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Teaching Bad History—Without Badly Teaching History

April 1, 2008

A Yahoo Movies piece on the “10 Most Historically Inaccurate Movies” caused me to think again about how I handle “bad history” in the classroom—particularly in history survey settings. If the article’s title itself wouldn’t have caught my attention, certainly the subtitle might’ve: “Films that make you history teacher cry.” Good one.

I’ve only seen four of those on the list: Gladiator, Braveheart, The Patriot, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. While I found the other three entertaining, I’m only qualified to speak about The Patriot in terms of history. I’m not a specialist on U.S. colonial, Southern, or military history, but at least three of my graduate courses covered the period in question. Aside from qualifications, I think the nearness of the film’s release (2000) to both my experience as a history graduate student and my first assignment as “instructor of record,” in fall 2002, also drew me to it.

I debated with my colleagues for several months before deciding to go ahead and view The Patriot in class. The objections speak for themselves: wrong names, wrong dates, wrong facts, gasoline fires, misrepresentation of the British, wrong sentiments, and—no small point—why give more airtime to Mel Gibson?

I could only make my argument by conceding all of these points and making the history lesson a negative one. My hope was that if they saw what’s wrong with the movie, perhaps my students would:

1. Appreciate the textbook more;
2. Appreciate well-done historical movies;
3. Understand professional historians’ objections to movies like these; and
4. Be afforded a chance to explore, for themselves, ~why~ the movie is so bad.

The last proved, in the end, to be my strongest reason for proceeding.

Before viewing the film I handed out a sheet with information and citations on the historical figures in the film. Plus, the students read the appropriate chapter in the textbook that corresponded with the film’s historical period. While viewing the film I actively made fun of the exaggerated or clearly false presentations in the movie. Who can resist?! But here are the more serious parts of how I taught “bad history” in survey settings:

1. I assigned the class a four-page (minimum) paper on the film;
2. In constructing their thesis, I alternately pre-assigned them to argue either the pro or con position with regard to why this movie should be shown in class. The position must be maintained whether the student liked the movie or not—no exceptions;
3. Research was encouraged, including accessing newspaper and journal reviews of the film. At a minimum, I provided links to verifiable information on Francis Marion (right);
4. In the next class period, I moderated while students recounted points from their papers and research.

Students reported enjoying this assignment. The “con” papers nearly always—and gleefully—exceeded the minimum page lengths. Even those stuck with the “pro” position reluctantly, and with many caveats, finished their papers. They at least saw the devil’s advocate position as a challenge. The in-class moderating session generated a buzz and occasional laughs—and the board was easily filled with points made on both sides.

Overall, the assignment made for a fun break, but it also gave students a specific, empirical starting point from which to do more research. This leads me to an important by-product of the project: transferable knowledge. Students could use the format of the assignment to study, in a survey fashion, other historical films. Only the instructor’s expectations of the student would limit the kind of setting in which this kind of assignment could be given. The intelligence and work ethic of the student determines the depth of the paper’s fact-checking and analysis.

I see this assignment as a kind of bullet one only wants to use once per term. You wouldn’t want to risk an exercise in teaching bad history to become, in reality, the bad teaching of history. But hopefully my experience will inspire you to think about how to make lemonade out of lemons. And, in history-based movies, there are a lot of lemons out there.

Perhaps you have your own example of using a bad history movie for positive ends? – TL

PS – And no, this is not an April Fool’s joke! – TL

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5 Comments
  1. great assignment. I tend to think that “bad history” opens up excellent lines of inquiry, students are often thrilled to be “de-bunkers” and the lessons learned will be life-long ones.

    As for your comment on IHE, not sure I'd want to spend too much more time surrounded by that group.

    – Ira Socol

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  2. Ira,

    Thanks! On the IHE piece, I understand. Who knew the Wiki-world was so scandalous?

    – TL

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  3. I'd like to start a similar battle over the use of The World Book in graduate research study.

    But I don't think those guys are abusing expense accounts in Moscow!

    (I do keep a mid 1960s World Book nearby at all times. It assures me that knowledge is not a fixed thing.)

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  4. Russ permalink

    I think it's a great idea and I've done something similar with a movie rarely cited as bad history, Amistad. It is a powerful film that is misleading as history. I'm not wild about the fact-checking approach most historians take to film (I think most historians simply don't understand film as a medium), however, and I tried to concentrate more on what difference it makes to present history as visual media rather than written word (we watched part of American Experience's House Divided on the Emancipation Proclamation for the same purpose), and whether a film like Amistad can make a contribution to our historical understanding even if it doesn't do too well when examined against a laundry list of historical facts.

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  5. Russ,

    I enjoy using Amistad in the classroom. It's a well-done, popular movie that grabs students' attention. And while the history that Spielberg emphasized was, in many ways, secondary to the real case, the movie is nevertheless a useful teaching tool. I agree with you that the fact-checking approach is somewhat mundane. What I do is pair the film with an article written by a University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) professor Douglas O. Linder titled “Salvaging Amistad.” While the article consists of a lot of legal/intellectual history, the students—even in survey settings—seem to get it.

    – TL

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