday.
Lyricist Lynn Ahrens booked a job on the series when she was fresh out of college. She was able to both write and sing songs like “The Preamble,” “The Great American Melting Pot” and “Three Ring Government.” She said she is still surprised by the series’ popularity and longevity.
Now, reflecting on her time working on Schoolhouse Rock! post-election, Ahrens said she’s dismayed by how little most Americans know about government. “Despite all the civics lessons you can teach, this is where we’re at right now,” she said. Ahrens lives in New York City, which overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton, and describes watching her friends work through feelings of loss, tremendous fear and uncertainty.
“Little three-minute animated educational tools just only begin to address the tip of the iceberg of ignorance when it comes to civics and the world and politics,” she said.
Newall agreed. “I didn’t expect to arrive at 82 years old, waiting for the grim reaper, and have this happen to our country,” he said. He dreads the Trump era, he said, and expects to feel as if he’s living in a science fiction novel.
Newall said he admires the way teachers have utilized the Schoolhouse Rock! series in classrooms. Teachers are a big reason why children are able to digest the facts illustrated in each video: “Really good education extends from exceptional teachers,” he said.
But proper instructors to educate students on how the system works are not enough, he said — they need effective tools. For a generation, Schoolhouse Rock! was one such tool. But now, Newall said, in a time when people get their information from video sound bytes and social media platforms, the way we communicate our complex political system has to resonate with the zeitgeist of the future.
One such idea comes from retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has said she believes the future of educating kids will involve educational online games. A lifelong public servant, O’Connor decided to leave her legacy in civic education through an organization she founded: iCivics.org.
“A lot of civics education has been worksheets that you complete,” said iCivics executive director Louise Dube. “You might do very well on them in the short term, but you would remember absolutely nothing about what the three branches were after you completed the worksheet.” The website tackles civics education through free interactive online gaming and lesson plans, in hopes of engaging children beyond the classroom. Popular games such as “Immigration Nation,” “Win the White House” and “Branches of Power” guide students through an interactive mission where they have to solve problems.
“Immigration Nation” challenges kids’ knowledge about who’s considered eligible to immigrate to America. The game poses hypothetical situations in which a person is applying to come to the US; the players have to decide whether or not that person is eligible to enter the country under the law. “That allows them to feel like they’re more accountable and more responsible and have to make the big decisions,” Dube said.
These games are meant to be entertaining, Dube said, while still challenging students to learn how the US government works. The goal is to engage students so they work harder to understand the civics lessons at the core of each game. When the fun is done, teachers can continue the conversation in the classroom with the free lesson plans offered on the iCivics site.
— Louise Dube, iCivics
Last year iCivics.org served 4 million students, Due said, and they hope to top 5 million for 2016. She noticed a spike in engagement with both the games and the lesson plans leading up to the election — more than 2 million people played the games in October 2016 alone. iCivics strives to keep all lessons nonpartisan, providing teachers with unbiased information to teach the full picture. “We want to stay relevant, we want to teach what’s actually happening,” she said. “Otherwise you become not credible. Students are pretty wise.”
Yet even though students engaged with the games, Dube said that for some educators, teaching civics-related issues during the 2016 election cycle proved a challenge. “Many teachers were scared this year to teach on the election because of the polarization in the country,” she said. “They were concerned because they felt that their administration would not back them up in teaching it.”
After the election, Dube received reports that kids’ reactions to the outcome were mixed, and that different kids digested the news in different ways. Teachers told Dube they saw some students crying and others cheering for joy on Nov. 9. Their opinions and their reactions, she said, were very much influenced by those held by their family and their community. “It’s a mistake to think that kids are not very much reflecting on what’s happening in the household that they come from,” she said.
But, Dube continued, kids can apply their iCivics lessons to process the election. She was able to have engaging conversations with her son on the government because of what he learned through iCivics, she said.
Ahrens, the lyricist who worked on Schoolhouse Rock!, has not given up hope. After her work on the program, she went on to work on other projects that wove together the arts and democratic ideals. She composed lyrics for the 1998 musical Ragtime, a production of which debuted days after the election in London. Based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow, the musical tells the stories of African-Americans, the white upper class and immigrants as they strive live successfully in 20th-century New York. Watching the performance, she said she was struck by the degree to which its themes, such as the American dream, economic class and gender equality, were still major issues in the 2016 election.
“Everything changes, sometimes up and sometimes down, but let’s just hope that America wises up a little bit too and thinks more about these things,” said Ahrens.
Schoolhouse Rock! had a celebrated return to the airwaves in 2014 for just one night, to celebrate its 40th anniversary. With the excitement surrounding the return, it made sense to wonder whether a revamp of the series is in the pipeline. Ahrens said she’d be up for helping to write new lyrics, though Newall said he believes a redux of their project would have to take on a new form to appeal to a new generation. Both agree, however: Writing the lyrics to the original series, which has stood the test of time, felt more like fun than a job. “It was an outlet for us,” said Newall. “It was a chance for us to sell something other than breakfast cereal.”