It’s All in the Historical Record – But Whose?

Education professor Alan Marcus teaches students a healthy skepticism about historical sources.

<p>Alan Marcus. Provided by Neag School of Education</p>
Alan Marcus joins the bread line at the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., during a study trip last summer with 40 social studies teachers from Connecticut focusing on the Great Depression. Photo provided by the Neag School of Education

For Alan Marcus, history is all about point of view – whether it’s told through film, historical monuments, or even textbooks. The trick for the discerning consumer is to question the perspective while giving it full value in the search for truth, says Marcus, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction in the Neag School of Education.

A former high school social studies teacher, Marcus says movies are among the most important influences shaping the popular view of history.

He says when he runs teacher workshops and asks who has read Freedom From Fear, a Pulitzer Prize-winning text on the Great Depression and World War II, he gets little response. Then he asks who has seen “Forrest Gump.” “I’ve never done a workshop with teachers when every single hand didn’t go up,” he says.

Teaching History with Film

Marcus wrote about the phenomenon of learning history from film in his first book and edited volume, Celluloid Blackboard: Teaching History with Film (Information Age Publishers, 2007),s a guide for scholars and teachers on how to use film to good effect in the classroom.

His latest book, Teaching History with Film: Strategies for Secondary Social Studies (Routledge, 2010), co-authored with colleagues from William & Mary, Penn State, and Pacific University, expands his theories about film and teaching history by using case studies.

Most American movies about history are told from a white male perspective, but Marcus points to some significant exceptions. “Glory” was one of the first Civil War battle films about the African American experience. And “Iron-Jawed Angels,” about the struggle for women’s suffrage, is told from the perspective of women and shows aptly that not everyone was in agreement, he says.

But good as it was, he says, “Iron-Jawed Angels” had an underlying bias in favor of the constitutional amendment as opposed to a state-by-state decision on whether women should vote. The main characters, for example, were colorfully dressed and were portrayed as heroines, while the state-by-state advocates were clothed in drab colors.

When he teaches what he calls “historical film literacy,” he discusses how films tell stories through narrative and by allowing the viewer to visualize the past. While films may not corner the market on fact, he says, they can relay real information about social conscience, lifestyles, and popular thinking crucial to understanding the times.

A Matter of Perspective

As a high school teacher, Marcus was disturbed by how history was taught, and that experience set a course for a career-long passion for training teachers.

“I will not claim that social studies classes are the most important, but I will say they are critical in helping students function in a society,” he says. As an example, Marcus points to the British Petroleum oil spill, and the myriad perspectives from the company, the U.S. government, the local people, the media, the Coast Guard and, of course, those posted on the Internet. Once all that information is sifted, how does one act on it?

“Everything is someone’s perspective in history. Can we agree there was an American Revolution? Sure. … But who was the aggressor? Who was the victor,” Marcus asks, citing the battle of Bunker Hill, where the British took the hill but the Americans showed they could fight. And, in discussing that seminal American conflict, even the terms “rebel” and “patriot” relay distinct points of view.

In a May 2010 Social Education article, “Remember The Alamo? Learning History with Monuments and Memorials,” co-authored with UConn colleague Tom Levine, an assistant professor curriculum and instruction, Marcus cites the role played by the Texas Board of Education in rewriting curriculum that affects not just that state but most others, because of its influence on the national textbook industry. The conservative board dropped Thomas Jefferson as a shaper of revolutionary philosophy because he was not sufficiently religious, but included former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich as an important voice of the 1990s.

“Texas has a very big impact on the textbook industries,” Marcus says. “Publishers match books to Texas curriculum, and smaller states like Connecticut are sort of stuck.”

Deconstructing Historical Sites

His recent work has centered on how people consume history through museums and historical sites, without spotting the same subjectivity they might notice in other renditions of history. The granite structures, printed placards, and use of expert curators mask the fact that museum storytelling is also a matter of choosing which stories to tell and how.

This realization has spurred Marcus to work on a new book with the working title Teaching History with Museums, which he is writing with Jeremy Stoddard at William & Mary and Walter Woodward, Connecticut State Historian and associate professor of history at UConn. The book, which will be published in 2012 by Routledge, will guide educators on the use of museum displays, monuments, historical sites, and living history facilities.

Marcus and Woodward also collaborate as part of a Teaching American History Grant, run by the Capitol Region Education Council, which provides professional development to 70 middle and high school social studies teachers.

And new on the block, Marcus has developed a World War II course that will lead pre-service teachers to historical sites in Europe, including the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, this summer. Films such as “The Longest Day,” “Schindler’s List,” and “Saving Private Ryan” will be incorporated, as will Elie Wiesel’s Night; History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, by Deborah E. Lipstadt; and other readings. The course will conclude the following fall semester.

Marcus discusses popular living-history museums, such as Plimoth Plantation, where he was a project evaluator, and Old Sturbridge Village, where he often takes his children. At Plimoth, a Wampanoag village was added more than a decade ago to enhance the understanding of visitors, who experience it first on the way to the white settlement. At Sturbridge, a reconstructed 19th-century village of buildings from throughout New England, docents represent a period and demonstrate early American lifestyle but are not role-playing in strict character. It’s an effective approach to learning history, he says.

Some tourist draws, however, sacrifice authenticity to commercialism, as does Colonial Williamsburg in its use of non-period Christmas celebrations, Marcus writes in The Social Studies in 2007. “On a very basic level, I think students and teachers sort of see museums as a day off. I try to frame it as a rigorous intellectual activity. It doesn’t mean it can’t be fun,” he says, “but it’s not a day off.”

Developing a Healthy Skepticism

At UConn, Marcus advises pre-service secondary social studies teachers and teaches social studies methods and seminars, “Education and Popular Culture,” “Current Issues in Social Studies/History Education.” He has also co-taught “Teaching History Through Fiction and Film” and “The Historian’s Craft, Teaching Focus” with history department faculty. He recently served as co-guest editor-in-chief of Film & History, and president of the Connecticut Council for the Social Studies.

Although Marcus has developed curriculum, where history’s concerned, he sees his teaching mission as equipping the lifetime learner with a healthy skepticism. “I’m not here to make decisions about what sort of facts they should know,” he says, “but to equip them with the skills to make their own judgments.”

Woodward, the state historian, places Marcus in his own historical context: “Much of the way people learn in the 21st century will come in ‘YouTube to iPad’ format – from a streaming website to a personal tablet of some kind. Alan is making sure his student-teachers have the skill to teach critical analysis within this new epistemological framework.”