Soapbox

Another View: Movies aren’t a silver bullet to teach history

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred in “Chinatown” from 1974. Joe Mathews suggested using movies like this one to teach history, but a history teacher is skeptical.
Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred in “Chinatown” from 1974. Joe Mathews suggested using movies like this one to teach history, but a history teacher is skeptical.

As California drafts new education guidelines, I urge state officials not to follow journalist Joe Mathews’ idea of using movies “at the center of our efforts to teach history” (“California students can learn a lot from the movies,” Viewpoints, Feb. 18).

I have taught history in middle schools and high schools and more than 25 years at the community college level. It appears that Mathews has zero hours of classroom teaching. He offers no plan on how to effectively build history classes around movies.

One problem is that most movies are 90 minutes or longer. By definition they’re fiction. How can the core of history courses be based on what is false? Movies that depict historical accounts often better reflect the year they are made more than the era they claim to represent.

History teachers today are not required to take many college history classes, and many school districts want generalists who can teach a variety of the social sciences. Therefore, relying on many of these teachers to sift fact from fiction and place reality in proper historical context asks too much.

But movies can greatly enhance a history course if used wisely. Here’s how: Use full-length films sparingly; instead use excerpts from many to focus students’ attention. Teachers should dissect fact from fiction and point out what is propaganda, stereotype or romanticism. They also should explore attitudes during both the historical era the movie depicts, but also when it was made.

My advice would be to have all history courses taught by history majors, or have at least history teachers knowledgeable about film as consultants.

To show movies as a key component in history classes without proper curriculum and training is to invite “babysitting” or worse. If all Hollywood films became extinct, I hardly think history would suffer. But movies, like all art forms, can greatly enhance the understanding of America’s history.

David Kuchera is a history professor at Sierra College. He can be contacted at dkuchera@sierracollege.edu.

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