It may surprise some people to know that despite my children going to public school, I still seek out additional learning opportunities whenever I can. I also jump on the chance when an unlikely source produces itself as a chance to learn important lessons.
One of those sources that recently appeared was the tv show The Simpsons.
I know, I know, what you’re thinking, The Simpsons??? Well, let me back up. I remember watching the first episode, Simpson’s Roasting On an Open Fire on tv in the fourth grade. My parents, like most of the parents of the day, were mildly entertained while horrified mostly because it appeared on Fox and showed at least one disrespectful child. By the time I rolled around to high school, South Park had come out and Beavis and Butthead in between the two and then a couple of years later while I was in college Family Guy made its premier. By that time The Simpsons seemed very tame. My parents did the right thing and continued to instruct us that disrespectful behavior, bullying, language toward adults and vandalism were not tolerated and we all turned out okay.
Not everyone’s idea of great tv for kids, but we do own the first two seasons of the series and we also tune in Sunday nights, occasionally. William really enjoys the show. For five years old he has a great grasp of some of the larger ideas presented on it and asks to watch those early seasons from time to time. Last week was one of those times. In the second season there are two episodes in particular that showed themselves to be learning experiences.
The very first Treehouse of Horror episode shows Bart and Lisa in the treehouse with their Halloween loot. They are attempting to scare one another with competing tales of “terror.” Bart starts with a story of the family moving into a home on an Indian Burial ground that attempts to make them turn on each other until Marge (Julie Kavner) tells the house it cannot push them around. The house turns moody at that point and ends up destroying itself rather than have the Simpson family live there. As Lisa says, “You can’t help but feel a little rejected.” The next is a story told by Lisa where the family is abducted by aliens voiced by Harry Shearer (in a voice reminiscent of his Principal Skinner voice) and James Earl Jones. The aliens ask the family to continue to eat in preparation for their arrival at the alien’s home planet. Lisa uncovers what she thinks is a plot to fatten the family up to kill them and insults the aliens who dump the family back on earth. Finally, Lisa reads Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. It is actually narrated by James Earl Jones with the protaganonist narrated by Dan Castelleneta as Homer and Nancy Cartwright’s Bart as a very annoying raven. I was careful not to mention so much Poe initially but the kids laughed and thought that this was the best of the stories. And they quote it. We’ve talked about the poem a little, my kids are still pretty young to be learning about poetic structures just yet and meter but, guys, my kids quote Edgar Allan Poe. And I swoon. Thank you Matt Groening for putting actual literature, real art, on my television.
But that DVD yielded another surprising education experience. It contains the episode Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish. Those of you that know your American history and politics have probably guessed correctly that there is an election in this episode by the title. The episode begins with Bart and Lisa fishing in the lake by the nuclear power plant their father works at. An investigative journalist wanders by and strikes up a conversation. The kids snag a fish and the reporter gets his scoop when the fish is shown to have three eyes. Shortly after, the power plant undergoes a safety inspection by the government that it miserably fails. Mr Burns (Charles Montgomery Burns voiced by Harry Shearer), the plant owner becomes enraged at government regulation and decides to run for governor. This puts Homer in a tight spot as Mr Burns begins to put the heat on him. Marge voices her displeasure with supporting Mr Burns as she’s done her political homework and knows which candidate she backs up. Meanwhile, the thee-eyed fish is an albatross around Mr Burns’ neck with the voters it seems. It all comes to a head when Mr Burns’ political consultants tell him he needs to be filmed having dinner with a family of one of his workers and the Simpson family is chosen. Lisa is crestfallen at being a political pawn for someone whose politics she despises. Homer inadvertantly gives Marge a trump card when she says she has no voice and he points out her housekeeping and cooking are a kind of voice. When Lisa admits she feels helpless and a tool of evil, Marge tells her she will learn many things at dinner, one of which will be not to underestimate her mother. Marge serves Mr Burns dinner but she also serves him up a hard proposition to swallow without ever saying a word. (I won’t spoil it for you, it is worth seeing on film.) The voice cast of the show has said on Inside the Actor’s Studio that this is one of their favorite episodes they have ever done. And it’s not hard to see why. The boys and I have talked a lot about this episode and what it means to stand up for what you believe in. We’ve also used as a primer on civil disobedience and how speech is not always the spoken word. Marge Simpson is a sort of Atticus Finch in this particular episode, not afraid to do what is unpopular and not backing down.
I really enjoyed watching these episodes and discussing them with the boys. They are learning things and don’t even know it which makes it all the better for me. And we’ve discussed some of the behavior and how it’s not acceptable or how we do not speak to adults that way. Trust me, I want well-rounded adults coming out of this house but well-mannered, well-rounded adults. I hope we’ll find more gems like this in television, movies, games or whatever fun activities we end up doing.