Step Aside, Schoolhouse Rock!

10 things to read, watch, and listen to if you're interested in civics and politics

7 mins read
illustration: Aaron Stewart

Learning about our country’s history and political processes doesn’t have to be painful — in fact, you might even enjoy it.

Maybe you’re getting older and feel an obligation to get informed, or maybe you just want to be able to follow the news more easily when they start talking about things like campaigns, elections, or policy changes. And maybe you want to find ways to learn about U.S. politics and history outside of a classroom.

Sure, the legal side of TikTok might be enticing, but there are other options out there. Read on to find out which books, shows, and podcasts we recommend to get you up to speed.

  1. Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections, by Jeff Fleischer

For the majority of Americans, navigating the twists and turns of the 2020 elections was like navigating a maze. While blindfolded. In the rain.  Were you also confused about the rush of terms and processes that were all new to you, but no one seemed to be explaining? Well this is the book for you! Jeff Fleischer breaks down how our elections work in easy terms, from voting districts to primaries and caucuses. This is a fantastic first step to learning more about how our democracy works!

  1. Your Rugged Constitution, by Bruce Findlay and Esther Blair Findlay

This civics-ed relic is still in print and loaded with good info. First published in 1964 by a social studies teacher and her husband, who was the Associate Superintendent of Los Angeles City Schools, this book marches through every last article and amendment of the Constitution (not counting the 27th, which hadn’t been ratified when the book was published) with Curious George-style illustrations. The upshot: Any Fourth Grader can understand it, but most 40-year-olds don’t know half of what’s in here. Pick up a copy if you want to cram the Constitution!

  1. We the People

This Schoolhouse Rock!-style Netflix series of music videos that are around 3 minutes each and provides quick, catchy insights into U.S. civics and how the government works. There are episodes on federalism, the Supreme Court, and the checks and balances system, and more that are a delight to watch and listen to, with voices from Andra Day, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Adam Lambert, and more!

  1. Schoolhouse Rock! America Rock

Sure, we said step aside… but we can’t leave this classic off of the list. This is the original blueprint for civics-ed media. Season 3 of this series of animated musical episodes is all American history and government. Check out hits like “I’m Just a Bill” to learn how laws are made, or “I’m Gonna Send Your Vote to College” to hear about the Electoral College.

  1. The West Wing

This political drama series is seven seasons of plotlines focused around the presidential office and all of the issues it has to deal with. While certainly not the most educational entry on this list, The West Wing has the advantage of being incredibly entertaining while also being accurate enough to get you interested in the subject matter. If you like your civics with a little more dramatic flair, this is the perfect place for you!

  1. Parks and Recreation

Okay, just hear us out. Everything we’ve told you about so far has to do with big, national-level ideas. The Federal Government, presidential elections, making laws, etc. are all important, but what about your city or town? What about the events of your local city hall and the departments of your local government? That’s where Parks and Recreation comes in. This fictional mockumentary follows a group of local government officials from a small town in Indiana doing their best to improve their city. It’s a great glimpse into the complicated and sometimes absurd duty that is public office!

  1. Crash Course: U.S. Government and Politics

The title is pretty self explanatory—this YouTube series goes in depth on different aspects of American politics in short videos filled with colorful animation and helpful charts. With episodes all around 10 minutes, if you’re a visual learner who enjoys a quicker pace, this is definitely the series for you.

  1. UnTextbooked

History is important context to have when you’re starting to learn more about politics and becoming an engaged citizen, and learning more about it with the teen hosts of the UnTextbooked podcast is a great way to spend car rides and walks to and from school. Each episode goes in-depth on one topic, and features teens interviewing famous historians about the burning questions surrounding our history, both within the U.S. and abroad. Hearing these intergenerational conversations is a great way to learn about different perspectives on history that shape the way people look at our country today. 

  1. DIY Democracy

Michigan-based podcast host Steven Nelson sits down with various historians, authors, professors, and activists to get deep into what it means to be an active citizen, and even a citizen at all. The episodes take deep dives into the definitions, traditions, and history that we take for granted in order to learn what exactly it means to be civically engaged.

  1. Civics 101

For the more basic definitions of things like Supreme Court and the differences between the House and the Senate, Civics 101 is the perfect podcast to get you started. Beginner-friendly and narrative focused, this engaging romp through all the terms you’re probably expected to know as an informed citizen is as entertaining as it is educational. 

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