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Pop Culture Corner: The Educational Videos That Stick

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BILL BILL BILL BILL BILL BILL

In this screengrab, Bill Nye speaks during All In WA: A Concert For COVID-19 Relief on June 24, 2020 in Washington.
In this screengrab, Bill Nye speaks during All In WA: A Concert For COVID-19 Relief on June 24, 2020 in Washington.
Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images for All In WA

Teaching kids is hard work. Not only do you have to teach the little humans with short attention spans—a task also difficult for said humans with short attention spans when they have to teach themselves—but you’ve got to figure out what to teach and how to teach it. And with kids learning such a wide breadth and depth of knowledge, not all of which is relevant to every student later on in life,* it’s only natural that some of the things that do stick with us are pop culture-related.

*I hear this all the time: “Why did I learn algebra in school; I don’t use it.” That’s true! But you know who does use it? A lot of people doing a lot of jobs! One of the reasons why secondary education exists is to give a broad base of knowledge so that it can be useful to everyone in some way or another. Stop complaining that you don’t use X, Y, or Z. Someone does.

Case in point: this Monday was Martin Luther King day, a federal holiday. I remember that I was taught about him in school. But you know what I remember most? Some dumb cartoon (apparently titled Our Friend, Martin) where a pair of middle schoolers from the modern times got magically transported back in time to experience multiple landmark Civil Rights events. This educational video did the extra legwork of putting those cartoons in the background of real life footage. Was the video good? No. Did it have a good message? Also, no—it framed King and the 1960s Civil Rights as “defeating racism,” which did not happen. Did I remember it? Absolutely.

I can’t speak of anybody who wasn’t educated in the 90s and 00s, but for those of us who were, two video series were pre-eminent in the educational cannon. Bill Nye the Science Guy was the first. Nye’s show lasted for 100 episodes, covering topics in physics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, computer science, biology, and beyond. The show brilliantly and concisely explained the topics, doing so with its trademark physical comedy and wit. Nye was electric—no pun intended—and his charisma, alongside a dash of nostalgia, has kept him famous for the two decades since his trademark show ended (Nye appeared in one of my favorite Stargate Atlantis episodes, as himself, because you know why not).

The other series of note is Schoolhouse Rock. The original four series from the 1970s covered American government, math, grammar, and science. Nearly every song was an earworm, from Interplanet Janet to Conjunction Junction and The Shot Heard Round the World. And to anybody who’s ever sung themselves a mnemonic device, you know how effective it is at getting people to remember things.

I don’t have much of a larger point here, other than to point out that the videos we watch can have an outsized impact on us. Whether it’s a dumb cartoon song from when we were kids or a YouTube video about how to do something as an adult, they are excellent at sticking in our heads—and it’s not always a good thing.

What are some of your favorite educational videos? If you or your kid has seen some new ones, what are they?