Television for College

Sometimes it seems like one can’t go anywhere without running into three or four “intellectual” takes on The Simpsons, the now 21-year old Fox animated sitcom. There’s a reason for this.

In USA Today’s Pop Candy Denise Du Vernay, who has taught a Simpsons-based English composition class at the Milwaukee School of Engineering for 10 years, looks at the use of The Simpsons to teach college students. As Du Vernay explains:

This course… investigate[s] the longest-running sitcom in America, The Simpsons. As Duane Dudek of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel maintains, “If television stirs primal memories of ancient communal campfires, then The Simpsons is the cave paintings for our times.” We will be social anthropologists, exploring the cave paintings to understand what they reveal about our culture. We will pay special attention to how the show functions as a satire — how it serves as corrective comedy to issues such as consumerism, inequality and political dysfunction. We will also discuss the show as an example of postmodern literature.

She’s posted the entire syllabus online and it looks like a fascinating—and not particularly easy—course. Of course, the television show isn’t really better than any other American cultural artifact to study in a composition course. The popularity of the show as an occasional subject for academic inquiry at the American university probably has a lot to do with the fact that the show has been around so long—oddly, The Simpsons has actually been on longer than many of today’s college students have been alive—that it’s now a cultural reference that practically everyone gets.

The show itself, rumored to be staffed almost exclusively by Harvard Lampoon alums, frequently references various higher education institutions. In a 1995 episode, “The PTA Disbands,” second grader Lisa Simpson complains that with her school on strike there’s no way she’ll be admitted into an Ivy League school; “At this rate, I probably won’t even get into Vassar.”

“I’ve had just about enough of your Vassar-bashing, young lady,” Homer quips.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer