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Cultural Literacy In The Age Of Information Overload August 27, 2007

Posted by Jim Berkin in General, Movies.

Richard Pells writes a good article about the de-emphasizing of America’s cultural heritage in history courses, mostly due to what he sees as an over-emphasis on social history. This is a fancy way of saying that students are bombarded with a lot more material on social classes and what some colleagues of mine tiresomely referred to as the “forgotten people” of history, (never mind that they can’t really be forgotten if, oh, you’re basing your entire course around examining what a raw deal they got) rather than studying the major names in American art, music, architecture and so forth, and where they fit into their respective historic times.

Preach, Pells, Preach!

Maybe I ought to send this guy the syllabi of my Film course or my American culture course to restore his faith, or perhaps my small class roster to induce a unique mixture of jealousy and depression.

Oh, the ways I amuse myself!

What strikes me as an interesting development in the issues Pells discusses is how students literally have a larger wealth of information at their fingertips than at any time in history. Even putting aside the uneven accuracy of Wikipedia, a favorite source for students, information and decent analysis on any of the iconic figures Pells and myself would want students familiar with is readily available, and the hyperlinks therein provide the knowledge of their connection with the rest of what’s going on.

It sounds like heaven! Let’s all leave the kiddies to the fabulous inter-web and take a nap! Close all the schools! Convert them to candy factories!

Er… no.

Soapbox time! If there’s a skill that must be taught in the coming century, it’s sifting through the ever-growing ton of blather that fills cyberspace, and separating the informative from the junk. People like Pells and myself who design syllabi to introduce newbie students to various iconic figures for the first time need to make those introductions the first step in the student’s pursuit of background, connections and further example by using web resources wisely.

So when I show students The Roaring Twenties, they can learn who James Cagney was, and then see how he played tough guys, but was also a song and dance man… and then they can see how Warners made a lot of gangster movies in the 1930s…and how different studios had different house styles…and if they’re interested they can watch other Cagney films thanks to Netflix or thanks to the greatest video store in the world which is right in the city my students live in….

And so on.

Come to think of it, there are some schools out there that would make better candy factories. I’ll leave that for you to figure out.



1. KT - September 6, 2007

Here’s a fun fact for you…one that you most likely already know…

When Warner Brothers was in pre-production for The Adventures of Robin Hood, they originally wanted Cagney to play Robin, with all of the guys who frequently played his fellow gangsters as the band of merry men.

Would’ve been a tad different than the Errol Flynn version.

2. jimberkin - September 7, 2007

Actually KT, I didn’t know that! Thanks!

I’ll hunt through the Wagstaff library for a book I have about Hollywood casting choices that never happened and write a post on it this weekend. It’s always interesting to try to imagine how a film you know well would be different with different players in key roles.

Chevy Chase as Forrest Gump springs to mind… or Ronald Reagan as Rick in Casablanca…

More on this soon…

3. KT - September 7, 2007

And Leslie Nielsen auditioned for the role of Messala in 1959’s Ben-Hur. Hmmm.

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