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The Pros and Cons of Teaching History Through Hollywood

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Remember the 1984 Civil War film Glory with Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, and Denzel Washington? It told the true story of the Massachusetts 54th Infantry, a fighting unit made up entirely of African-Americans. What a great way to make history come alive for students! Right?

glory2.jpg

Yes and no, according to researchers at Washington University in St. Louis. In a small study due to be published soon in the journal Psychological Science, graduate psychology student Andrew C. Butler and his colleagues find that teaching history with popular films can be a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, the researchers found, students really do recall more factual information (50 percent more, in fact) when they read text and watch a movie than they do when they read the text alone. But when the information in the movie conflicts with the historical facts in the text, students are more likely to remember the film version, regardless of whether it's correct.

And Hollywood movies are apparently rife with such historical inaccuracies, according to the study. The movie, Glory, for example, depicts the soldiers in the 54th as recently freed slaves from the South when, in fact, they were Northern freemen. (For a heads up on other historical errors in commercial films, check out this slide show at the Wash U Website.)

It turns out that such mistaken notions, once formed, are tough to shake: Students held on to the movie misinformation even when told beforehand that the film clips they were about to see were fictional! Fewer students retained misinformation, though, when their teachers were more specific about the inaccuracies they would see, saying, for instance, that "the film presented it this way but it really happened like this..."

This study was conducted with 54 undergraduate psychology students whose factual recall was measured on tests taken a week later. It's not unreasonable to think, though, that the dynamics would be different for high school and middle school students.

So, teachers, carefully screen those popular films for misinformation before you show them in class. But you were probably doing that already, weren't you?

Though not yet published, the full study, "Using Popular Films to Enhance Classroom Learning" is already posted online and can be accessed for a fee at Psychological Science.

37 Comments

As a teacher of high school history classes I have always tried to be careful about doing my own research before hand, and fact check films. I have found that watching films and reading primary sources often go together well. Students enjoy the combination of films and the readings. This can also lead to some great discussions. Reading Elizabeth I's speech to the sailors and soldiers facing the Spanish armada before watching the Kate Blanchett film Elizabeth really adds to the students understanding of her role as a monarch .

Give me a break. With all of the problems we face in education, we’re supposed to lose sleep over, “The movie, Glory, for example, depicts the soldiers in the 54th as recently freed slaves from the South when, in fact, they were Northern freemen.”

If you haven’t seen it, check out Cry Freedom about Steve Biko which was a movie that was supposed to have been submitted to the highest scrutiny down to the most minor detail. BUT for commercial reasons, the movie left out the fact that the South African Security Police who murdered Biko also killed the movie’s cute dog, Charlie. And in the closing scene which shows the massacre of schoolkids - something that most Americans are unaware of - they left out the facts that the children who were gunned down by the hundreds were wearing these cute little loafers as a a part of their school uniforms.

I don't think this is a real cause for concern. English teachers have to do the same thing between novels and other fictional stories and Hollywood versions all the time. Are there any teachers out there who are just showing these movies as if they are fact, without comparing and contrasting what really happened? I also don't think most teachers in middle and high schools have the time (or permission) to show entire films anyway. They might show clips that depict something discussed in class, to help them visualize things that might be hard to imagine otherwise.

As a former history teacher, there were many more exciting documentaries to help "bring the content to life" than Hollywood depictions anyway.

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