Today’s history lessons, with popcorn
The merits of the nine nominees for the Academy Award for best picture are being debated by cineastes around the world. But as a college professor, this year’s Oscar nominees also reaffirm the growing importance of the movies in the classroom and how film can inspire young people to greater academic inquiry.
Although most of my students have never heard of the 1970s Abscam scandal, many have seen “American Hustle.” The horrors of American slavery are brought back on screen, in “12 Years a Slave,” for a generation of white undergraduates who see nothing extraordinary about having African-Americans as roommates, teammates or teachers. As difficult as it is to succinctly explain the 2008 economic meltdown, “The Wolf of Wall Street” does a good job of playing up the excess and speculation that contributed to the global economic crisis. And when trying to convey the concept of failed states and why countries such as Somalia are real threats to U.S. national security, “Captain Phillips” is a way to begin a larger discussion about piracy, the perils of foreign aid and the Law of the Sea.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said, “The fact that film has been the most potent vehicle of the American imagination suggests all the more strongly that movies have something to tell us, not just about the surfaces but about the mysteries of American life.” Today’s movies also tell us a lot about the changing nature of teaching.
Two decades ago, most undergraduate syllabuses in political science included texts, scholarly articles and maybe some photocopied commentaries from periodicals. Undergraduate courses have changed dramatically. Gone are most of the long, uninterrupted class lectures when professors would just preach, teach and then point to the assigned reading for further clarification. Today’s students are not fazed by guest lecturers who Skype into the classroom from Iraq or Afghanistan for a quick Q&A, and then follow up with blog posts for the rest of semester. Collaboration, group projects and online discussion with your professor after class are now par for the course.
There is also a YouTube-ready show-and-tell that would have been unimaginable just five years ago. Since most of my students were not yet born in 1989 when Tank Man made his famous protest on CNN outside of Tiananmen Square, watching it before class discussion is part of understanding modern China. My first-year students were only 5 years old on 9/11 but, for many, their critical context of the tragic day and the aftermath comes from Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” or Paul Greengrass’ “United 93.”
Recent films have also helped shape how today’s undergraduates view America’s role since 1945. Born in the early 1990s, my students have seen World War II flicks such as “Saving Private Ryan” and “Inglourious Basterds.” They grasp some of the paranoia and stress of the Cold War because of remakes of “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Their views of the Iraq War and the hunt for Osama bin Laden are profoundly shaped by “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” While many of my students have grandparents who fought in the Vietnam War, “Apocalypse Now” still holds cult status among 18- to 22-year-olds.
As long-form journalism retreats, newspapers and television networks consolidate bureaus and the attention span for international news shrinks, the movies are a critical rough draft of history that affects higher education. It is imperative that Hollywood’s best pictures continue to get these stories right, because they lay the groundwork for the next generation’s understanding of the world and help inform a basic narrative of our politics and policies for years to come.
Zach Messitte is president of Ripon College in Wisconsin and a professor of political science. He teaches a class called “American Foreign Policy and the Movies.” This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.