It’s All There in the Historical Record, but Whose?

Alan Marcus joins the bread line at the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., where he was working with 40 social studies teachers from Connecticut studying the Great Depression in July 2010.
Alan Marcus joins the bread line at the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., where he was working with 40 social studies teachers from Connecticut studying the Great Depression in July 2010.

For Alan Marcus, associate professor in the Neag School of Education Department of Curriculum and Instruction, history is all about point of view. That’s so, 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.

In his travels as a student at Tufts and Boston University, as a high school social studies teacher in Atlanta and then in college work and teaching at Stanford and UConn, he realized that the popular view of history is largely shaped by movies. His theory was further supported in teacher workshops he ran. He would ask who had read Freedom From Fear, a Pulitizer Prize-winning text on the Great Depression and World War II, and get little response. Then he’d ask who had seen “Forrest Gump.” “I’ve never done a workshop with teachers when every single hand didn’t go up,” he says.

He wrote about the phenomenon of learning history from film in his dissertation, later developed into his first book and edited volume, Celluloid Blackboard: Teaching History with Film (Information Age Publishers, 2007). It’s a guide for scholars and teachers on how to use film to good effect in the classroom. His latest book, co-authored with colleagues from William & Mary, Penn State, and Pacific University, is titled Teaching History with Film: Strategies for Secondary Social Studies (Routledge, 2010), and expands his theories about film and teaching history by using case studies.

When he asks teachers if it’s better to show a film by Ken Burns or Michael Moore, they say, “Ken Burns.” But it’s much more complicated, Marcus says, recalling that when Burns spoke at the Palace Theatre in Waterbury about his domestic-based World War II documentary, “he very much admitted he wanted to tell a pro-American story. So, he had a bias,” albeit one not as overt as Moore’s.

Most American movies about history are told from a white male experience, but Marcus lists some strong exceptions. “Glory” was one of the first Civil War battle films about the African American experience. And, one he admires greatly, “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, the film has underlying bias in favoring the constitutional amendment v. a state-by-state decision on whether women should vote; the characters were portrayed as heroines, dressed colorfully while the state-by-state advocates were clothed in drab colors, for example.

When he teaches what he calls “historical film literacy,” he focuses on developing empathy; using film as a primary source and as a secondary source; the handling of controversial issues such as race, and how films tell stories through narrative and by allowing the viewer to visualize the past. While films may not corner the market on fact, they can relay real information, about social conscience, lifestyles and popular thinking crucial to understanding the times, he says.

And Marcus has improved on the way he introduces film into the history lesson, for instance, developing a character-shadowing technique he uses to this day, and tweaking other elements. “The first time I used ‘Schindler’s List,’ the bell rang and students were leaving class bawling, going to math. So, I started stopping the film early,” he recalls, to give the class a chance to change gears.

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 of the need to participate in a democratic society, 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, 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 religious enough, but included former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich as an important voice of the 1990s.

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

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

This realization has spawned Marcus to do a new book with the working title Teaching History with Museums, which he is writing with Jeremy Stoddard at William & Mary and Connecticut State Historian and UConn Assistant Professor Walter Woodward.“Walter has an incredible depth of content knowledge, and I am an expert on pedagogy and a former high school teacher, so we make a great team,” Marcus says. The book, which will be out in 2012 under Routledge, will guide educators on the use of museum displays, monuments, historical sites and living history facilities.

“Working with Alan is terrific,” Woodward affirms. “The balance of things we agree and disagree on is just right; I think it’s made each of us better at what we do. I have learned a great deal about effective teaching from him, and have even been caught using Alan’s signature phrase ‘Let’s go meta!’ as in metacognitive – that is, ‘Let’s think about what we are thinking.’” Marcus and Woodward also collaborate as part of a Teaching American History Grant, run by Capitol Region Education Council, that 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 and 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 in 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 Wampanaog village was added more than a decade ago, and enhanced 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 tourism 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…but it’s not a day off,” he says.

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,” and co-taught with History Department faculty “Teaching History Through Fiction and Film” and “The Historian’s Craft, Teaching Focus.” He has recently served as co-guest editor-in-chief of Film & History and president of the Connecticut Council for the Social Studies.

He was nominated for the UConn Outstanding Advisor Award in 2007 and garnered an Excellence in Teaching Award as a graduate student at Stanford in 2001. He has participated in numerous conferences and workshops, and consulted on curriculum design for West Hartford public schools.

Marcus has developed curriculum, yes, but where history’s concerned, especially as a lifetime and ongoing getting of knowledge outside the classroom, Marcus 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.”

His former students at Neag praise him for his never-say-die mentoring. “He lives it. He lives and breathes it,” says Meg Monaghan, Marcus’s first PhD student at UConn and assistant professor in the School of Education at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford. “He’s not making any of this up. He’s just teaching all the time.”

Ashley Gore, a Neag alumna and high school social studies teacher, says, “In addition to the relationships Alan has created, he has also bonded together a community of learners, and this University of Connecticut community is one that I still depend upon today.” Gore has a BA in history, a BS in secondary education (2008) and an MA in curriculum and instruction (2009).

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.”