Archive for February, 2015

Q: When is a fact not a fact? A: When it’s in a film.

An excellent article in the New York Times on Friday reminds us history teachers of the dangers of films both when we are using them in class and when our students see them without us to correct misconceptions. The pervasive nature of sight and sound in our evolutionary history seems to have made us keen to recall key information but not so keen to recall where we got it from. This opens up huge opportunities for the brain to pass off as fact gained from a reliable source fact that was actually gained from a movie playing fast and loose with the truth. In my own teaching Mississippi Burning is a powerful way of introducing the Civil Rights movement and the profound sense of injustice it provokes in the students is something I draw on repeatedly, but the flaws in the films portrayal of the FBI are a danger that I’m not exactly sure I successfully quash year in year out. What this means for examination grades is minimal provided the selection of films and clips that we use are made with these thoughts in mind. What it means for the wider understanding of history is more of a concern.

What is History? A joke.

Q: How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?

A: There is a great deal of debate on this issue. Up until the mid-20th century, the accepted answer was ‘one’: and this Whiggish narrative underpinned a number of works that celebrated electrification and the march of progress in light-bulb changing. Beginning in the 1960s, however, social historians increasingly rejected the ‘Great Man’ school and produced revisionist narratives that stressed the contributions of research assistants and custodial staff. This new consensus was challenged, in turn, by women’s historians, who criticized the social interpretation for marginalizing women, and who argued that light bulbs are actually changed by department secretaries. Since the 1980s, however, postmodernist scholars have deconstructed what they characterize as a repressive hegemonic discourse of light-bulb changing, with its implicit binary opposition between ‘light’ and ‘darkness,’ and its phallogocentric privileging of the bulb over the socket, which they see as colonialist, sexist, and racist. Finally, a new generation of neo-conservative historians have concluded that the light never needed changing in the first place, and have praised political leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher for bringing back the old bulb. Clearly, much additional research remains to be done.

[This is from historian David Leeson, shared on Facebook]


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