Cellulose Preaching

The details of this particular academic kerfuffle are less interesting (to me) than the fact that John Stauffer, a professor of history at Harvard University and author, with Sally Jenkins, of The State of Jones: The Small Southern County That Seceded from the Confederacy, defends Hollywood films:

I’ve been amazed by the deep animosity that so many scholars display toward Hollywood. Anything produced in Hollywood that touches a historical topic stains the fabric of their hallowed discipline, they believe. Because our book was “inspired by” a proposed film project by Gary Ross does not mean that it was “based on” a screenplay or that it is “fiction.” Most historians are utterly blind to the fact that history films are an invaluable asset. Why? Because most Americans understand history through film, not books, teachers, and classes. And a Hollywood history film, regardless of its interpretation, will expose millions of people to the topic and inspire thousands to begin reading history and treating it seriously. It functions like a charismatic preacher, who can convert the multitude.
And that’s a very good thing, because history, literature, and the humanities in general are under siege. Fewer students major in the humanities than ever before; and history, English, and other humanities’ disciplines receive far less money than their counterparts in the sciences and “practical” disciplines. If the current trends continue, in a few generations history and literature departments as we know them will no longer exist. Most Americans can’t name our first three presidents, they don’t know when the Civil War began, and they lack the basic skills needed to read and understand Lincoln.

Like a charismatic preacher—that’s a great way to think of films.


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