James W. Loewen literally begins his provocative book Lies My Teacher Told Me with this bold and bolded and all-capped pronouncement:
HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS HATE HISTORY.
There's a bumper sticker for you. There's a t-shirt slogan for you. Well . . . how does it hit you? What were or are your experiences in high school and college history classes? Maybe you greet Loewen's words with thumbs-ups and high-fives! Maybe you think he grievously overgeneralizes. We're sure, in fact, that many of you have or have had fine history classes. And you probably wouldn't be visiting this site were it not for a lively teacher. But, in any event, Loewen, like Thoreau in Walden, speaks loudly if only to wake people up. His in-your-face blast forces us to think about why history is taught, what history is taught, and how history is taught. Why not take a moment to form some answers to each of those three questions before you read further?
Why are you required to learn American history? A simple, straightforward answer is that it will make you good American citizens. History is the memory of the nation. And it is important to the elders of the tribe that each young'n learn the right "facts," the "true" story. History is the familiar family stories rehearsed over and over at your family gatherings writ large. Without the common memory that history provides, the common bond that holds together a large group of dissimilar individuals weakens -- rendering the future well being of the nation fragile. Imagine a person without memory, and you enter the horrorific world of Edgar Allan Poe. Then imagine a group of people without a common memory of their interaction -- and maybe you get a mental flash of the stiff-jointed zombies from Night of the Living Dead. It is important, then, that we know who "we" are and how we got to be a "we" if we are to have any kind of meaningful personal and national life. We must know our history. We must get it and get it right.
But who defines "who we are" as citizens? What is the "it" we need to get right? What history gets told? Whose history gets told? A simple, straightforward, and no doubt somewhat cynical answer is that history is written by those in power. We don't need to tell you that that's why, until recently, the powerless (women . . . African Americans . . . Native Americans . . . Asian Americans . . . Mexican Americans . . . lower class white men . . . lesbians . . . gays . . . ) have not been overly visible actors in our history. History is not objective. What we don't often appreciate enough is that history is made. History is constructed. History is a representation of the past by certain people for certain purposes. There is no one version of history. In fact, the study of history, rightly conceived, is the study of histories.
Ok, how are you students required to learn history? A simple, straightforward, and no doubt somewhat controversial answer is that for many students learning history is solely learning facts from a gigantic textbook. Again, we expect that you are an exception or you wouldn't be here. But does this sound like such a bad thing? The textbooks are clear and authoritative, and learning facts may be kind of boring, but it at least makes study efficient -- right? Someone tells you what you need to know, and you set about mastering it. Loewen, however, has a big beef with that system. He concludes not only that "startling errors of omission and distortion mar" American history textbooks (15), but that history is often boring because students do not realize that the facts are often the subject of "furious debate" and controversy among the authorities themselves (16). Unfortunately, the study of history in school for many is the study of incombustible facts seemingly useful only on such television quiz shows as Jeopardy or Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
But you have not learned all of your history in school as facts contained in dullish textbooks. You are a visual generation, and -- whether you realize it or not -- you have learned a great deal of history from movies. We would not be at all surprised if you were quite familiar with such celebrated "historical" films as Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, Oliver Stone's JFK and World Trade Center, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, and Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers. These films -- seen by millions and millions -- and vastly more compelling than textbooks -- have produced and will continue to produce a large part of our culture's historical knowledge. Since such films are seen by so many people -- even by those with little formal schooling -- and since films are so visually and emotionally powerful, it behooves us to ask, maybe even more urgently, the questions stimulated by Loewen: who are the so-called cinematic historians? what histories are they telling? what histories aren't they telling? In short, how are we being shaped by history at the movies?
And thus we come to the purpose and the nature of the Reel American History site for you. We see the site as an opportunity for you to apply Loewen's educational tonic to film -- arguably the most formidable medium shaping you. By providing resources and models and stimuli for comparing the available historical record with the dynamic art work, we invite you to reflect on the nature and function of history, and we invite you, specifically, to experience the truth that history is constructed and to reflect on that experience. You will literally see history being made. We think you often will be surprised by what you find. And we believe that such a process can be genuinely "liberating" in the spirit of that liberal education the academic world values so highly. The goal of liberal education is to free you to learn for yourself.
But we want you to think of us as offering more than resources, models, and stimuli. We want you to think of Reel American History as offering space for your work to be visible and valuable to others. We want you not only to learn something important about the forces shaping you and your culture, but we also want you to teach others and collaborate with others by contributing to the site. Unfortunately, the vast majority of work you have done in school has probably been "disposable." You have used an essay, an exam, or a project to get a grade and then, more often than not, disposed of it. After a course or even after a unit in a course, the only use for your hard work may be to fill a parent's scrapbook. We'd like to give you more incentive than that to do your best work. On Reel American History your good work will live on, an integral part of a joint effort to understand the important relationship between film and history by students like yourself spanning time and space.
So, we invite you to contribute to the site in big or in little ways. You may express yourself through "old fashioned" text or through the "new" multi-media technologies fashioned by your generation. In the best spirit of the new media, we think of nothing on the site as static and "finished" and individually owned. Thus, we not only invite additions of major projects on individual films, but we also invite various kinds of interaction with and layering on existing parts of the site. We will include all appropriate work as fast as we can and with visible credit to you. Look to your teacher, who will normally be the channel to us, for appropriate projects.
Our Note to Teachers includes some suggestive examples of the "little ways" you can contribute to Reel American History -- the various ways you can interact act with and add layers to existing parts of the site. And for those of you, singly or in groups, who want to contribute in a "big way," this student section of the site contains advice on selecting a film on which to do a project and various aids to completing it.