By Elaine Showalter
October 07, 1996 12:00 PM

TO SOME EARS, THE PHRASE “Educational television” is an oxymoron, conjuring images of dull, didactic shows certain to be zapped come Saturday morning by the youthful audience for whom they’re intended. And so, when the major broadcast networks announced during the summer that they intended to heed President Clinton’s call for three hours a week of programming specifically designed to meet the educational needs of viewers under 16, you could almost hear the groans from the younger quarter. But where is it written that learning, even on television, has to be a grim and painful experience?

In fact, as two new fall shows demonstrate, TV can be a wonderful teacher, especially when it uses entertainment to help sharpen memory and enliven the abstract. Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? (premieres Oct. 7, 5 p.m. ET)—PBS’s inventive followup from the team that produced the Emmy Award-winning geography series Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?—uses game-show techniques, computer animation, Day-Glo colors and a rocket-ship set to teach history. In each fast-paced, half-hour episode, archvillain Carmen and her evil cronies steal an item from history, such as the Declaration of Independence. A panel of kid contestants called Time Pilots then tracks down the crooks by answering questions about both the dates and the sequence of actual events.

Funniest and most creative of the commercial networks’ new kids’ shows is Bailey Kipper’s P.O.V. (CBS, Saturday mornings, times vary). Film-buff Bailey (Michael Galeota) is an 11-year-old Hitchcock wannabe who logs onto his computer using Spielberg and Rosebud as passwords and has wired his house with “spyball” minicameras to film his secret video diary. But the gadgetry has an educational purpose. In “Dad Unplugged,” Bailey’s mediawise point of view gives kids a hilarious lesson on the cost of wasting electricity, while other episodes offer clever takes on carelessness and family conflicts. Even the theme song is catchy.

But kids may not have such fun with Adventures from the Book of Virtues (upcoming on PBS in November), a preachy and dull animated series adapted from the bestselling anthology The Book of Virtues, compiled by former Education Secretary William J. Bennett. A talking buffalo named Plato and his animal buddies Aristotle and Socrates dish out moral fables about the pitfalls of impatience and the joys of faith and work to some dorky kids named Annie and Zach. “As you grow up, your responsibilities will also grow,” Plato intones. Isn’t there a skateboard commercial that makes the same point?

Solemn clichés don’t make a stale program educational any more than calling a buffalo Plato makes him wise. Sermonizers beware: You can drag a kid to virtue but you can’t make him think.