Students can learn a thing or two from The Simpsons

Universities across America are using satirical references from The Simpsons to get student's attention and teach lessons in literature and all manner of popular culture.

Lisa, Marge, Maggie, Homer and Bart Simpson, the popular cartoon family from The Simpsons. AP Photo
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Bart and Lisa Simpson have been stuck in elementary school for 25 years – but that hasn’t stopped them from showing up on college campuses.

Universities across America are using satirical references from The Simpsons to get students' attention and teach lessons in literature and all manner of popular culture.

"If the references are important enough to be lampooned by The Simpsons, these works must be important cultural milestones," says Hofstra University adjunct English professor Richard Pioreck, who has been incorporating the denizens of Springfield into his courses for about 10 years.

He currently teaches a course about Broadway theatre, and highlights how The Simpsons have embraced and referenced various musicals and plays in episodes.

Next term, he will shift to an online literature course titled The D'oh of Homer that will include readings from Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven and The Fall of the House of Usher, and Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol – all of which have inspired or influenced Simpsons episodes.

"Teachers need to keep things fresh," says Denise Du Vernay, an adjunct English professor at St Xavier University in Chicago, and co-author of the book The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield.

"They need to reach students however they can," she says. "And using The Simpsons to grab their attention, I think, is brilliant. Fighting against pop culture isn't going to do anyone any good."

In recent years, other universities have run courses focusing on the prime-time show – which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary last week – including Oswego State University in New York and San Jose State University in California.

Longtime Simpsons executive producer Al Jean says he's not surprised professors have embraced the programme.

“Some people may think we are very vulgar, but then they find there is a lot of warmth and emotion and many people are surprised at the intelligence of some of the jokes,” he says.

Pioreck says he decided to use the show after a friend of his daughter's passed an exam on The Devil and Daniel Webster after watching a Simpsons episode that focused on the story.

He found that the sitcom often aims for more than just the easy punchlines, with writers layering the plot lines with humour that can be appreciated by lowbrow, middlebrow and highbrow audiences alike.

For example, in an episode titled A Streetcar Named Marge, which parodied the 1947 Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire, the dynamics of Homer and Marge Simpson's marriage are deftly illustrated through a comparison with the relationship of the couple in the play, Stella and Stanley.

“The Simpsons do a great deal of parodying, whether it’s a complete script or a number here or there,” Pioreck says. “Quite often they choose family relationships – what makes a man a success is one of the things that we pursue. And you can see what happens to Homer. Even though it looks like he’s not a good father, he steps up and he comes through in the end.”

Jean acknowledges that a recurring theme in many episodes is the comparison of the C Montgomery Burns character – the miserly owner of Springfield's nuclear power plant – to the lead character in the movie Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane.

“Mr Burns … doesn’t have fulfilment in his life even though he’s the richest person in town,” Pioreck says. “Here are two people who have it all, they have more money than they know what to do with and yet they’re not happy. Homer has no money, but has friends and family.”

Almost incredibly, at least one young Hofstra student confesses she had never seen the sitcom before signing up for the Simpsons-Broadway course.

Elizabeth Sarian, a 21-year-old music-performance major from Plainview, says she signed up because of her interest in Broadway, not the cartoon.

Still, she says, the connection to The Simpsons is hardly trivial "because it really does teach you a lot from watching it".