‘The Simpsons’ Top 10 Education Episodes

By Mark Walsh — September 02, 2014 7 min read
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The FXX cable channel wrapped up its airing of all 25 seasons of “The Simpsons” at midnight on Labor Day. That was 552 episodes over 12 days. (With the SimpsonsWorld app coming in October, cable subscribers will be able to view any particular episode on demand.)

I didn’t watch all of the episodes. But it was a good chance to binge-watch one of my favorite shows and be able to call it work. And it was a reminder, as if one was needed, that education has been a running theme on the show from the very beginning. The FXX marathon was a chance to catch those early “Simpsons” school episodes that have long been considered classics, and to view some more recent ones that I hadn’t seen before.

Over the years, “The Simpsons” has addressed substitute teachers, essay contests, summer camps, yearbooks, high school reunions, teacher strikes, snow days, spelling bees, corporate influences on schools, and “rubber rooms” for accused teachers. And then there are the educational film spoofs, including “Fuzzy Bunny’s Guide to You-Know-What;" “Meat and You,” from the Meat Council; and the ones merely mentioned by omnipresent Hollywood actor Troy McClure (the late, much-missed Phil Hartman), such as “Locker Room Towel Fights: The Blinding of Larry Driscoll.”

The Simpson family arguably is for school choice. Over the years, Bart, Lisa, or Maggie have, at one time another, attended cutthroat preschools, military schools, competitive prep schools, and Roman Catholic schools, and been homeschooled.

But over the long haul, the Simpsons are a public school family. In recent years in particular, the show has targeted public school testing trends for special skewering. But no evidence yet on whether those lawmakers and education bureaucrats in Capital City, in whatever state Springfield is in (see this, but also this), have adopted the Common Core State Standards.

“The Simpsons” has been the subject of all manner of scholarly study, some of it bordering on the level of absurdity that would be satirized on, well, “The Simpsons.” (One example—which I’m not calling absurd because I haven’t read it—is The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience With the Wisdom of Springfield, a 2010 book by Karma Waltonen and Denise Du Vernay.

Here is my list of the Top Ten education episodes of “The Simpsons.” In the spirit of the FXX marathon, I present the list in chronological order. So, without further Apu:

Bart the Genius (Season 1, Episode 2; premiered Jan. 14, 1990)

Springfield Elementary School becomes the focus very early in the series, as Bart takes an intelligence test, with his memorable effort to visualize a question about the number of passengers on trains traveling in different directions. Of course, Bart cheats his way, briefly, into the Enriched Learning School for Gifted Children, where enthusiastic “learning coordinator” Miss Mellon tells her pupils, “Discover your desks, people!” The episode sets the tone for casting a sharp satirical eye on the conventions of U.S. education.

Lisa’s Substitute (S2, Ep 19; April 25, 1991)

This classic episode came along just as the show was hitting its stride. Lisa falls, intellectually, for her lively substitute teacher, Mr. Bergstrom (Dustin Hoffman in a cameo voice role). He dresses in costume and dispels the idea that there were no Jewish cowboys. When Miss Hoover returns to find that Mr. Bergstrom didn’t touch her lesson plan, she asks what he taught the class. Lisa’s reply: “That life was worth living.”

The PTA Disbands (S6, Ep 21; April 16, 1995)

This episode touches on school finance, teachers’ unions and strikes, tutoring, and prayers in public schools. Bart pushes the teachers and the school administration into a labor battle. Mrs. Krabappel tells Principal Skinner that “the only books we have are the ones banned by other schools!”, referring to a bookshelf includes Theory of Evolution, by Charles Darwin; Hop on Pop, by Dr. Seuss; Steal This Book, by Abbie Hoffman; and The Satanic Verses (Junior Illustrated Edition), by Salman Rushdie. And there is Homer Simpson’s classic line: “Lisa, if you don’t like your job, you don’t strike: you just go in every day and do it really half-assed. That’s the American way.”

Lisa Gets an ‘A’ (S10, Ep 7; Nov. 22, 1998)

The show’s first of several treatments of testing’s implications for the entire school. Lisa uncharacteristically finds herself at risk of failing a test, and she even more uncharacteristically turns to cheating. She ends up with an A+++ grade, which Principal Skinner tells her “brought the entire school’s GPA up to our state’s minimum standard. We now qualify for a basic assistance grant. It’s the greatest honor the school has ever received.” Lisa’s conscience weighs on her, but the school goes to outrageous lengths to ensure it keeps the grant. (How many TV shows have ever given such prominence to the state comptroller?)

Special Edna (S14, Ep 7; Jan. 5, 2003)

Mrs. Krabappel (the late Marcia Wallace) is nominated as Teacher of the Year. The nominating committee, which rejects a candidate in the mold of Mr. Keating from “Dead Poets Society,” is impressed that Mrs. Krabappel was nominated by her nemesis. “The Bart Simpson?” one member says. “I thought he was an urban legend. If she’s danced with the devil in the blue shorts and lived, we have ourselves a nominee.” The ceremony is held at EPCOT Center.

Girls Just Want to Have Sums (S17, Ep 19; April 30, 2006)

The show takes a strand from the news (a certain Ivy League president questioning the mathematics abilities of females) and pairs it with a trendy educational experiment (single-sex classrooms). Here, it is Principal Skinner who puts his foot in his mouth. (“From what I’ve seen, boys are better at math, science—the real subjects.”) That leads to a new principal who separates the sexes at Springfield Elementary, but not to the satisfaction of Lisa, who finds a way to the boys’ side.

How the Test Was Won (S20, Ep 11; March 1, 2009)

With the nation now well into the No Child Left Behind Act era, the show takes up testing again, with Springfield Elementary sending its underachievers out of town on test day, while Lisa struggles with the pressure of the big federal test, known in this episode as the Vice President’s Achievement Test. At the end, there is a revolt against high-stakes testing.

Waverly Hills, 9-0-2-1-D’oh (S20, Ep 19; May 3, 2009)

Public school choice is the point of this episode, which involves the Simpsons taking an apartment in a much wealthier district so Bart and Lisa can attend its much better school. (The show sends mixed signals about whether neighboring Waverly Hills is a separate district, as its buses suggest, or part of the same district as Springfield, since Superintendent Chalmers oversees both.) The grass is not always greener, the Simpson children learn. And only “The Simpsons” could incorporate references from “No Country for Old Men” into an education episode.

A Test Before Trying (S24, Ep 10; Jan. 13, 2013)

In the show’s most recent blast at testing, the stakes are raised again because Springfield Elementary will close if it doesn’t outperform other schools at the bottom of the barrel. This time, it’s Bart’s answer sheet, not Lisa’s, that will determine the school’s future. The show returns to a running theme that stern government bureaucrats—in this case the state test proctor—do have a sympathetic side.

The Kid is Alright (S25, Ep 6; Nov. 24, 2013)

Taking us right into last season, Lisa must deal with the latest in a long line of female transfer students who challenge her position in school (be it smartest, most musically inclined, or most politically active). Here, it is the latter, as a young Republican Latina challenges liberal Lisa in the 2nd-grade election. The episode touches on everything from the classic student campaign promise, chocolate milk in the drinking fountains, to Citizens United and the outsize influence of money in even the most local of elections.

Honorable Mentions:

Bart Gets an F (S2, Ep 1) Bart buckles down and passes for once.

A Streetcar Named Marge (S4 Ep 2) The secondary story involves Maggie and the famous Ayn Rand School for Tots.

Homer Goes to College (Season 5, Episode 3) A cross between “Animal House” and “Revenge of the Nerds.”

Grade School Confidential (S8, Ep 19) Principal Skinner and Mrs. Krabappel begin their long romance.

The Secret War of Lisa Simpson (S8, Ep 25) Lisa joins Bart at military school.

Bart Gets a Z (S21, Ep 2) Mrs. Krabappel involuntarily leaves teaching for a while to bake muffins.

Bart Stops to Smell the Roosevelts (S23 Ep 2) Superintendent Chalmers takes center stage in trying to inspire a love of learning in Bart and the other difficult students. In a sign the show might be getting soft, he partially succeeds.

I’ll end with an honorable mention for Summer of 4 Ft. 2 (S7, Ep 25), which is not so much an education episode (though it did give us the great Springfield Elementary yearbook, Retrospecticus), but a celebration of summer vacation.

And at the end of that episode, the Simpsons are driving away from their summer resort town to the sounds of the Beach Boys’ “All Summer Long": We’ve been having fun all summer long ... Won’t be long till summertime is through.

With the end of the Simpsons marathon on FXX, summertime is unofficially over. Season 26 of “The Simpsons” debuts on on Fox onSept. 28.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.