The Most Boring Subject In School

Candice eetimesWhen I was a Senior in high school, I took the last class one was required to take to graduate, U.S. History.  After the instructor passed out our ponderously thick, heavy textbooks, I flipped through the pages… “yep” I though to myself.  The same old mix of shallow knowledge of dates, “important people”, wars, hagiography, and lies.  Yes, lies.  Worst of all, even the truly important stuff was written in the most boring dry prose, drained of both context and drama.  I was convinced that it was deliberate so that we wouldn’t become curious about our history, so that we would be unable to question authority.  Yes, I was that cynical.  When I closed the book that first day of class, it was the last time the book was opened until another student was to be in possession.  Of course, I got an “A” in the class.

High school history textbooks are the worst places from which to learn our nation’s history.  It’s no wonder that so many people are so mislead.  History is also the only subject in college where the first task of the professors is to disabuse their students of misinformation and even disinformation that they learned in highschool.  Every other subject the profs may build upon an earlier foundation.  But in history, it is not possible.

So, unless you were a history major in college, you, my dear reader, likely have all sorts of junk “history” rattling around in your memory.  What to do?  Read some real history.

First, read Lies My Teacher Told Me:

For a deeper dive:

America Revised by Frances FitzGerald (1979) is a history of American history text books.

Then, read a more honest book like A People’s History of the United States:

But don’t stop there.  Keep reading, keep looking for more and better texts.  In addition to reading about history, take advantage of films and documentaries.  But avoid like the plague, the “History Channel”.  The material there has not only been watered down, but is repetitively boring!

I have this daydream of historians creating a curated list of good dramatizations of historical events so as to put some meat on those dry bones… and allowing high school students to watch those films followed by classroom discussions.  Maybe then history won’t be the most boring class in high school.

What would be your recommendations on books, documentaries, and historical drama films and why?  These are some of mine…

Historical Military Drama & Propaganda Films:

The Crossing shows the famous crossing of the Delaware which bolstered the struggling Continental Army during the early phase of the American War for Independence.

The Scarlet Coat depicts the humanity of both sides of the American War for Independence, the unmasking of Benedict Arnold as a traitor to the American side, and the cruel treatment that was meted out to “spies” by both sides.  A few liberties are taken with the history, but the drama, politics, and emotion itself are accurate.

Grant is a very recent bio / documentary that is a must see about this largely forgotten American Hero.

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell is a classic Hollywood style film dramatizing the career of Col. Billy Mitchell.  Mitchell was an advocate for air power for both land and sea operations.  He strongly advocated the development of aircraft carriers and deprecated the utility of battleships, having demonstrated that they were extremely vulnerable to air attack.  Mitchell prophetically predicted that the Empire of Japan would one day attack Pearl Harbor by air.

Tora, Tora, Tora is reasonably accurate account of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan using carrier based aircraft.  The key element of the film is that the US intelligence services had already cracked the Japanese diplomatic and military codes but failed to warn US forces of then known attack plans against Hawaii and the Philippines.

30 Seconds Over Tokyo may be a bit of Hollywood over dramatization and war propaganda, but it tells the story of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo using B-25 “Mitchell” bombers which demonstrated to the Empire of Japan that the US Navy could respond to the Pearl Harbor attack and bring the war back to their territory by using the same carrier based aircraft tactic and how the Chinese and Americans were allies during the war.

Midway is an accurate dramatization of the Battle of Midway Island in which US Naval forces took the initiative to engage the Japanese navel forces using aircraft from aircraft carriers, using intelligence gathered from having previously cracked the Japanese military codes.  This is believed to be the turning point of the war and the first naval engagement in which the ships never came in direct sight of each other.  The decision to attack Midway Island was made soon after and likely a response to the Doolittle raids.

Victory Through Air Power is a combination of propaganda and educational film produced by the Disney Studios during the war.  It documents the rationale for the massive “total war” bombing of both military and civilian economic targets in Japan and Germany.  It’s actual utility has been questioned, but one can’t understand the bombing campaigns in WWII, Korea, and Viet Nam without understanding it’s historical theoretical roots as a war strategy.  The film mixes animation and technicolor photography in a masterful and artfully beautiful film about a deeply troubling subject.

Fat Man and Little Boy is a hollywood drama about the development of the first atomic bombs.  Some dramatic license was taken, but it does convey the tenor and tone of mix of fear and sense of urgency felt by the various teams as they wondered if the NAZI regime in Germany would be first to build them.  One can not understand our modern world without understanding what drove these scientists and military planners to develop them.


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