From Why to How

Those advocates are found in other departments, for instance in education departments. Education experts are less concerned about the integrity of the historical record and the status of the historical profession in public discourse. They appreciate visual media as excellent teaching tools and have a good grasp of what is really going on in a history classroom. In a refreshingly practice- oriented intervention published in 2010, education expert Alan Marcus and his colleagues celebrate film as “one of the most promising teaching resources in the history classroom” precisely because “young people today are immersed in visual representations” and most of what they know about the past “comes not from textbooks or teachers but from ‘Hollywood’ movies” (Marcus, Metzger, Paxton, & Stoddard, 2010: loc 84). The authors dutifully acknowledge key historiographical concerns for instance regarding the differentiation between primary and secondary visual source material. But they also make perfectly clear that film and television are first and foremost exceptionally well suited to attain three important interrelated didactic goals which are not necessarily of primary concern to professional historians. First, visual media help students adopt caring attitudes toward minorities because “history movies can be particularly powerful ways to develop empathy, especially for groups of people who have been marginalized historically” (Marcus et al.: loc 240). Second, film and television are excellent tools for raising controversial topics, especially in the treacherous political terrain of primary and secondary schools in the USA. On the one hand, “social issues, group identities, and historical experiences that people often feel most passionate about are fundamental to the social studies curriculum” (loc 2017). On the other hand, addressing these controversial issues “can be messy, demanding, and risky for teachers” (loc 2027). Here film comes in handy because it is “particularly effective at evoking emotional responses” (loc 2351) while also providing some protection for teachers since they are not “the ‘source’ themselves” for potentially distressing opinions when they are showing films (loc 2414). In prompting students to develop and voice their own opinion about controversial issues, visual media are simply a fantastic vehicle to teach about contemporary memory politics. Finally, film and television can take on these important roles in the classroom because they can “bring the past alive” through visualization like no text can (Marcus & Stoddard, 2007). Students get into close contact with an emotionally gripping performance of the past, might temporarily approximate the perspectives of past actors, and can develop a visceral appreciation of powerful past and present subject positions involved in the making and re-making of memory.

In their report from the classroom, replete with compelling teaching examples, Marcus et al. perform the shift from history to memory without engaging in defensive histrionics. They might not fully grasp and appropriately conceptualize that shift but their intervention acknowledges the fundamentally different notions of pastness that govern the writing and reading of academic history and the production and consumption of historical visual media. Academic history focuses on why-questions. Professional historians roam an ever-extending archival infrastructure and avidly read each other’s work to determine the historical origins of constantly revised sets of events grouped into more or less abstract and flexible sets of overarching categories, for instance, war, genocide, democracy, modernity, gender, emotion and so on. In that dynamic environment with shifting intellectual priorities and resources, historians craft complex narrative artifacts interweaving various layers of historical events with accounts of different research agendas in order to determine the causes of more or less succinctly defined historical phenomena. Historical film and television serve a different purpose. There are many filmic products, especially documentaries dating back to the early decades of television, which duplicate professional historical culture and pursue why-questions, for instance by way of interviewing experts and historical eyewitnesses. These products are fairly boring and their existence is easily explained by the fact that the first generations of TV producers were unfamiliar with the medium of television and focused on intellectual concerns at their new work place that they had already pursued in their previous careers as print and radio journalists and academics. But once TV came into its own as a visual medium and assumed the role as premier social platform for cultural exchange in the 1960s and 1970s, history television increasingly engaged with a very different set of questions about past human lives that historical film had already addressed in compelling fashion for several decades. Film and television strive to teach viewers how the past felt like. Visual media mimetically perform past worlds in order to give their audiences a visceral feeling for the radical alterity or strange familiarity and present-day relevance of past lives (Edgerton & Rollins, 2001; Kansteiner, 2013). What did it feel like to be an eyewitness to the Civil War, World War II, or the Holocaust? What does it feel like to be a victim, a bystander, or a perpetrator of war or genocide? The shift from why to how corresponds to the shift from history to memory and more specifically from academic history to film and television memory.

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