Academic Exchange Quarterly Summer 2005 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 9, Issue 2
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The Mirror Crack’d-History Reflected by
Paul D’Amboise, no current affiliation, Quebec
D’Amboise, M.A. is a high school history teacher, currently on
sabbatical and Plaw, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor
of Political Science at
This article examines how
As the habit of reading continues to decline, especially among the young, history teachers are increasingly confronted by students whose impressions of the past are shaped by the mainstream historical films that Tony Barta has called “the most powerful engine of popular history in our culture.” (Barta, 1998, 2) The most prominent of these films are popular, Hollywood-style releases that characteristically sacrifice historical accuracy to the imperatives of emotionally-satisfying narrative resolution and commercial success. As a result, many students arrive in class with a deep background of historical misperception.
Faced with engrained historical misrepresentation, history teachers can respond with two basic strategies. Firstly, they can swim against the tide of increasingly cinematic history and continue to insist on the traditional text-focused curriculum, dismissing more popularized depictions of their course material. Secondly, they can attempt to adapt to the changing times by beginning to strategically incorporate popular historical films into the classroom despite their frequently dubious accuracy.
While recognizing that the first pedagogical strategy is not without merit, it is the second strategy whose potential we wish to explore here. We suggest the following merits of the second strategy warrant a closer examination of how it could best be accomplished: (i.) historical films provide a richer visual depiction of events than equivalent texts, are (ii.) an experience the class can more easily share, and therefore (iii.) are simply more inclined to instigate wide-ranging discussion than equivalent texts. Furthermore, (iv.) historical films will continue to exercise an enormous influence over most students; thus it only make sense to equip students with critical viewing capabilities. In addition, (v.) students have an enduring affection for unmasking manipulation, and the honing of this skill is likely to enhance the interest of history as a subject. Finally, (vi.) incorporating film into the core curriculum in no way necessitates the exclusion of relevant texts. On the contrary, historical films will generally give a visual immediacy to the events described in history texts, and thereby enhance their interest. Moreover, the employment of relevant texts in debunking the inaccuracies and manipulations of mainstream films will tend to enhance rather than diminish their importance. Indeed, it is the critical symbiosis produced by integrating dramatic visual narrative within a rigorous text-based curriculum that holds the greatest promise for enhancing historical understanding in the long term.
The question then is how can popular, Hollywood-style films be most effectively incorporated into the history classroom to complement the existing curriculum. Too often, films are used as a reward or as time fillers. It is easy to understand this rationale. A film is an easy way to fill in a period. What is unfortunate is that teachers often do not bother to analyze the films they use or to integrate them into their overall lesson-plans. Moreover, contemporary scholarship provides little practical guidance, especially to high school teachers, as to how film could be successfully integrated into their classes without undermining the seriousness and rigor of the discipline.
A range of scholars, including Daniel Walkowitz,
Robert Brent Toplin, Tony Barta,
John O’Connor and Robert Rosenstone deserve to be
recognized for their pioneering work in the field of film and history,
advancing above all the standard of accuracy in historical films. Still, as
O’Connor notes, “given the continuing popularity of commercially produced
historical film and docudrama…teaching people to be more critical viewers of
everything they see on film…is an even more effective way for historians to
influence the public perception of the past.” (O’Connor, 1990, 3) In the spirit of this statement, we
For the study, we chose an Advanced Placement European
History Class. This level of class
allowed a dual set of objectives to be explored. On the one hand, it allowed us to consider
the response of high school history students to class presentations of
II: Experimental Overview
Our study was conducted with a group of students registered
in an Advanced Placement European History course at
In order to evaluate the influence and effectiveness of historical feature films on students, two questionnaires were generated. One set was completed by the students three times, immediately after viewing each film. Its twelve questions were designed to examine whether and how each film advanced the students’ understanding of the topics presented therein. The questions included “What historical thesis is the film promoting? Is it clearly stated? How?”; “Identify the cinematic elements in the film that helped you to understand the historical topic which it addresses;” and “After viewing this film, what questions spring to mind that you would like answered about either the topic or issues or the way they were covered?”
The second questionnaire contained only three questions meant to assess the more general question of whether or not historical feature film is a useful approach for the dissemination of historical knowledge. Taken together, the questionnaires generated raw data for analysis and helped suggest a future course of action.
Along with the questionnaires, the method of presentation for each film was an important factor in the exercise. The conditions under which the films were screened were different each time. This was done in order to assess the impact such conditions might have on the students’ understanding of both the film itself, and of the underlying historical material contained within it. In other words, do students learn more from watching the film uninterrupted in the dark, as the filmmaker intended, or should there be interruptions to address specific issues? Should lights be on or off to create an effective learning environment?
The three presentation formats were as follows. Each film (plus questionnaire) spanned three or four seventy-five minute periods. The first film was screened as a “movie experience” – in the dark with minimal interruption. Students were instructed to hold any questions until after the film had finished. In this way, the students’ ability to critically assess an unmediated film experience could be analyzed. The second film was screened under different conditions. The classroom lights were left on and the students were allowed to ask questions immediately rather than at the end of the film. No interruptions or explanations were initiated. Finally, the third film was screened under the same conditions as the second, with the addition of instructor-initiated interruptions and explanations as well as student questions. As one of the goals of the study was to assess the pre-existing critical skills of the students, no specific background readings related to the films were pre-assigned.
III: Main Findings
An examination of the survey data supplemented with interviews with the students and the careful observation of classroom dynamics over several weeks gave rise to the following main findings:
○ Introductory readings and lectures prior to viewing films are essential. As self-evident as this might appear, the case study sought, in part, to establish a baseline of the students’ native critical viewing skills (either innate or transferred from other disciplines such as English) and so we only provided a cursory verbal introduction to the topics in each film.
○ The need for, and usefulness of, a classroom environment (lights on, note-taking during screening) and regular interruptions of the films remained important even as the students developed their visual literacy skills. In the interest of maintaining a modicum of enjoyment for the students, sacrificing the “lights on” requirement did not prove overly detrimental to their learning. However, a failure to engage in judicious interruptions, to provoke discussion or provide clarification, notably diminished the educative impact of the film.
○ While short interruptions to the screening by the teacher were very valuable, lengthy interruptions of the film as a whole were counterproductive. The need to screen films over the course of several days had an adverse effect on the students’ ability to follow the narrative flow.
○ Older films were particularly useful as starting points as students were more naturally inclined to question the historical accuracy of such depictions. Students tended to view more contemporary productions as more accurate, in part because the dialogue and mannerisms expressed by characters in recent films more closely resembles their own experiences. (Seixas, 1993, 352)
○ An additional concern raised by the case study was the general inability of students to initially identify the thesis of the films. While a portion of the students’ difficulty with this issue stemmed from their inability to transfer skills acquired in English classes to history classes, it is also true that a different set of skills is involved in ‘reading’ a film. Since the level of students’ existing film literacy is a key determinant of how best to introduce films into a history course, these skills were not introduced prior to the case study. Once the habit of identifying a film’s historical theme and the means of its development was established, however, students began to demonstrate a capacity to do it independently.
These results suggested the desirability of a course, or at least a module within a course, to help students develop visual literacy skills in relation to historical film. They also provide some guidance as to how such a module might best be organized.
IV: Proposed Module/Course
While today’s students are practiced viewers of visual media, they are not necessarily critical viewers. In the same way that historians arm their students with the tools to become critical readers, they can and should arm their students with critical viewing tools. These tools will allow students to better explore media-related themes including the following: realism versus accuracy; education versus entertainment; and time-compression and its effects on historical accuracy. The following sample plan for a module (or course) is proposed as a means for developing these critical viewing tools. In general, introductory readings and lectures should be provided prior to screening a film to give students background and context on the topic. Students should also be provided with readings from a primer on film techniques and terminology. Each film should also be accompanied by a short essay assignment chosen from among three or four related topics. The module is designed to allow for different films and topics chosen at the instructor’s discretion while maintaining an overall structure that is flexible enough to be applied across a wide range of levels, from Grade Ten to the early undergraduate level. Difficulty levels can be varied through the complexity of films selected and essays assigned.
The following is a sample module from a traditional course
dealing with the Cold War. To prepare
for this module the students will be assigned excerpts from Stanley Karnow’s
Following the film and discussion, each student will be assigned an essay on one of the following topics:
Based on your readings, as well as the film, discuss how US policymakers made similar mistakes to those of the French. Be sure to discuss how the film illustrates these mistakes and identify where the filmmakers relied on Greene’s novel and where they relied on the historical record, typified by your assigned readings.
Unlike the novel on which it
is based, The Quiet American is a post-Cold War production. What elements in the film do you think
exemplify the fact that the film is about the Cold War and
Submission of the papers is followed by a general in-class discussion of where and how the film promotes accurate and inaccurate perceptions of the Cold War.
One could easily expand this module into a full course on
the Cold War and film. Films such as
Thirteen Days (2000 - on the Cuban Missile Crisis), The Path to War (2003 - a
look at the Johnson administration’s escalation of the
It seems safe to conclude that historical feature films have become a permanent part of the mainstream of historical research. A vast body of literature by historians has already been dedicated to film and history. Nevertheless, with the notable exception of O’Connor’s work, there is a demonstrable lack of discussion about how to integrate films into the classroom, whether in university or high school. This lack is something this article has tried to begin to redress.
While historians are charged with pursuing and acquiring knowledge of the past and examining its truth (singular or plural, subjective or objective), they are also charged with disseminating that knowledge and teaching others the skills necessary to make informed judgments. History has long privileged the written word as its primary medium of expression. Throughout the twentieth century, however, still and motion pictures have competed mightily with the written word in this regard. At the start of a new century, it appears that pictures are gaining the upper hand, at least with the general public. The number of feature films, documentaries and television programs, not to mention entire networks, devoted to history continues to grow at an accelerating rate. Whether for good or ill, this situation is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. It therefore becomes imperative that historians at all levels, from post-graduate supervisors to high school teachers, first acquire and then teach critical viewing skills to their students. Whatever form that methodology takes, we believe it needs to become one of the basic tools of the modern practicing historian.
Books and articles:
Barta, Tony. ed., Screening the Past: Film and the
Representation of History.
Greene, Graham. The
O’Connor, John. Image
Roberts, J.M. The Penguin History of
Seixas, Peter. “Popular Film and Young People’s Understanding of the History of Native American-White Relations,” The History Teacher, Vol. 26, No. 3 (May 1993).
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
1492: The Conquest of
The Quiet American (2002)
The Path to War (2003)
Thirteen Days (2000)
We Were Soldiers (2002)