The long-lasting popularity of ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock is both amazing and instructive. The brief lessons on math, grammar, social studies and more first aired in 1972 and can, at any moment, stick a song or subject in the minds of generations of learners. The series had a 1996 tribute album with alternative acts such as Pavement, The Lemonheads, Blind Melon, Buffalo Tom and Moby; Schoolhouse Rock Live! had a long and successful tour; and the Schoolhouse Rock: Election Collection came out in time for last year’s pivotal vote.
Yes, I’m a big fan. “Conjunction Junction” taught me about hooking up words and phrases and clauses. “I’m Just A Bill” provided a perfectly concise civics lesson on how bills become laws (while also being parodied on The Simpsons, the ultimate pop culture honor). And “Three Is A Magic Number” — showing how you could add the digits of any multiple of three to get a multiple of three — inspired a love of math that lasted until … my first calculus course. (If only there had been a Schoolhouse Rock calculus episode?)
In my business, there’s an odd notion that we can not educate and entertain at the same time. Schoolhouse Rock shows nothing could be further than the truth. The best teachers find ways to engage their students even as they impart knowledge. For some reason, the lessons I recall best came from professors who could make me laugh as well as learn (I’m not smart enough to know if there’s a connection between firing up the brain’s pleasure receptors and memory retention). If you don’t think a great professor can move listeners to tears (and laughter) while presenting a lesson, you’ve never seen Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture (viewed more than 8.8 million times).
Same goes with us college communicators. Students expect to have fun when they come to campus, so why are most materials so mirthless? With pictures of soaring spires, ivy-covered buildings surrounded by fall foliage, classrooms of studious multicultural learners, we want to look like serious institutions, but can’t we loosen up? We may show pictures of students smiling or sharing a (mild) laugh, but why can’t we try to write copy and use photos/videos that actually make future students smile or laugh? I received more than 100 brochures while choosing a college, all looking and sounding alike, and am sure I would have remembered if even one school had showed a sense of humor.
I believe it can be done: That we can inject more levity, more life into our work, whatever it is. That in these times, we should strive to make others’ days lighter in what we do. If you don’t believe that there is value in entertainment, in making others smile and laugh — well, then you probably don’t believe that three is a magic number.