One of my favourite subjects in school was history class. For whatever reason, the subject of history fascinated me. I loved studying dates, and events, and the significance of events that helped shape the world that we all live in. As someone who enjoys writing, I didn't mind that most of the class assignments involved writing essays and other reports. I did much better with writing those than trying to balance a chemical equation or trying to find out the square root of 10,201.
For the most part, I found learning about history to be a wonderful subject, and I was never bored with it at all. However, I noticed that when I was in high school, the majority of my classmates didn't seem to share that same love of history. And, in a way, I could understand why they felt that way. With the exception of a couple of my teachers, the majority of them weren't exactly the most charismatic of instructors.
I'm sure that they tried their best, but when you're trying to teach history, it's a bit difficult to make the subject interesting. I know that whenever I had to present an oral history report, I had always struggled with trying to make the subject that I was talking about interesting. Of course, a part of that could have been because I hated public speaking in school, and tried my best to avoid it whenever possible.
Looking back through my own childhood, I couldn't even think of any educational programs that aired that really made learning about history fun. It was bizarre, because it seemed as though every other subject had a television show that made education seem exciting. For reading and language, you had “The Electric Company” and “Readalong”. For mathematics, “Square One” successfully blended math with MTV for a fun learning experience. “Bill Nye The Science Guy” and “Beakman's World” took care of science, while we learned all about geography from chasing Carmen Sandiego and her minions all over the world.
History, however, was completely ignored in that for the longest time. Or, if there was a show about history that aired during the 1980s, I must have missed it.
It wasn't until the early 2000s came along that I made an interesting discovery. Back in those days, my niece and three nephews were all in their early childhood, and their main channel of television viewing was PBS. Whenever I had to babysit them, the television was always on PBS for the first couple of hours. And there was one show that really caught my attention, because it really was the only example that I could find where history became entertaining.
The show that I'm referring to was the PBS show “Liberty's Kids”, which aired on most PBS stations from September 2, 2002 until the summer of 2004.
The show was created and developed by Kevin O'Donnell, Robby London, Mike Maliani, and Andy Heyward, and was produced by DiC Entertainment (which has since been absorbed into Cookie Jar TV).
The program centered mostly around American history, but there was a little bit of world history mixed into that as well. And that was the purpose of the show. It was designed for children between the ages of 7-14, and its main goal was to teach children all about how America was created, as well as some of the historical figures that made a difference. Through the eyes of some young people living through the times of the Revolutionary War, as well as their mentor, one Benjamin Franklin (voiced by Walter Cronkite), children were taken back in time to the late 1700s, and found that they were just as captivated by the historical events of the country as they were by the individual tales of each of the main characters.
Now, here's the weird thing about the show. The show itself spanned a number of years (roughly between 1773 and 1789), but none of the children seemed to age at all. Of course, since it is a cartoon, I suppose that is nothing new. After all, Maggie Simpson should be twenty-six years old by now if the Simpsons were allowed to age normally.
There was Sarah Phillips (Reo Jones), a fifteen-year-old girl originally from England. She comes to America in search of her father, who was last heard exploring Ohio. She crosses paths with Benjamin Franklin, and stays with him as a guest. With the news of war breaking out between the American colonists and the British people, Sarah is torn between allegiances. She decides that the best way for her to stay neutral is to write for Franklin's newspaper, to offer a balanced perspective to the press. She's passionate about making sure that everyone has equal rights, and she is not afraid to stand up for anything that she believes in, using the power of words as her voice. Initially, Sarah is portrayed as a British loyalist, which often caused a bit of friction between her and her friend James, but over time, she grows to support the American Revolution.
There was James Hiller (Chris Lundquist). James' story was quite tragic. He was orphaned as a young boy because lightning caused his house to burn down with his family still inside. At 14, he idolizes Benjamin Franklin, mainly because of the fact that he invented the lightning rod, a device that likely saved other people from experiencing the same deadly fate as his parents. James is very much supportive of the American Revolution, but his feelings are quite one-sided, irking Sarah, who would rather take on an impartial and diplomatic stance. He works as an apprentice in Franklin's Print Shop, and he is very street-smart, although his downfall lies in his impulsive nature, and his zealousness.
Then you have Henri Richard Maurice Dutoit LeFevbre (Kathleen Barr)...otherwise known as just Henri. At just eight years old, Henri is the youngest of the three, taken in by Benjamin Franklin after his parents died of the plague while traveling to America from France by ship. Henri is skilled in French, and can read and write it (obviously being from France, this makes perfect sense), but Franklin also encourages Henri to learn English as well, which he does in the series. Henri's youth sometimes acts as a disadvantage, as he lacks the maturity to understand how serious the war is, but his small stature proves useful, as he can crawl into small spaces without getting detected by the enemy. He values his freedom, but deep down inside, all Henri really wants is a home and family to call his own.
Finally, you have Moses (D. Kevin Williams), a boy born in Africa, and made to become a slave in America. His ingenuity allowed him to learn how to read, forge metal, and buy his freedom from his master, which allowed him to break free from the slavery that dominated the American south. He is forced to carry papers with him at all times as a way to tell people that he was freed, and not just a runaway slave, and eventually finds a job working for Benjamin Franklin. His main drive is the fight for freedom, and he hopes to one day help Americans of all colours achieve the goal of being free.
I think the one thing that made the show stand out were all of the celebrity cameos that happened on the program. There were some big named Hollywood stars that signed on to voice one of the key figures in American history. Below is a list of some of these stars, as well as the roles they played.
Liam Neeson – John Paul Jones
Michael York – Admiral Lord Richard Howe
Dustin Hoffman – Benedict Arnold
Annette Bening – Abigail Adams
Maria Shriver – Peggy Shippen
Billy Crystal – John Adams
Michael Douglas – Patrick Henry
Charles Shaughnessy – King George III
Sylvester Stallone – Paul Revere
On a lighter note, can you imagine Rocky Balboa running up those stairs in Philly shouting “The British Are Coming! The British Are Coming!” Brings a smile to my face each time.
But that's what “Liberty's Kids” was all about. It was a program that made learning about American history fun. Every kid loves a great cartoon series, and although only 40 episodes were made in total, each one had its own distinct storyline and historical lesson. I reckon that I would have benefitted from watching “Liberty's Kids” when I took American history in the 12th grade. Watching old episodes of the series, I can see how informative and entertaining it was.
In fact, let's conclude this blog entry by watching an episode right now.
In fact, let's conclude this blog entry by watching an episode right now.