Historians, Film, and Classroom Didactics

The suspicion and the sense of helplessness with which historians reacted to visual culture in their roles as professional interpreters of the past has had serious consequences for the use of film and television in the classroom. Deep- seated fears persisted even after history of film and TV had been established as a respectable subfield within the historical profession in Europe and the USA. In fact, even the minority faction of historians actively advocating for the use of film and television in classroom teaching felt compelled to begin their didactic suggestions with stark words of warning about the dangerous medium film. In this vein, John O’Connor, in the quasi-official 1987 AHA guide Teaching History with Film and Television, warned high school teachers three times on the first page of his intervention that they “should integrate more critical film and television analysis in their history classes,” “should perhaps use less film and video, but analyze what they do use more critically,” and encourage students “to engage, rather than suspend, their critical faculties when the projector or the TV monitor is turned on” (O’Connor, 1987: 1; emphasis added by author, see also Burnett, 2008). The mantra-like invocation of the critical faculties of historiography in defense against the dark arts of film and TV provides little information about visual media and a great deal of insight into the self-definition of historians. They, unlike the visual media, can teach students “skills of critical evaluation” suited for “an open and democratic society” and “a free marketplace of ideas;” they, unlike the visual media, have acquired an aptitude “for subtle shadings of interpretation;” they, unlike the visual media, do not mislead and manipulate students; and they, unlike the visual media, are “more than a storyteller, stringing together dates and details and arbitrarily moving characters around” (O’Connor, 1987: 3-4). But O’Connor would not be an expert for film and television history if he did not have an inkling about film’s special gift for helping students “feel” and

“re-experience the past” by transporting them “across space and time so that distant events and far-flung parts of the world seem more real and relevant” (O’Connor, 1987: 1-2). Therefore, he calls upon the wizard-teachers in the classrooms who can tame the beast because “when carefully integrated into the course, and when properly handled by the sensitive teacher, lessons based on film and television analysis can improve the effectiveness of history teaching” (O’Connor, 1987: 2). In the end, O’Connor is disarmingly honest about the anxieties fueling his defensive shadow-boxing against visual history. He is afraid that the “steady diet of television docudramas and pseudo-docudramas, from Plymouth Plantation to Roots and Watergate, from I Claudius to Shogun and the Winds of War, has begun to undermine whatever respect there might have been in the public mind for the work of the professional historian and history teacher” (O’Connor, 1987: 3).

There is no indication that historians have ever played the role O’Connor attributes to them—or historians have at least always managed to hide effectively the natural affinity between democratic values and professional historiographic practices and, with few exceptions, served their nationalistic, fascist, Communist, and neo-capitalist overlords with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Nor is there any indication that visual culture in general, and film or TV producers in particular, are more likely to support non-democratic regimes than other art forms and social elites, as O’Connor indirectly alleges. Finally, notice in this context the absence of the 1978 TV-miniseries Holocaust from O’Connor’s list of indicted docudramas. Apparently, it was inopportune to highlight in 1987 the factual shortcomings and manipulative design of Holocaust in light of the TV series’ extraordinary ability to raise awareness of the plight of the victims of the Shoah and the media event’s less frequently noted side effect of highlighting how little research about the history of the “Final Solution” historians had accomplished in four post-war decades (Shandler, 1999: 155-178). Precisely because of these unreflected assessments O’Connor’s intervention deserves close attention; he develops an intriguing symbolic landscape in which the visual media’s seductive capacity for simulation is contrasted with the trustworthy, objective sobriety of academic scholarship. In O’Connor’s distopia, the visual media draw their consumers in, unmoor them from their safe grounding in time and space, and deliver them to a fictitious world in a process of mimetic approximation that is both exciting and dangerous. O’Connor and his many predecessors appear to perceive a real risk that the morally weak and intellectually unprepared, especially children and adolescents identify with attractive yet faulty renditions of history and that this identification, forged in a maelstrom of attractive visuality, has dire lasting consequences for society. The historiographically witless viewers get stuck in the wrong past. Hence O’Connor wants to subject the consumption of visual history to the professional restraints of historical scholarship hoping that experts remain in control of subject matter and audiences. At the same time, O’Connor’s consistently defensive intervention attests to the realization, shared across the discipline, that the war is lost. Historians have simply nothing they can throw into battle that would be a match for the modern seductress film. In contrast to film, history books cannot be blamed for overwhelming the emotional defenses of their readers, but they carry the very real danger, especially the specimen designed for classroom use, of inducing feelings of utter boredom and genuine indifference in captive audiences familiar with the sensuality of film history. As a result, the theory of history didactics as designed by historians and the practice of history didactics as pursued by teachers have diverged substantially. Film is omnipresent in the history classroom for purposes of historical entertainment and simulation not historiographical disciplining (Marcus & Levine, 2007). The discrepancy is likely to induce feelings of unease in everybody familiar with historians’ anti-film prejudice, including some teachers. There is something salacious about the presence of film in the history classroom.

The historians’ reservations about film and television are hardly an unusual phenomenon in the context of modern media history. These kinds of misgivings develop in many dynamic media environments when historically older and historically younger media formats and paradigms interact and compete. Very similar reservations are currently entertained about digital interactive culture. In particular video games are often considered an engrossing and potentially dangerous media format alleged to produce generations of violent, socially isolated male players (Kingsepp, 2006). As yet, little research supports this assumption (Happ & Melzer, 2014) and in that regard contemporary concerns about video game culture reflect discussions during the first decades of film and television culture when social elites repeatedly railed against the corrupting influences of movies and TV on the multitudes of morally defenseless city folk. Sooner or later, however, most segments of society came to appreciate film, while historians kept their distance and even crafted a professional habitus in distinction to popular film and television culture (Tyrell, 2005: 75-80). The unusual staying power of the historians’ prejudices toward visual media attests to the historians’ ability to reproduce their professional practices and identities over time. At the same time, the persistence of prejudice indicates that historical film culture and historiography are indeed embroiled in a particularly intense relationship of competition and remediation. A significant segment of contemporary visual culture seems to constitute a fundamental provocation to the historians’ sense of their professional mission.

 
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