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The "Ivy League-Educated Moron": Laura Linney And High School History

October 22, 2007

I confess that I occasionally like to read about celebrities. In this way I might be a typical American. I do it enough that I know who “LiLo” is, that Dumbledore is gay (here and here), and that Steve Carell will play Don Adams’s old Maxwell Smart role in an upcoming remake of Get Smart. And my on-again-off-again sports obsessions have also been documented here, here, and in numerous History Trivia & Comment pieces involving the Chicago Cubs.

I blame all of this on the cultural historian in me. I would’ve never assented to this ten years ago, but my mentor, Lewis Erenberg, underscored the importance of popular culture all through my graduate training. It explains why I look for the connections between intellectual history, popular culture, and education in all my projects.

This brings me to a story I read in Sunday’s Chicago Tribune about the actor Laura Linney. The piece comes the Tribune‘s Hollywood watcher column, “Armour & Co.,” authored by Terry Armour. Subtitled “Linney: I was an ‘educated moron,'” here are some excerpts—interspersed with my comments:

– “Pay attention in school kiddies! This public service announcement comes from Laura Linney [right], who says she learned something about herself while shooting the upcoming HBO mini-series John Adams. It’s about the American Revolution, concentrating on the life of our second president (played by Paul Giamatti).”

TL: Hmm…So will Adams be a pinot noir connoisseur?

– “Apparently Linney, who plays Abigail Adams in the Tom Hanks-produced project, didn’t retain much American history from her school days. ‘I realized what a real moron I am, basically–an Ivy League-educated moron,’ the actress told Armour & Co.”

TL: Linney attended Brown. … Aside: It’s interesting how Hanks seems to be abundantly interested in history. Why? There’s an AHA/OAH/HNN interview waiting to happen.

– Linney continued in the column: “I realized that American history is really wasted on high school sophomores.’ “

TL: All too true. Plus, in the small, western Missouri town where I attended high school, history courses are often taught by coaches. In the four years I was there, and in the three history/social studies courses I remember taking, I think one was mildly interesting. It was taught by a coach who had a passion for Native American history. But even then I recall the exams as being tests of my ability to memorize facts.

– “Linney, 43, who returned to the theater department at Northwestern University this weekend to talk to students about acting (Linney spent a year at the Evanston campus before attending Brown University), has a suggestion for history teachers in this country. ‘Have a cursory class first and then go back to it,’ said the actress. … ‘It is really unbelievably fascinating and important–for the context of who we are, what we are and where we’re going. Now I understand those American history buffs who become obsessed.’ “

TL: Ms. Linney is forgetting that she likely had at least two years of history, but under the label “social studies,” as a high schooler. Still, she was getting at something when she said “history is really wasted on high school sophomores.” My contention, however, is that the problem is not necessarily with the student. I suspect its with the teachers and how the subject is being taught. It’s also an administrative problem when school districts think they can cut corners on the teaching of certain subjects.

I mean, look at Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory weblog. He seems to engage in all kinds of fun and interesting activities with his students. Take a moment and search through his reflections on his “work” with his own high school students. What teenager wouldn’t want to take a class with him? Would Laura Linney have been bored? I think not. – TL

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