Dani Garavelli: History in the making?

Films can be used to get at a wider understanding of 'truth'. Picture: AP
Films can be used to get at a wider understanding of 'truth'. Picture: AP
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There’s more to using film and TV in the classroom than Blackadder. Pupils learn to doubt others’ portrayal of the past, says Dani Garavelli

There is a scene in Blackadder Goes Forth where General Melchett tries to cheer up the hapless Lieutenant George by showing him a small piece of turf as an illustration of how much ground the Brits have taken. “And what scale is this model made to?” asks George. “No, that’s the actual land,” says Melchett.

It’s a brilliant visual gag which neatly captures the gulf between the huge human costs and tiny physical gains of the war. And the fact I remember it so clearly more than a quarter of a century after it was first shown is testament to the power of television to encapsulate in a few seconds what a traditional history book might take several chapters to explore.

Of course, being a sitcom as opposed to an academic tome, Blackadder comes at the war from a particular perspective. As Education Secretary Michael Gove pointed out in his diatribe last week, it perpetuates the “lions led by donkeys” view which has flourished since the 1970s. As opposed to perpetuating his own view of it as a just war fought by men determined to preserve the western order.

At the heart of his polemic was a dig at teachers, whom, he implied, were allowing Blackadder (and Oh! What a Lovely War and The Monocled Mutineer) to be used as left-wing propaganda tools to shape their charges’ understanding of events. As if they were plonking their pupils in front of the TV without context or critique, while they sat swilling coffee and checking their smart phones.

Since then, we have heard other politicians and historians weighing in on the pros and cons of these dramatisations as a prism for viewing the events of the First World War. We have heard history being treated as if it were an immutable entity as opposed to a clash of competing viewpoints. What we haven’t been given is much insight into what’s really happening in secondary schools from those on the frontline. How big a part do films and TV shows play in teaching our children about the past and present? And, where dramatisations of real events are shown, what measures are taken to ensure children are aware of inaccuracies, omissions or bias?

With two teenagers – one of whom takes history, the other modern studies – I have been curious about this for some time. The list of movies, or parts of movies, my children have been shown is extensive: Amistad, Schindler’s List, Escape from Sobibor, Hotel Rwanda and even Hairspray. Elsewhere, I have heard of teachers showing Lincoln, Mississippi Burning, Malcolm X, Downfall and Zero Dark Thirty, although I am reliably informed that the notoriously inaccurate Braveheart is only ever shown at the end of a block on the Scottish Wars of Independence, so pupils can tear it apart. (“Look it’s the Battle of Stirling Bridge, but where’s the bridge?”)

While I accept films bring history alive for children, I have occasionally wondered to what degree teachers caution them against accepting their content as an objective truth. As they watch Mississippi Burning are they aware it has been criticised for portraying southern African Americans as passive victims? Is it explained to them that some people believe that in its effort to capture the horror of the genocide, Hotel Rwanda underplays crimes carried out by Tutsis?

The use of movies to keep children engaged is not new, but today, teachers are spoiled for choice. The last few weeks alone has seen The Butler, 12 Years a Slave and The Long Walk to Freedom added to a bulging back catalogue. Most believe films not only allow pupils with little life experience to gain an insight into human behaviour, they help them understand the difference between primary and secondary sources and encourage them to assess the likely reliability of information they are presented with.

History teacher Roslin Pettigrew admits to showing students Blackadder, “but only at the end of term when they have finished the First World War block and are winding down.” They spend more time watching All Quiet on the Western Front, which is told from the perspective of German soldiers and demonstrates that their lives in the trenches was very similar to that of their British counterparts. Pettigrew takes umbrage at Gove’s contention that pupils are fed an outdated view of the war as a “misbegotten shambles”. “We actually hold a mock trial of General Douglas Haig where we look at the idea that he was a man of his time who didn’t have many choices. We show them both sides.”

Even stranger, Pettigrew believes, is the implication that the teaching of history has remained static since Blackadder was made in 1989. “We have had a raft of changes to the curriculum since then,” she says. “There has been a lot of new research. There have been revisions of revisions of revisions.”

Movies can be used in all sorts of imaginative ways. For example Pettigrew has shown The Eagle to give pupils a feel for the Celtic way of life and Dances with Wolves to demonstrate the way stereotypes of Native Americans have been perpetuated.

There are potential pitfalls attached to using whole films in the classroom. Some studies suggest that, as well as the risk of absorbing inaccuracies, some pupils latch on to a particular character or sub-plot to the detriment of their overall understanding. But most educationalists believe the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

Andy McLaughlin is a history/modern studies teacher who also helps organise the Discovery Film Festival in Dundee, creating curriculum-aligned activity packs which teachers who have brought children to see a particular film can take back to their schools.

In his own classroom, however, he prefers to use short clips from a range of films because it allows him to focus on footage which illuminates the issues he wants to discuss.

“If you look at education right back to Plato, it’s about story-telling and what can you learn from the stories,” he says. “I think modern-day story-telling is done a lot through film, so we are looking at is a model of Plato: telling a story and taking from that the lessons we need to learn to avoid it happening again.”

Through watching the movies, pupils learn how any chain of events can be interpreted in a variety of ways, with each person’s perspective shaped by their own background and experiences. “Young people are savvy and where they aren’t, they need to be,” says another modern studies teacher who asked not to be named. “They need to understand bias, exaggeration and ‘creating a narrative.’ They know that films are not representations of ‘fact’ but that they can be used to get at a wider understanding of ‘truth’ far more effectively than just listening to a teacher and making notes from a textbook.”

Pupils are also likely to gain an understanding of the way the way our interpretation of the past is moulded by current events.

Although teachers are not allowed to express their own political opinions, the way in which the curriculum is structured and delivered is often shaped by what is happening in the outside world. For example, post-devolution, there has been more emphasis on Scotland’s past.

Certainly, Gove’s call for us to see the First World War as a model of honour, courage and patriotism as we mark its centenary could be seen as politically motivated. But those who died deserve better than to be used in pawns in an attempt to big up Britain at a time when it’s in the doldrums.

With that in mind, we should probably be grateful our schoolchildren are being taught be sceptical about other people’s portrayals of the past as opposed to merely accepting them at face value.