Back to the ’80s

...and history lessons from earlier eras, thanks to a TV series that made history class a fun ride.

by Vince Farinaccio

Last year, the HBO Max streaming service announced the impending resurrection of the 1980s TV series Head of the Class. In anticipation, it added the original series to its lineup several weeks ago.

That run of shows from 1986 to 1991 was an anomaly in classroom sitcoms, a series that placed a portion of its weekly focus on the unorthodox, yet effective, history lessons taught by Charlie Moore (played by WKRP in Cincinnati alumnus Howard Hesseman) for the benefit of his Individualized Honors Program students and the viewer. If the Sweathogs of Welcome Back, Kotter reveled in their stance against academics, the students of Head of the Class welcomed and embraced the lessons contained in both books and life.

Within the first half-dozen episodes, before Moore’s substitute-teacher status is promoted to full-time, the class is treated to a variety of historical topics, each cleverly imparted. A lesson about what triggered World War I examines the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914 in what was, by 1986, Yugoslavia. Moore contends that bad driving precipitated the Great War and he’s pretty accurate. While in Serbia, Ferdinand and his wife were killed by a gun-toting assailant after a first attempt had failed. The royal couple’s driver was unaware the route had been changed after the initial attempt and simply resumed the original course, leading to the fatal second attack.

In another episode, Colossus, the British code-breaking computer that helped England win World War II, is discussed. Moore argues that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was the key factor while his class contends Colossus was the crucial component. A lesson in man vs. machine ensues, and each side reaps the rewards as Moore comes to accept what computers can offer and each student achieves a clearer perception of his/her identity when writing a bio for the yearbook.

Even a lesson using tulips can serve as a means of comprehending the 1929 U.S. stock market crash. “Tulipmania,” as it’s now called, was an economic crisis that occurred in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age when the price of tulip bulbs dramatically escalated with the flower’s popularity only to drastically collapse in February 1637.

Only a lesson about the Cuban Missile Crisis and Fidel Castro’s failed baseball tryout before Washington Senators scouts is more legend than fact, but Castro’s love of baseball is apparently true. And even history’s relationship with truth is considered in another episode when Moore notes that whoever relates an historical account becomes a factor in determining its truth.

From today’s perspective, the series can also be viewed as a sort of museum piece, not only in the dress and hairstyles unique to the time but in how many references are made to things that have since transformed or ceased to exist in the aftermath of the show’s five-year run.

In one episode, a student imagines his future, including a career as a writer for the Village Voice, the New York City newspaper that closed its doors in 2017.

In another moment, Moore amusingly calls World War I the “one in black and white,” a defining characteristic that is no longer accurate since director Peter Jackson colorized much of the footage for his 2018 documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. And the Yugoslavia Moore mentions in his lecture on Ferdinand’s assassination was broken up into six independent countries in 1992, shortly after Head of the Class ended its run.

Even computers, a limited number of which were being introduced to schools and classrooms during the decade the series premiered, have stretched beyond the imagination of the 1980s. But, as Moore reminds his class in one episode, history needs to be viewed in context. It’s important, he says, that the historical be “seen from there, not here.”

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