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Everything I Learned (About School), I Learned from ’90s Cartoons: Hey Arnold

My first semester of grad school (all of two years ago), I took a class on “Families as Educators.”  I had planned that it would be a great supplement to the drier coursework of education policy briefs and memorizing education finance legislation as settled through Supreme Court rulings. This class was fluffier, and I probably would never use it again. Of course, I was wrong.

The class focused mostly on the art of storytelling, as the creation and altering of personal narratives helped educators understand their students and the communities they were located in. An early lecture included the selection of this Jerome Bruner quote on narratives:

[Narrative] deals (almost from the child’s first talk…) with the stuff of human action and human intentionality.  It mediates between the canonical work of culture and the more idiosyncratic world of beliefs, desires, and hopes.   It renders the exceptional comprehensible and keeps the uncanny at bay – save as the uncanny is needed as a trope.  It reiterates the norms of society without being didactic… It can even teach, conserve memory, or alter the past (p. 52).

Storytelling and the construction of narrative has the power to educate through moral, cultural, and social means.

This brings me to Hey Arnold!

Hey Arnold! is a cartoon about storytelling. While most of the action follows Arnold and his classmates’ adventures both in and out of school, what underscores most of the character development is that most of these characters are guardians of urban legends and myths.  They are also the gatekeepers of their own bizarre and eccentric stories within an urban setting populated by both newly-arrived immigrants and long-time residents.

There are multiple neighborhood legends that emerge over the series. During an episode, Arnold and his friends often deconstruct these legends, as the urban legends often distort the “true” story.  The narratives of these legends are constantly shifting as dependent on the storytellers, the time and the intended message.  Arnold finds out that social outcasts, such as Stoop Kid, and Pigeon Man around whom legends have been constructed, are often just misunderstood.  Societal norms may have created outcasts at one point, but Arnold often finds out that there are deeper meanings and complexities to living in this world.

Storytelling isn’t limited to wild legends of prehistoric fish swimming in City Lake, or ghost trains.  In fact they are every part of the character building in Arnold’s world.  Grandpa Phil often interjects with short asides of memories, such as “making a skirt out of shells and dancing for our men in uniform.” Grandma’s eccentricities are even more distinctive because of their lack of context or storytelling behind them. Seriously, look at this woman (she appears at 0:28, but stick around for the whole clip):

Perhaps the most poignant moment of storytelling in the entire series, which almost every single child of the ’90s remembers, is the story of Mr. Hyunh and the Vietnam war.  In the episode, “Arnold’s Christmas,” Arnold listens to how war separated Mr. Hyunh from his daughter, and sets out to reunite the two for Christmas.  (Warning:  keep tissues handy.)  In this episode, we learn how history is constructed for different people, and how silences may hide suffering or struggle.  Context is finally given through storytelling, and connections between people become stronger for it.

This piece didn’t specifically talk about schooling, which was exactly the point of the “Families as Educators” course.  In fact, so much of education happens outside of the classroom, that they inform each other.  The process of communal memory and narrative helps define how all of these students interact with their space and with each other. Arnold, Gerald, Helga and the rest of the gang, all change based on their interactions with various legends and stories. Legends are unpacked and retold. Meanings are changed and redefined.  These legends, as Bruner would say, make the “exceptional comprehensible,” in their own strange way. At the end of the day, a significant part of their education is coming from the world around them, a fact which educators must grapple with daily.


Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

By Karishma

Karishma is a twenty-something living in New York City and is trying her hardest to live out every cliche about Millennials. This involves eating her feelings, drowning in debt and mocking infomercials. She likes sociology so much that she has two degrees in it, and is still warding off her parents' questions about a real career.

2 replies on “Everything I Learned (About School), I Learned from ’90s Cartoons: Hey Arnold”

Oh, Mr. Hyunh! You’re right, every kid has to know that one. I wasn’t even supposed to watch the show and I still caught that one. I’m officially in love with this article series. It combines two of my loves: education and kid tv shows from the 90’s. Nostalgiiiia. Excellent job.

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