On Cosmos, cartoons and the fifth grade


Last night we had “family time” (Abbe’s phrase) and told the kids we were going to watch “Cosmos.”  They were, I think, cautiously bored about the idea.

“Cosmos” can be entertaining, and sometimes the special effects really are wonderful — I loved Tyson’s trip to the “seas” of Titan.  Maybe I just love the notion of seeing/imagining a real place that’s never been explored.  But the show doesn’t always do a great job of tying together its story for the week, which makes it less approachable for a kid.  When it does try to tie things together, it can sometimes seem like just another repetition of the idea (however noble) that the history of scientific progress has been a difficult but extraordinarily rewarding one.  Which, again, is a great thought, but maybe it would resonate more if it weren’t delivered with such a heavy hand.  And the animation sequences are just awful, hard to sit through.  Seth MacFarlane’s influence maybe, and I appreciate that they’re trying to have appeal to viewers of all ages.  But the animation is just flat, and kind of weird, and way too pedantic to appeal to kids who have grown up with Pixar and Dreamworks.  I understand it’s not easy to dramatize history in a fun way, but: this is not the fun way that you were looking for, Cosmos.

Halfway through the episode, Emma said that she was learning about these exact things in school (Terracotta Army, sound waves, colors of the spectrum), which didn’t please her.  I think she said she was feeling sick at one point, “like I’m in school.”  Which I’m thinking was probably not the response the show’s creators were going for.  But then she said something interesting at the end: “Is the show supposed to be for just the fifth grade?  Because we’re learning about every single thing on the show.”

Anyway I was thinking about her comment after reading a Jay Matthews story in the Post this morning about how the most challenging high schools typically don’t have a football program.  It’s an interesting read, but this line caught my eye for reasons having nothing to do with the story:

Most of what we remember about government, literature, math and science, we learned in high school.

Matthews writes about how we build most of our initial impressions of the world when we’re young, and he adds football, and organized sports in general, as one of the ways we learn about and become integrated with our culture.  But I’m more interested in this idea that for the great majority of people, we only learn about things broadly while we’re in school, for however long that lasts.  After that, we may specialize and continue to learn, especially if we’re trying to advance in our careers, but we rely more and more, as we get older, on the things we learned when we were children to fill in the giant gaps in our understanding of the world.

What makes “Cosmos” fun for an adult, I think, is exactly what makes it boring for a kid — it’s all true.  It’s just pure education (even if it’s stuff we learned and then forgot over decades), and we really don’t get that experience much as adults.  We get news and we get endless analysis, and then we tend to create filters for ourselves so the analysis matches the impressions we’ve already formed of the world.  But we don’t get “This is the way the universe is put together and we’re going to explain it to you.”

For a kid, that’s just life.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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