Thursday, January 24, 2013

Teaching "Reflexive History"

Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln" (2012)

History has always been one of my favorite subjects because of the stories, the people, and just the diversity that it offers. This NY Times article illustrates a large amount of nuance, history, and discussion material that many of us may completely miss if all we are interested in is the exciting plot (which isn't the biggest sin in in the world). History classes often use movies, some for better and others for worse. Sure, some teachers may just turn on Glory and call it good, but anyone who knows anything about history and teaching knows that is not enough.

What is the point of learning history? Well, obviously "those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it" and all that, but really - why? I think one of the most important reasons to study history is to better understand ourselves and our times. We need to be reflexive.

When looking at a film there are at least 2 major parts of history being illustrated that encourage reflexive critical thinking.

Russell Crowe in "Robin Hood" (2010)
1. The moment the film was actually made. For example Hotel Rwanda was not made in the '90s. So why does that matter? Well, it might matter more than students can think? Is there anything the film makers could be trying to say by producing the film at the time they did? What were the political and global issues of the time the film was produced? Can anything be learned about the period of time of the film's creation based on the film itself?

Errol Flynn in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938)

2. The time period being represented in the movie.  Robin Hood is one of the most well-known, and yet mysterious figures of our past. But beyond the general bio sketch we have of him, there is a wealth of history available when just looking at how he has been portrayed over the years. Robin Hood with Russell Crowe starring as the hero who is returned from the bloody failed crusades, is a much different rendition than Errol Flynn's portrayal in the early days of Hollywood. Much can be taught about what the life may have been like in the middle ages, and how our perspective has shifted.

I remember my 8th grade history teacher ripping on movies for not being very accurate, and yet he showed Pocahontas and How the West Was Won. What do you think I remember from his class? Well, it is obvious, I can tell you what movies we saw but I can't even remember if we used a textbook for that class. We should be taking advantage of media in the classroom by encouraging critical engagement, not apologizing for it! Students will begin to see how history is relevant and interesting to their own lives as the learn to think critically and be self-reflexive with their media choices.

"Pocahontas" (1995)

For more ideas (and evidence that what I am arguing above is not just the lame thoughts of a college kid) check out and list of the best 28 history movies to use in the classroom.

1 comment:

  1. The reason you give for learning history reminded me of a quote I heard a while ago on a movie or TV show or something: "You can't understand who you are until you find out who you've been." Probably slaughtered that. Anyway, good post. . . .