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Using The Simpsons to Teach the Five Freedoms

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I was not surprised when an Associated Press article reported that more people are familiar with pop culture than the Constitution. The article states that “only one in four Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances.) But more than half can name at least two members of the cartoon family” The Simpsons.[1] While the author of the article names the five freedoms, she lists “freedom of speech” before the first freedom, “freedom of religion.”[2] Even reporters have some work to do.

The study was conducted by the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum which “found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared with just one in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms. . . . The survey found more people could name the three ‘American Idol’ judges than identify three First Amendment rights. They were also more likely to remember popular advertising slogans.” We shouldn’t be surprised at any of this since most Americans have never studied the Constitution. When’s the last time you heard someone actually quote the First Amendment’s first freedom accurately? It’s always “the separation of church and state,” almost never the actual text.

Some people might conclude from these dismal statistics that we need less of The Simpsons and more of the Constitution. I have a different assessment. I see an opportunity. Why not use what people know about pop culture and turn their knowledge into a teaching tool? Let’s begin with the popular TV show Lost. The survivors of a plane crash are forced to live with each other on a remote island that holds unusual threats and unexplained mysteries. At least two of the Lost characters can be used to teach young people some valuable history and philosophy. They are John Locke (played by Terry O’Quinn) and Danielle Rousseau (played by Mira Furlan). When given a choice of starting a civilization from scratch, should we go with the seventeenth-century British philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), whose ideas and vocabulary had an impact on the Declaration of Independence, or the Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), whose belief in the “noble savage” influenced generations of liberal thinkers? Even the most disinterested students would learn something about these men and their philosophies if they got to interact with a television program.

The Simpsons is a much more popular series with hundreds of episodes in syndication since the airing of its first season in April of 1987. If people know more about The Simpsons than the Constitution, then why not use the characters of the Simpson household to help students learn the five freedoms of the First Amendment?

Homer Simpson and the Freedom of Religion: Next to Ned Flanders, Homer is the most religious character on the show. While his theories about God and religion are a bit mixed up, he does not doubt God’s existence. The Simpsons even attend church. While Homer might disagree with Flanders on any number of things, including religion, deep down he admires his neighbor. “If everyone here were like Ned Flanders, there’d be no need for heaven,” Homer says. “We’d already be there.”

Marge and Freedom of Speech: In the December 25, 2004 Christmas Special, Marge Simpson, as the Queen of England, delivers an alternative Christmas speech. Freedom of speech has not always been as accessible as it is today. The creators of The Simpsons might have been jailed or worse for mocking aspects of British society, especially in comparing US and UK relations to that of Mini Me and Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films, “Helping out in all our zany schemes to take over the world.”[3] Ouch!

Bart Simpson and Freedom of the Press: Bart is often shown writing on a blackboard as punishment for something he has written or said. While we might not like it when Bart wrote “The Christmas pageant stinks,” he has a right to express himself without fear of reprisal. Unpopular ideas are protected by the First Amendment, whether spoken or written. Even though we have the freedom to say and write whatever we want, excluding the excesses of slander, it isn’t always the responsible thing to do. Bart’s repeated trips to the blackboard are evidence that being impolitic has its repercussions.

Lisa Simpson and the Right to Assemble: Lisa is the show’s liberal voice. She is a self-described “ovo-lacto-vegentarian” (no eggs, no dairy, no meat) and a fan of National Public Radio. She makes her views known to all who will listen. Through her activism in assembling others to join her cause, Lisa has solved a number of problems in Springfield.

Maggie Simpson and the Redress of Grievances: With a few exceptions, pacifier-sucking Maggie does not talk. Homer, tucking Maggie in for the night, says: “The sooner kids talk, the sooner they talk back. I hope you never say a word.” Governments hope the people keep their grievances to themselves, that they are content to be pacified by government programs. When Maggie does express herself, it’s always profound. When Homer shuts the door after saying that he hopes Maggie never says a word,” she pulls the pacifier out of her mouth and says her first word: “Daddy.” Our grievances should be equally profound when we see injustice coming from Washington.

These five freedoms are the foundation of our nation. They are what separate us from every other nation in the world. If we have to use The Simpsons to teach them, then let’s do it.

Endnotes:

[1] Anna Johnson, “First Amendment? ‘D’oh!’ We’re Clueless,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (March 1, 2006), A10. Also see “Homer Simpson, Yes; First Amendment? ‘Doh,” Editor and Publisher (March 1, 2006): Online here. For a different take on the survey, see “Freedom of Speech: More Famous than Bart Simpson” (March 3, 2006): Online here.
[2] “[1] Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or [2] abridging the freedom of speech, or [3] of the press; or [4] the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and [5] to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
[3]http://www.sim64.co.uk/marge.html

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