Sometimes I forget how fun learning could be as a child. While in Michigan for Christmas, I spent part of a morning playing Memory Game with my mom, two nieces, and nephew. Despite a college education, two years of pants-shittingly intense work at Portfolio Center, and the fact I hold a steady copywriting job in NYC, I came in third. And that was only because the seven-year-olds Dominic and Sophia got bored and dropped out. I sat and watched my niece Lauren DOMINATE the game, convinced she was somehow marking the cards. Sure, I can write 100 words of real estate body copy in my sleep, but where’s the fun in that?
Making learning an enjoyable process can be easy, like using the game of Memory to sharpen cognition, but some subjects are just no fun. Take math, for example. Since finishing high school, the most I’ve done is the occasional simple mental equation, but I used to love numbers. There was something in the order and certainty of mathematics that fueled my love for puzzles of any sort. And I can link my fascination of variables and probabilities directly to a man named Jim Thurman. Odds are he probably influenced you quite a bit too.
A huge contributor to the Children’s Television Workshop, Thurman wrote for The Electric Company, 321 Contact, The Muppet Show, and Sesame Street, which he produced animation for from its inception in 1969 until his death this past year, including one of my favorites Teeny Little Super Guy. On top of that he was a comedy writer for Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett, and Bill Cosby. Still, his biggest influence on me was the way he uniquely combined abstract mathematical concepts with pop culture parodies in the show Square One TV.
If you never saw this show growing up, you really missed out. The cast was full of talented actors who made a kids show about math more fun than it probably should have been. They sang songs about estimation, percentages, and Archimedes over synthesized 80s Pop. They parodied game shows with But Who’s Counting?, What’s My Number?, and Triple Play. They even had sketches about a Dallas-esque family called Callous. But the greatest part of each episode was the final ten minutes, which were devoted to the crime serial Mathnet. Every week had a new 5-part case where detectives George Frankly and Kate Monday (later it was Pat Tuesday) solved kooky L.A. mysteries using cunning and mathematics.
Mathnet was seriously entertaining and equally educational. Square One itself was my favorite show for about three years, despite essentially being an extension of my schooling. I know there are a number of innovative educational shows around today like Dora The Explorer and Blues Clues, but nothing I can think of has had the ability to get a little "meta" and push youngster’s brains more maturely. The 70s and 80s were definitely the heyday of children’s programming. I think it’s time for CTW to get back to its roots and take back the attention spans of elementary school kids. Heck, if they decided to create an Adults’ Television Workshop, maybe I would start beating nine-year-olds at simple memory games.
Some Square One faves:
8% of My Love
An entire part of Mathnet!