The first piece is by a history teacher explaining why kids don’t know any history:
The main tenet of a child-centred view of history teaching is the idea that pupils should not be “passive” recipients of a teacher’s knowledge, but “active” individuals empowered to find things out for themselves. As a result, “chalk and talk” teaching from the front is heavily discouraged. After a senior member of staff observed one of my lessons, I was told that my role was to be the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage”.
Instead of learning through listening to teachers or reading books, pupils are expected to do so through projects. It did not take me long to work out why pupils are so ignorant of British history, despite spending over a year studying it (as laid down by the national curriculum). To study the Norman Conquest, pupils would re-enact the Battle of Hastings in the playground, conduct a classroom survey to create their own Domesday Book, and make motte-and-bailey castles out of cereal boxes. Medieval England would be studied through acting out the death of Thomas Becket, and creating a boardgame to cover life as a medieval peasant. For the Industrial Revolution, pupils pitched inventions to Dragons’ Den and lessons on the British Empire culminated in the design of a commemorative plate showing whether it was or was not a “force for good”.
Such tasks allow pupils to learn about history in an enjoyable and engaging way – or so the theory goes. In reality, all content and understanding of the past is sucked out, and the classroom begins to resemble the playground. An unfortunate side-effect is that pupils are frequently confused by the inevitable anachronisms involved in making history “relevant”. “Sir, how many Victorians would have had a TV?” I was asked. Imaginative tasks and projects can be excellent supplements to a history lesson, but when they become the mainstay of classroom activity, the consequences are disastrous.
Shocking. All true too, I suspect. In this case accuracy matters a lot. (Read the whole thing – it is excellent).
Okay – what about the movies?
Spielberg’s tale of the constitutional amendment to end slavery shrouds Abraham Lincoln’s legacy in myth. The Civil War is the ultimate ”just” war. It was fought to end the vile institution of slavery. Hard to think of a more noble cause than that.
But Spielberg whitewashes some of the great stains on the Lincoln presidency. The film obscures, even ridicules, any suggestion Lincoln reduced American liberties during the Civil War.
To the extent that historical knowledge is so sparse – does it really matter that a movie that doesn’t pass itself off as a documentary ignores some issues or whitewashes others?
There are thousands of WWII movies that are inaccurate. Inglorious Basterds even managed to have an alternate ending to the war. The movie 300 had a stylised comic book approach to the battle of Thermopylae (not surprising given that it was an adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic). Yet more people would know at least something about a very important battle from a highly inaccurate movie (actually fanciful) than they would ever have learned at school. At the same time people who really enjoy the movie version of history then often seek out other information and then get the more nuanced versions of events.
But Chris also points us to the movie Zero Dark Thirty.
In Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow controversially suggests torture played a necessary role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Given that this suggestion is both untrue and politically provocative, Zero Dark Thirty has been widely condemned. Bigelow’s film seems to implicitly approve of human rights abuses in the name of the ‘War on Terror’.
I don’t know if torture was necessary or not but I think this matters more than inaccuracies in a movie about historical events. Looking as he does at the attitude to human rights and the rule of law Chris suggests there is no difference between the two.
But that’s the thing about legal rights. Even bad people deserve the protection of the law. There’s no question that modern Islamic terrorists are bad. But their sheer badness doesn’t make indefinite detention or torture justified. The justice of a war says nothing about whether rights should be protected.
Lincoln’s choices during the Civil War had long-term consequences. Memory of Lincoln helped justify Woodrow Wilson’s even more considerable rights abuses during the First World War. And Lincoln’s legacy has been regularly used to defend depravities in the War on Terror – if the greatest president did it, then surely so can George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Lincoln’s memory should be a sensitive issue.
That is a powerful argument – but I’m still uneasy. Movies that contain historically inaccurate material create an opportunity for further investigation and discovery. Movies that contain inaccurate material on current affairs, I suspect, don’t create those same opportunities.