On the one hand, television is a vast cesspool of reality stars, celebrity-stalking tabloids, and Jimmy Fallon. On the other hand, the capacity of this medium to inform, educate, and enlighten is nearly infinite.
In fact, in the era before internet proliferation, television was the most powerful and exponential way to convey ideas, spread information, and share knowledge en masse. Peppered throughout the wasteland of commercial television have always been oases of wisdom. And as a child of the ‘80s, I can say without many reservations, that everything I ever needed to know, I learned from children’s television.
Here are a few of the key lessons I’ve retained well into adulthood.
1. Sesame Street (1969-Present)
Diversity is awesome.
The very underlying message of Sesame Street seemed to be that diversity is beautiful. An educational children’s show revolving around an urban neighborhood and a cast that harmoniously integrated humans and muppets of all colors, Sesame Street broke new ground for public programming in the years immediately following the Civil Rights movement. It was bold in its innocent and affable multiculturalism.
Sesame Street is basically a variety show featuring literacy training, counting exercises, and lessons on civic responsibility. But all of this is couched in an environment and spirit of unflinching inclusion, teaching viewers from a young age how much they have to gain from acceptance and fellowship. Check out the first meeting between Big Bird and his new best friend, Snuffleupagus. This was back in 1971 and, in spite of Snuffy’s shoddy manufacturing and the fact that he’s kind of a bummer, Big Bird doesn’t hesitate to befriend him. Big Bird’s open-mindedness would prove rewarding over the years as a series of costume redesigns ultimately rendered Snuffy a much happier and more pleasant woolly-mammoth-type creature. The lesson here is that those who are accepting of the differences in others will be richly rewarded throughout their lives.
2. Watch Mr. Wizard/Mr. Wizard’s World (1951-1965; 1971-1972)(1983-1990)
Knowledge is cool.
Knowing stuff is cool. That was the underlying message of Mr. Wizard’s show, which appeared on television during three separate broadcast runs. Mr. Wizard taught, and demonstrated in a laboratory setting, that knowledge, intelligence and creative thinking are virtues. It was a nice counterpoint to the schoolyard premise that intelligence and nerdliness are basically synonymous. Indeed, this premise remains an oft-referenced pop culture trope, from Steve Urkel to Big Bang Theory. But forget all that nerd-shaming nonsense. Mr. Wizard showed us that science could be fun, exciting, and yes, downright cool.
As Mr. Wizard, Don Herbert demonstrated the power of science across more than 40 years of television programming, typically working with one youthful assistant and always speaking to the importance of proper safety precautions. But these precautions aside, he also armed his young viewers with the knowledge to do questionable things like smashing stuff that’s been frozen with liquid nitrogen and building homemade bombs, as in the video seen here above. As point of fact, back in the 50s, you could mail away for your very own Mr. Wizard’s Science Set, which contained a wide range of substances that can no longer be sold in a retail setting.
It is notable that Mr. Wizard’s first run coincided with mounting Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Space Race and the threat of nuclear annihilation placed an enormous onus on American scientific ingenuity. This made Mr. Wizard a figure of some cultural consequence to young viewers at home, any number of whom he inspired to innovate on behalf of the United States.
Though Mr. Wizard was not, himself, inherently cool, he had a good sense of the things that kids found fascinating and gave them the scientific wherewithal to pursue such experiments. In a sense, Mr. Wizard moved science out of the classroom and into the real world for his young viewers, no doubt giving rise to any number of aspiring preadolescent mad scientists.
3. Punky Brewster (1984-1988)
CPR Saves Lives
Ok. This one is pretty straightforward, but nonetheless, very important. If you see a discarded refrigerator or freezer waiting on the curb for trash pickup, do not get inside it and close the door. I know. I know. The thrill seems almost impossible to resist: to know what butter and orange juice feel when you close the door; to see the secret world that comes to life when that little bulb goes out; to experience things only your fresh produce have ever experienced. But listen, it’s not worth it. Don’t do it. In a very special episode of Punky Brewster, Punky’s friend Cherie used just such an appliance to win a spirited game of hide-and-seek. But the hiding place was too good and she nearly suffocated before she was found and revived.
Technically, the whole episode was about the importance of mastering life-saving skills like CPR. (Then again, take note of the fact that the only adult in the show desperately begs the young children around him to perform these life-saving skills, rather than do so himself. Not a great example you’re setting there, Henry).
At any rate, CPR was the theme, but it wasn’t my takeaway. Let me tell you something. I was, like, six when I saw it, and that scene really effected me. I almost never hide in refrigerators because of it, whatever the temptations.
There’s another valuable lesson in there for adults. Take the doors off of your freezers and refrigerators before you move them to the curb. And also, just accept that you’ll never feel what butter feels. That’s just life.
4. G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1985-1986)
Knowing is half the battle.
I literally can’t remember a single plot-driven episode of G.I. Joe. Truthfully, I watched it, but it bored me to tears. I think it was just on in the same programming block as Transformers. (Excuse six-year-old me if this was never true. It’s just how I remember it.) At any rate, I don’t recall much about the show itself. What I do remember are the animated public service announcements that followed every episode. These PSAs gave G.I. Joe the right to claim it was endorsed by the National Child Safety Council, which I guess is a big deal.
In the after-episode PSAs, one of the supporting characters—like Shipwreck, Flint, or Ripcord—would show up somewhere where kids were about to do something stupid and intervene with some friendly advice. After the selected G.I. explained why you shouldn’t give creepy strangers your home address, how lying only makes things worse, and how it’s a good idea to get regular eye exams, the kids would say, “now we know.” The character would look to the audience and say, “and knowing is half the battle.”
Anyway, the lesson is, don’t do stupid s**t.
5. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001)
Outdoor shoes are gross.
Fred Rogers had two pairs of shoes: one for walking through his neighborhood and one for hanging around his home. (It’s not clear if he had yet a third pair for the Land of Make Believe.) Anyway, Mr. Rogers was really on to something, namely that it’s not a bad idea to take your shoes off when you walk into a house. I’m not trying to be snotty here but we’re a no-shoes residence.
We live in the city and we walk everywhere. It’s a nice neighborhood and all, but the other day, there was literally just a shattered toilet strewn from street corner to intersection, as if somebody had thrown it out the window of a moving car. And in the city, incidences like that are not isolated. On any given day, you will drag your soles through a colorful hodgepodge of unimaginable, filth-ridden, stank-infested, wretch-inducing substances without even knowing it. I mean, who looks at their feet when they’re walking?
Anyway, your outdoor shoes are bacteria colonies with racing stripes. Mr. Rogers was one of the first guys to recognize how gross footwear is when you really think about it. The lesson here is, check your nasty old sneakers at the door before you come into my home.
6. The Electric Company (1971-1977)
Grammar is Power.
As the video above empirically demonstrates, grammar can be fun and funky. The premise behind this show was basically that reading and writing are empowering, that the greater your mastery of the English language, the more effectively you will be able to wield it. Combining live action sketches, animation, and celebrity cameos, The Electric Company taught kids the finer points of grammar, like forming contractions, properly utilizing the silent “e,” and correctly enunciating specific letter combinations.
Even if many of the animated shorts seemed vaguely phantasmagoric and possibly influenced by some combination of psychotropic drugs and salty snacks, you couldn’t help but learn bits and pieces of the English language. More than anything, The Electric Company demonstrated that in order to indulge in linguistic experimentation, one must first learn how to use the basic building blocks of language. The Electric Company taught us how to use these building blocks in all their psychedelic glory.
7. Schoolhouse Rock! (1973-1985)
Music makes boring stuff interesting.
You could learn all kinds of amazing stuff in three-minute animated snippets from these interstitial ABC Saturday Morning Cartoon shorts, like the names of the planets in our solar system, the multiplication tables, or how home computing technology works (or at least, how it worked in 1985. If you plan on watching these, adjust your expectations slightly based on 32 subsequent years of technological advancement).
Schoolhouse Rock! began as part of an advertising campaign, spearheaded by an ad exec named David McCall. McCall was fascinated by the fact that his children could remember all the lyrics to their favorite rock songs but had difficulty mastering their multiplication tables. McCall decided to combine rock music and a few basic lesson plans, an idea which quickly manifested as a series of short, popular educational animations. The songs themselves were, in many cases, seriously memorable. I still consider “I’m Just a Bill” to be the definitive academic source on how a bill becomes a law.
In this one, a legislative bill, voiced by longtime Merv Griffin musical director Jack Sheldon, explains the lawmaking process to a curious child (voiced by his real-life son). The key to the animated short’s success is that it explains the procedure in song. (By the way, if you’re curious, the Bill in question dealt with the deeply controversial idea of requiring school buses to come to a complete stop before crossing train tracks.)
Schoolhouse Rock! showed us that boring stuff can be more interesting if you sing it.
8. Scooby-Doo (1969-Present)
Things go better when you work as a team, even if two of your teammates are bumbling stoners who contribute literally nothing.
Cooperation is the core theme here. The universality of said theme is almost surely the reason that this Hannah-Barbara classic simply cannot be killed. In dog years, Scooby is 336 years old, so there’s a good chance his Scooby Snacks are medicinally prescribed for glaucoma. Point is, this series and the several hundred spin-offs and straight-to-video movies it has spawned speak to its remarkable staying power.
For a group of young adults who traveled around in a windowless van wearing the same clothes every single day, these guys really seemed to get along. Facing down various terrifying existential threats like haunted theme parks, cursed mansions, and, in an episode from 2015, over-the-hill rock band KISS, the team never wavers in its determination and rarely descends into bickering or recrimination. In every instance, the gang comports itself with bravery and dignity (again, with the exception of the two paranoid stoners, who always seem to have either the munchies or the shakes). The point of Scooby-Doo, aside from the weekly revelation that the bad guy is really just some jerk in a rubber mask, is that there is nothing that can’t be accomplished when we work together and when we encourage our teammates to work to their individual strengths. The other lesson is that if you’re really good at what you do, there’s a chance you’ll get to meet Batman and the Harlem Globetrotters.
9. Captain Kangaroo (1955-1984)
Cherish the elderly.
The basic premise of Captain Kangaroo was that children love their grandparents. This was Bob Keeshan’s idea when he first donned the large-pocketed coat that became the Captain’s trademark. As Captain Kangaroo, Keeshan mined the affectionate rapport that he often observed between children and the elderly. His affable and aged character became a grandparent to an entire nation of children, with his stories, antics and silliness capturing the unique warmth shared across the generation gap. The host was kindly, sort-of-bumbling, and unflinchingly patient throughout the show’s remarkable 38-year run, displaying all the qualities of the world’s most lovable grandfather.
In reality, Captain Kangaroo was a pretty loosely-imagined television show in which the titular character wandered around “The Captain’s Place” looking for things to do. He would show cartoons, interact with puppets and occasionally entertain television guest stars like William Shatner, Mr. Rogers and Bob Newhart. That’s pretty much how I remember my grandpa spending his afternoons.
Occasionally, Keeshan would also appear as the Town Clown, reprising a role from his pre-Kangaroo days as Clarabell the Clown on the Howdy Doody Show. (Note: My grandpa never dressed as a clown, but it’s important to remember that, in these days, it wasn’t a universally-accepted fact that clowns are just plain creepy.)
The format for Captain Kangaroo was kind of all over the place. There was no set sequence of events for any given episode, the theme song could change almost over night, and the Captain himself was not much of a stickler for consistency. But then, this unpredictable fun was what made Captain Kangaroo feel like a visit to Nana and Pop-pop’s house. Sometimes, as adults, we forget how much insight, experience and wisdom can come with advanced age. The real lesson in Captain Kangaroo is that we should all cherish the elderly the way that children do.
10. Reading Rainbow (1983-2006)
Books are magical.
If the Electric Company was about reading words, forming sentences, and pronouncing things correctly, Reading Rainbow put all of these pieces together to instill in its audience a love of books. And if you ever wondered what Geordi La Forge (the blind guy from Star Trek: The Next Generation) looked like under his futuristic visor, this was the easiest way to find out. When LaVar Burton wasn’t aboard the USS Enterprise, he was teaching kids to read as the host of Reading Rainbow.
Every week, the show would feature a different story, frequently with celebrity narration. Then, LaVar would take the audience on a trip to meet an author, or visit a location with relevance to the book at hand. The idea behind Reading Rainbow was that reading could be a portal to a faraway land, a moment in history, or a fantastic place that exists only in your imagination. The opening theme sequence sort of gets right to the point here, which is basically that books are awesome.
The show actually ran right up to 2006, which means that Burton started with Reading Rainbow four years before he was approached to join the crew of the Enterprise and that he continued his literacy advocacy for more than a decade following Captain Picard’s retirement. In fact, Lt. Commander La Forge is still at it. He helped to oversee a recent Kickstarter campaign aimed at moving Reading Rainbow into the Kindle era. The effort has raised more than $5 million since 2014.
That’s how I remember children’s television but your memories may differ. Any life-altering revelations you experienced while watching public broadcasting or Saturday morning cartoons? Tell us all about it!