With Carmen Sandiego coming back, it appears time to make The Announcement: 2017’s hottest new trend is ‘90s education.

By Marc Snetiker
April 18, 2017 at 01:50 PM EDT
Fox; Everett Collection

With the newly-announced return of yet another paragon of millennial mystique — Carmen Sandiego, she of oversized fedoras and under-detailed itineraries — it appears time to make The Announcement: 2017’s hottest new trend is ’90s education.

You must understand something about the so-called “’90s kids” you read so much about on weblogs. It’s not just all Nickelodeon cartoons and Disney princesses and discontinued lines of dunkable graham crackers. For this generation of Geocities slickers, growing up in the ’90s also meant living on the receiving end of what the advent of computers meant for education; the twenty- and thirtysomethings whose thinkpieces you now actively ignore online probably first learned their typing skills and pixelated prowess through the educational programs worshipped in an ancient house of sacrifice known as a “computer lab.”

This “computer lab” was a temple, and as with any altar, there were deities worth worshipping — and apparently, these goddesses have been deemed worthy of late indoctrination to a new, savvier generation of children. That’s the conceit, anyway, with so many of these nostalgic rebirths, but something feels different about folks like Carmen Sandiego or The Magic School Bus‘ Miss Frizzle. It’s no longer a curious thing for ’90s icons to be back in vogue, but these characters demand to be seen through a different lens than the rest of the reboot mania dominating the zeitgeist.

Carmen Sandiego, of course, is the original anti-hero, whose livelihood began in the mid-1980s when Broderbund Software began using her disappearance to teach children how to read an almanac. As a purveyor of history and geography, Carmen was a criminal crowd favorite, perhaps for her aspirational style and limitless travel expenses, possibly for her rejection of societal shame over the lengths one should go to visit a museum, but most likely for her refusal to stay tied down to any one region or, when she got her hands on a time machine, social epoch. Carmen was free and had zero effs to give, a trailblazing type of teacher who may have strayed from the legal path in her ascertainment of artifacts but ultimately still demonstrated more nobility than misbehavior to her students. (By the way, if you think millennials feel like they’re entitled to the world, it’s only because Carmen Sandiego basically told them to be.)

To follow Carmen was to boldly follow the triumphs of human nature, a pursuit shared by Carmen’s new colleague, Miss Valerie Frizzle, another heavy-hitter of the edutainment era. Frizzle and her Magic School Bus (which will also arrive, revived, on Netflix) caused trouble simply for the love of the knowledge game, forcing her students into outrageous adventures in large galaxies and small intestines, bending the rules of society for the sake of understanding it better.

They’re both brilliant, clever, self-reliant, gleefully naughty women, and recent events have shown that archetype to be nothing less than what a hero of 2017 looks like right now. What makes the Netflix resurgence of these two digital doyennes so special is how their return signals a hopefulness for their new audience: An invitation to reclaim the power of technology for disruption, a return from cynicism back to imagination, a reminder that real information is worth looking for when it’s not readily available through typical channels. It’s a lesson both ’90s and 9-year-old children could use about now.

And the lesson doesn’t end with Carmen and Frizzle, nor does it follow a generational line. Netflix also has Bill Nye Saves the World, a scientific and political talk show aimed at speaking to the kid in decidedly pessimistic adults, and Julie’s Greenroom, Julie Andrews’ musical puppet show about representation and the importance of the arts (which bears as crucial a message for children to hear as it does for the adults with the actual means and occupations to address and fix it). Sesame Street, meanwhile, continues to reinvent its own game on HBO, introducing headline-making characters (like Julia, a Muppet with autism) and doing its damned fuzziest best to continue its life’s work of making children good people.

All that’s left, one can hope, is for other networks to continue Netflix’s lead and relocate the figures (both computerized and televised) who can do that rare thing of teaching old dogs old tricks. Bring back Wishbone, who can speak to that beautiful cross-demographic of Jane Austen fans and dog memes. Revive Ghostwriter, and take back the power of texting and composition notebooks. Most importantly, get thee to a Schoolhouse Rock, because it’s clearer than ever that it’s not just children who need to learn how a bill actually becomes a law.

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