History Lessons, With Popcorn, for America's Undergraduates

tags: history, movies



Zach Messitte is president of Ripon College in Wisconsin and a professor of political science. He teaches a class called "American Foreign Policy and the Movies."

The merits of the nine nominees for the Academy Award for best picture are being debated by cineastes around the world. But as a college professor, this year's Oscar nominees also reaffirm the growing importance of the movies in the classroom and how film can inspire young people to greater academic inquiry.

Although most of my students have never heard of the 1970s Abscam scandal, many have seen "American Hustle." The horrors of American slavery are brought back on screen, in "12 Years a Slave," for a generation of white undergraduates who see nothing extraordinary about having African Americans as roommates, teammates or teachers. As difficult as it is to succinctly explain the 2008 economic meltdown, "The Wolf of Wall Street" does a good job of playing up the excess and speculation that contributed to the global economic crisis. And when trying to convey the concept of failed states and why countries such as Somalia are real threats to U.S. national security, "Captain Phillips" is a way to begin a larger discussion about piracy, the perils of foreign aid and the Law of the Sea.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said, "The fact that film has been the most potent vehicle of the American imagination suggests all the more strongly that movies have something to tell us, not just about the surfaces but about the mysteries of American life." Today's movies also tell us a lot about the changing nature of teaching....



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