MTV generation's 'black holes of history' blamed on Hollywood

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HISTORY may be written by the victors but it is being adapted for the MTV generation by Hollywood and the media.

Widespread misconceptions, prejudice and outright ignorance about major events of the past six decades have been revealed in a major study of undergraduates in the UK, USA and Germany.

The Scottish academic who carried out the work says factually inaccurate movies and biased news reporting is skewing young people’s grasp of recent history.

Greg Philo, professor of communications at Glasgow University, also blames a lack of teaching of history and politics in British schools for what he has dubbed "black holes of history".

Philo set questions to a selection of 750 randomly picked students across Britain, Germany and the USA aged between 17 and 21. The questions ranged from details of the Second World War to the September 11 terror attacks and will be published in full in his new book Tell Me Lies.

One of the questions put to undergraduates was which country suffered the highest casualty rate in the Vietnam war? Around a third of students in all three countries believed that US forces suffered the highest losses. In fact, there were 60,000 American deaths compared with the loss of two million Vietnamese, a ratio of 33 to one.

Philo claims Hollywood action movies must take some of the blame for the students’ distorted views.

He said: "They are generally all about the suffering of American soldiers and the demonisation of the Vietnamese and what the Americans did to the population was not discussed.

"The problem is that people do not have the historical facts which allow them to distinguish between fact and Hollywood-spun fiction so they just believe what they see at the movies."

The British and American students were then asked how many lives were lost in the September 11 terror attacks. The vast majority - 93% - correctly answered that it was about 3,000.

The same students were asked how many people were estimated to have been killed during bombing raids in Afghanistan in the subsequent war. Only 2% of the students knew the correct answer: approximately 20,000.

To Philo, this gap in the students’ knowledge should be partly laid at the door of broadcasters. He said: "There was obviously a huge amount of coverage on September 11 and it was so close to home that no one could fail to know about the event. Afghanistan deaths did not really feature in any big way."

Asked "In the Second World War, which allied country defeated the most German divisions?" just 18% of US and 29% of British gave the correct answer as the Soviet Union in contrast to the 73% of Germany students who answered correctly.

Nearly half the British students and 65% of US students thought the answer was Britain or the US. In fact, the Soviets defeated more than three times as many German divisions as their western allies.

The research also found widespread ignorance when students were asked what were the Gulags in the Soviet Union. Only 5% of British students and 8% of Americans knew that they were slave camps established by Stalin. Again, German students appeared better informed with 30% knowing the correct answer.

Analysing the data Philo said he blamed the education system, media outlets and misleading films for the level of historical ignorance.

He said: "In Germany, history and politics is compulsory in school until 17 and I think this is reflected in the results."

Dr Thomas Weber, who specialises in British and German history and modern anti-semitism at the University of Glasgow, said he was not surprised by the levels of ignorance.

"It’s shocking but not surprising. Many students who come here don’t really have much of a clue about current or historical events."

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