Joe Mathews: California’s students can learn a lot from the movies

The cover of the 2001 DVD release of the 1941 classic “Citizen Kane.” Joe Mathews says such movies should be required viewing in California’s schools.
The cover of the 2001 DVD release of the 1941 classic “Citizen Kane.” Joe Mathews says such movies should be required viewing in California’s schools. Warner Home Video

California teachers, you should be showing your students more movies – and not for baby-sitting purposes.

As our state considers new frameworks for how history and social science are taught, now is the time to incorporate that signature California art form – film – into classes in every grade. Movies should be placed at the center of our efforts to teach history, especially California’s.

Have a problem with that? I could quote a former mayor of Carmel and suggest you “Go ahead, make my day.” Or I could utter a single word: Rosebud.

You’d be surprised how many people have no idea where that reference comes from. As someone who deals with young Californians as a father, coach and journalistic colleague of millennials with fancy college degrees, I’m struck by how little they know of films, and thus of California’s history.

The film critic and historian Neal Gabler has warned that movies that once united the generations now divide us, “leaving us with an endless stream of the very latest with no regard for what came before. Old movies are now like dinosaurs, and like dinosaurs, they are threatened with extinction.”

The California we know – in reality and image – was made by motion pictures. And our greatest films are California monuments. To be ignorant of them is akin to being Chinese without knowing of Confucius, or to being German without having read Goethe.

So let the education now begin. “Rosebud” is the signature word of “Citizen Kane,” ranked by the American Film Institute as the greatest movie of all time. The 1941 classic is a fictionalization of the life of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, a towering figure of American and California history. His story remains relevant in today’s state of new media titans with outsized appetites. And the Hearst Castle in San Simeon is a landmark every Californian should visit.

But when you look through the state standards for what all California children are supposed to learn, you won’t find one word about Hearst or “Citizen Kane.” The good news is the state is drafting a new outlines of what students should be taught in each grade and subject. The bad news is that the current draft on California history says nothing about film, movies or Hollywood.

To this inexcusable omission, my reaction is the memorable line from “Network”: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

California’s history guidelines must include films that shaped America’s very conception of itself, including “Casablanca” and “The Searchers.” They should also require California history in high school so more mature themes can be taught.

No one should get a diploma without seeing the classics that are signatures of our state’s history, starting with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” – the essential film of Northern California – and “Chinatown,” which explains better than any other document Southern California’s dark view of itself.

Incorporating film into class is not a new idea. You’ll find electives in the art and history of film in dozens of California high schools. Now we must overcome the prejudice that movies are entertainment, not educational tools, and build our history classes around them.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at