Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Frankly, my dear. . . .

Posted in Education, Media, Memory by Andy Hall on May 6, 2011

The scene, driving into school Friday:

[Kid digs around for loose change in the console]

Me: What are you looking for?

Kid: I need 75 cents for popcorn.

Me: Popcorn?

Kid: Yeah, Ms. _____ lets us get popcorn, we’re watching a movie in her history class.

Me: What movie?

Kid: Gone with the Wind. It’s awful, and we all get popcorn ’cause it’s sooooo booooring.

Turns out they’d spent the entire week, since Monday, watching Gone with the Wind in class. The good news, I suppose, is that (according to the Kid) none of it registers with the the other middle school students. They’re not following the plot, they can’t keep the characters straight, and the dialogue is mostly incomprehensible. They’re distracted that one of the leading male characters “has a girl’s name.” The clothing looks ridiculous. They have only the vaguest sense of the course of the war, which is the mostly-off-screen event that drives the entire plot of the picture. Interaction between characters like the one pictured above just don’t register. Gone with the Wind, it seems, is a waste in the classroom when presented in this way; it might as well be a Bollywood musical, with all the dialogue and lyrics in Hindi, for all the effect it’s having. The only thing it’s teaching this class is to remember to bring their three quarters every day for popcorn. (Kevin, teaching at the high school level, has used segments from GwtW, but that’s an entirely different approach to classroom use of the film.)

There’s no question that Gone with the Wind is one of the classic films of all time. And it should be remembered in that context. But it’s portrayal of the Antebellum South and its depiction of slavery is atrocious, Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar notwithstanding. It’s not a history lesson. 

I feel like I know Ms. _____ reasonably well, and I’m surprised, to say the least. No idea what’s going on here, or why GwtW would be the film of choice, even if one does choose to coast the rest of the year. (State-mandated standardized testing, which seems to be the tail that wags the dog, wrapped up last week.) There are much better, more historically accurate films out there, although they may not be do-able for the classroom. Glory, for example, is rated R; although the violence in it is probably not more gruesome than what’s seen on prime-time broadcast teevee, an R-rated film is a non-starter in the classroom. Gettysburg came out just four years later, and it’s only PG.

What’s done is done for this year, but I think I’ll drop a note to Ms. _____. I really hate to be one of those parents who’s always getting up in the teacher’s face, and the plain truth of the matter is that we’ve rarely had reason to complain. But there’s got to be something better than this.