Tuesday, July 26, 2011


by Cecil B. DeLibby

Revolutionary improvements in teaching now happen every few months. This year saw yet another giant step: the installation in classrooms of video cameras coupled with the use of Pan-Opto, a program that allows us to store the films of our classes for instant viewing on computers. Being a man who ardently embraces all advances in our ancient profession, I naturally wish to be among the harbingers of progress by examining the implications of this latest breakthrough. What can we expect to happen?

First will come changes in titles and terminology, something we are very used to anyway. The Director of Studies, now termed the “Casting Director,” will place job listings in Variety as well as traditional locations and will assemble the “cast” (faculty) for the year’s “shoots” (classes). An “actor” (teacher), before going “on stage” (to the classroom), will report “in costume” (dress code) before “call-time” (the bell) to the “green room” (faculty lounge), where a make-up artist will insure that the actor does not look pasty or off-color while the cameras are rolling.

During the opening faculty meetings actors will receive instructions on the key skills of modern pedagogy, such as how to present one’s best profile, voice projection, and the importance of not looking at the camera.

Because the presence on-set of real students is not always necessary—they can watch the movie later—the stage can sometimes be filled by “extras” chosen to personify whatever goals the school is trying to emphasize (e.g. gender balance, multicultural diversity). Extras will be controlled by an off-screen AD (assistant director), who will coach them in simulating interest, taking notes, holding vigorous (but polite) discussions—from a script, of course—and otherwise impersonating ideal students in an ideal classroom. This will make for boffo kudos when the movies are displayed, as they surely will be, on You Tube as well as Moodle.

As the actors build up fan bases and viewers, Producers and Directors (Boards of Trustees and Heads of Schools) must expect certain difficulties. The most successful actors will get agents, of course, so the annual contract-signing, at present reduced to a simple response to an e-mail, will involve heated negotiations for salary, housing, and perhaps perks like chauffeured limousines, luxurious trailers, stars painted on classroom doors, and reserved chairs with names on their backs. Directors will start hearing things like “I’m not thrilled by the script for Physics—can you do a re-write?” “I’m not right for Middle School Spanish—I’m better with more mature audiences,” “Come on, even Sir Alec Guinness couldn’t mine any yocks from Calculus AB!” “If I go into much detail about the September Massacres of 1792, will we lose our G Rating?” or “This is live theater, remember. How much audience response can you expect anyone to get from this ‘Passé Composé’ shtick?” And don’t forget residuals every time a film is played, and fees for “The Best Of ...” compilations.

Thespians who specialize in the liberal arts will have an inherent advantage over those in math and science: English Dept. actors work with material written by geniuses, while those on the nonfiction side usually can concentrate on the doings of various zanies, lunatics, and fascinating homicidal maniacs who so dominate the genre called History. Possibly actors who must try to make audiences warm to verb forms, invisible particles, or complex formulas will demand higher pay on that account.

Some teachers will also encounter difficulties. No school will wish to hire anyone who lacks stage presence or who is unsightly. It will do a school no good to place on stage some gargoyle, however skilled a teacher he might be. Maybe some careers can be salvaged by plastic surgery.

But there will, of course, be opportunities for different types of actors. A media-savvy school will try to present, through its films, a variety of interesting types to provide a potpourri of diverting performances. Among these might be:

The Young Progressive: Chummy with students, affects coolness (odd ties and belts, perhaps a tattoo), makes up for inexperience by enthusiasm (shouting, prancing about, standing on chairs), avoids giving many tests or “high stakes” evaluations.

The Matriarch: A motherly beldam who brings cookies and bags of sweets to class, perches stuffed animals on the windowsills, and punishes severely the tiniest disturbance.

The Jock: Personable, magnetic; easily distracted from his subject (usually “social studies,” which, of course, anyone can teach) by questions about the most recent “big game;” happy to speculate in class on the prospects of this or that professional team in some upcoming tournament. Knows all major sports stars even if he is hazy on Robespierre.

Mr. Chips: To meet the expectations of the public, prep schools especially must have a couple of antiques pottering about the place, confusing names and faces and reminiscing of antediluvian times. These absent-minded relics are often rather weak on classroom discipline and reporting attendance and quite easy for clever students to fool; on the other hand, students who enter their classrooms intent on actually learning something often emerge very well prepared for college.


A seminal article like this cannot be expected to deal with every new development that filming classes will bring about—such as post-production (e.g. insertion of special effects and a musical score; editing out such things as an actor throwing an eraser at an annoying student)—but the author hopes he has at least given his colleagues food for thought. (Might we eventually get to cutting-edge “blue screen” classes, where no students are needed since they will be computer-generated afterwards?) We invite you to meditate on this and develop your own notions.

Perhaps it is a good idea to end a treatise about this latest revolution in education with an encouraging reminder: the basic needs of good teaching were developed not last month (class-room cameras) nor last year (smart boards) nor several years ago (computers) nor in the 1960s (television in classrooms) nor in the 1940s (filmstrips) nor even in 1454 (the printing press) but around 440 BC, when Socrates demonstrated that the essentials are (1) a knowledgeable and enthusiastic instructor, (2) students who want to learn, and (3) adequate time. (He didn’t even use chalk!)
August 2010; expanded July 2011



A Modest Proposal

Teaching history to kinesthetic high-schoolers is challenging because history is usually studied by reading and listening; to learn history has heretofore meant using books, or hearing about events from savants who, having devoted their lives to such study, can highlight, and simplify complex matters for easy reception by tender minds.(1) (see notes at end) Now, however, with students who find it difficult to learn by such antique methods, modern pedagogues must develop new rubrics, new praxis, new epistemologies.(2)
We present here an exemplary project that we hope will stimulate many other educational professionals (“teachers”) to develop and expand innovative methodologies.


One of the most dramatic and important events of the early 19th Century was the French invasion of Russia. Project 1812 focuses on the catastrophic dénouement of this, the largest military operation before World War I, which set in motion the downfall of the First Empire and the victory of the reactionary regimes of the Age of Metternich (1815-1848).

The retreat from Moscow has often been described--e.g. Tolstoy’s magnificent treatment in War and Peace--but how can one bring the reality of what happened to people who cannot readily comprehend the written or the spoken word? We think we have found a way.

Most Modern European History courses will reach the second half of the Napoleonic Era in December or early January, which is the perfect--indeed, the only--time when this Project can be properly conducted.

* On a very cold day with high wind chill, all the kinesthetic learners will be driven to a mall or other public location about five miles from campus. They may wear only light summer clothing, such as T-shirts, shorts, cotton slacks, and sandals. Each will receive a sandwich, a pint of bottled water, and a knapsack containing about fifty pounds of hockey pucks.

Rationale: The flimsy clothing and scanty food simulate the dress and rations of most French soldiers during the retreat from Moscow. The knapsacks simulate the vast assortment of loot that the French took from the ruined city, confident that they could bring it back to France.

* The students will be told they will get $1 for each hockey puck they bring to campus.

Rationale: Students will have the opportunity to experience the common dilemma of greed vs. reason, in that they must decide whether, and when, to lighten or discard the valuable but heavy knapsacks in order to have a better chance of reaching home.

* The students will walk back to campus.

* It is highly desirable that, as a part of our Community Relations, a number of local people take part in the Project. Their job is to follow the students, and, when any fall behind the main body by more than fifty yards, to pelt them with stones, throw them into ponds, or beat them with clubs.

Rationale: The citizens simulate the Russian peasants and Cossacks who followed the French army from a safe distance but attacked stragglers.

* A teacher will ride beside the students in a chauffeur-driven car, calling out encouragement to his “troops” and composing bombastic “official bulletins” announcing that the campaign is going very well. (To assist with the bulletins, he may be accompanied by a “chief of staff” provided by the Office of Institutional Advancement.) When his limousine is half a mile from the school, he will wave encouragingly to the freezing remains of his “army” and be driven quickly back to campus, leaving his men to finish the trek on their own.

Rationale: The teacher simulates Napoleon, who departed the army in a swift coach on December 5, two weeks before the epic retreat ended.

* Those students who reach campus will be given a cup of hot chocolate and sent to the hospital. The others will be buried.

The 1812 Project gives haptic learners a “hands-on” experience like no other. Instead of merely looking at artifacts in a museum or using colored markers to occupy their fidgety fingers, they will feel they have actually participated in an important historical event. It is an experience they will remember to the ends of their lives. (This is especially true for those who do not reach campus, since their lives and the Project will end simultaneously.) At least half of the survivors will have permanent “memory triggers” right on their bodies (such as the stumps of frostbitten fingers and toes after amputation at the hospital).(3) No need for hard-to-read books or boring lectures to teach them what happened!

Hardy kinesthetics who insist on remaining at the school after Project 1812 will take part in Project 1941, “Hitler’s Retreat From Moscow” (which is very similar to Project 1812 except that the local people may use rifles).

Schools in warm climates may obtain satisfactory results from Project 1917 (The Project to End Projects), a simulation of Passchendaele (3rd Ypres). It takes place in soft, muddy ground in early spring or late autumn. (Project 1917 provides a fine opportunity for some cross-disciplinary activity: for added realism, the Science Department can manufacture phosgene and mustard gas for use as the kinesthetics slog through the knee-deep mud towards distant, unattainable objectives.)
1 Kinesthetic (or “haptic”) learners (for the benefit of nonprofessionals who might not know) are those who, we are told, cannot learn much from reading or listening, but who learn best by doing things with their hands and the movement of their bodies. Some laymen, ignorant of current pedagogical “best practice,” might think that such students would not be enrolled in preparatory schools or aspire to college diplomas, but would instead be directed into shop classes, vo-techs, the lower enlisted ranks of the armed forces, and similar places where they could use their talents to best advantage without cluttering up the halls of academe; but that is not the case today.

2 I do not really know what these last words mean, but I have noticed that the most esteemed educational experts and holders of Doctorates of Education use them quite a bit. I thought I should use them too, so I will be taken seriously.

3 For these, the “hands-on” experience can also be a “hands-off” experience!

Historical Films, Pt. 1

Each year, as I teach my courses, I find myself recommending various movies to my students. Why not do the same here? This is the first installment in a list of historical movies that I think are worthwhile—that do not do too much violence to history and are otherwise good viewing. I have made no attempt to be systematic; these are simply films I remember; but I will give them in approximately chronological order. Given my interests and training, most of these films are about war or European politics.

I’m probably more tolerant than many people of historical error or exaggeration in films. I am not pedantic. I know that any treatment of a historical topic has to compress and simplify. I do not get upset if there are too few buttons on a uniform or a Highlander wears the wrong plaid. On the other hand, I do get upset with falsehood and blatant distortion.

1) Cleopatra. This extravaganza almost bankrupted Fox and is perhaps best remembered today for the love affair between two of its stars, Taylor and Burton. But in fact the writers paid attention to history and tried to be accurate about Caesar, Antony, and the Serpent of the Nile. The sets are awesome. The two-hour special that comes with the film is very interesting, too.

2) El Cid. Another spectacular, and one that certainly simplifies the life of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar—there is no reference to his many years of work as a mercenary for the Moors, for instance. But there is a nobility about the central character and his actions that is inspiring, and the last part of the film perhaps has more relevance today than it did, say, fifteen years ago…

3) Joan of Arc. The 1948 film with Ingrid Bergman and Jose Ferrer. Ms. Bergman does a remarkable job in conveying the purity and nobility of la Pucelle. Very moving.

4) The Taking of Power By Louis XIV. An awkward title and a film that is far more talk than action; but Roberto Rossellini does a fine job of describing how and why the young Louis acted to control the nobles and make himself effective absolute king. The scenes (towards the end) of the king at dinner and at court are quite marvelously done. French with subtitles.

5) The Alamo. The 2004 film directed by J.L. Hancock. Although the interpretation of Santa Anna by Emilio Echevarria seems to me a bit over the top, the film tries to remain faithful to people and events in describing this heroic incident, the American Thermopylae.

6) The Charge of the Light Brigade. Not the Errol Flynn historical fiction opus but the 1968 film with Sir John Gielgud and David Hemmings. Aside from an inexplicable and completely dispensable theme involving Vanessa Redgrave as an unfaithful wife, this is a very good film about the early Victorian military and the famous mistaken attack.

7) Gettysburg. Just magnificent. The film wisely concentrates on three events in detail—the first day’s fighting, the defense of Little Round Top by the 20th Maine (yay!), and of course Pickett’s Charge—rather than trying to cover everything. Yes, I know that Gen. Longstreet’s beard looks wrong and that the first Confederate soldier you see is too fat, but don’t get hung up on trivia. This is an excellent film.

8) Gone With The Wind. Of course this is fiction, based on a novel; but it certainly captures the life of the antebellum South (as lived by the tiny number of really wealthy planters), the horror of the war on the home front, and some of the difficulties of Reconstruction.

9) Breaker Morant. A great film about three Australians accused of atrocities during the dirty end-phase of the Boer War. It makes you think.

10) Nicholas and Alexandra. This is an outstanding piece of history, compressing many of the problems of Romanov Russia in its last days and the personalities of the last tsar and tsarina into a couple of hours. And you’ll remember Rasputin. Academy Award for costumes.

11) Gandhi. Undoubtedly the personality of the title character is presented overly simply and hagiographically, but the basic history is there and the sense of being in India is overwhelming (at least for viewers who, like me, have never been in India.)

12) Zulu. The personalities and relationship of Lts. Chard and Bromhead are fictionalized but the story as a whole is true and exciting. And there will never be a better British RSM (in this case at company level) that Colour-Sergeant Bourne.

13) A Night To Remember. This is the Titanic film everyone should see, even if it is in black & white. No mawkish love story gets in the way of the real story. The Criterion Collection edition has very good commentary by two authorities on the ship.

14) The Last Emperor. A masterpiece. What a portrayal of an entirely different society than ours! See it.

15) Lawrence Of Arabia. I hardly have to recommend this, do I? While hazy on chronology —I wish someone mentioned a few dates—it certainly captures the legendary essence of its eccentric subject.

16) Oh What A Lovely War. This musical is a good commentary on the War to End War.

17) Tora, Tora, Tora. This is almost a documentary study of the events leading to Pearl Harbor. A very fine film.

18) Patton. You’ve seen this. It’s not really a war film—the battle scenes are its weakest part—but a psychological study of a complex, remarkable man.

19) Valkyrie. I did not think that modern Hollywood would do so good a job with the July 20 plot. But Tom Cruise did very well indeed. (I do not in the least mind the American accents.)

20) Is Paris Burning? This vast film has been largely forgotten. It’s a fair and balanced study of its theme from both the French and German viewpoints. Gert Frobe (Goldfinger) plays Gen. Choltitz, the Paris commandant. Black and white, unfortunately.

21) A Bridge Too Far. An hour too long, I think, and I have trouble accepting Elliott Gould as a colonel of infantry, but this epic captures the spirit and facts of Operation Market-Garden, especially the massive airborne drops and Col. Frost’s heroic defense of the key bridge.

22) Downfall. Wow. This film is the last word on “Hitler in the bunker.” No further film treatment is ever necessary. Not a study only of the by-then-demented dictator, but of all the inmates of the bunker. A tremendous film. German, with subtitles.

23) Soldiers of the Pope. Bet you never heard of this one. A documentary, the only one, on the Swiss Guard (in 2005). Interviews with Guardsmen, some history, drill and ceremonies. The “sets” includes some of the grandest interiors in Europe. The oath-taking ceremony is moving. 50 mins.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Historical Films, Pt. 2: Not So Good

1) 300. The seniors in my Greece and Rome elective kept urging me to see this, although with giggles. (They knew enough about the subject to guess my reaction.) It falls into a category I especially dislike: a film that leaves the general public knowing less about the subject than they did before seeing it, having replaced ignorance by falsehood. Certainly a rip-roaring gorefest, but otherwise … ick.

2) Gladiator. This thing won the Academy Award for Best Picture? The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), of which this bloody (I use the word in both the sanguinary and British senses) film is essentially a remake, is much better. Much of this is mere violence masquerading as art.

3) Braveheart. This probably would have been a better film if Mel Gibson were not so intense an Anglophobe. It is largely fiction, and eventually becomes really silly (e.g. the amour between William Wallace and the Princess of Wales). Impressive battle scene, of course; but the Battle of Stirling Bridge was completely different than what we see.

4) Cromwell. This film has scant historical value because the producers decided to portray the English Civil War as a personal confrontation between Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, which it was not. (For example, Cromwell never met the king, nor was he one of the five M.P.s whom Charles tried to arrest in 1642.) However, it is worth seeing because the battle scenes give at least a flavor of musket and pike warfare and because Alec Guinness gives a fine performance as Charles I, right down to the slight stammer and the Scots burr that creeps in when he is agitated. The trial and execution scenes are very well done. The film also gives you a chance to see Albus Dumbledore and James Bond at early stages of their careers (Richard Harris plays Cromwell; Timothy Dalton plays Henry Ireton.)

5) Waterloo. This film—unavailable on DVD for, I suppose, some legal reasons—is hard for me to evaluate. The costumes are perfect and since most of the Russian army was apparently made available for filming there is no shortage of extras. The score is fine. Some scenes are excellent: the Emperor’s farewell at Fontainebleau, the great cavalry charges (with the aerial shots so clearly showing the British squares), Orson Welles as Louis XVIII. I read that Rod Steiger decided to play Napoleon as “a man needing a rest and a hot bath,” which I guess is justifiable. But more should have been done with the Prussians (both at Ligny and on the 18th); Napoleon did not suffer some kind of seizure at the height of the battle, there was no hurricane (I think someone accidentally turned on a wind machine just before Blücher arrived), and some scenes are not very illuminating, especially the charge of the Scots Greys (a charge that does not hit anything; there is no indication that much of d’Erlon’s corps was rendered ineffective by the charge). I have heard that some hours of film are still available. Grognards like me can only hope that the entire available footage is eventually released.

6) Gods and Generals. The successor to Gettysburg and one of the biggest turkeys ever filmed. Long and boring. Why cover Fredericksburg instead of Antietam? Why spend so very much time on Stonewall Jackson? Seldom has so much effort, such attention to detail, been put into a more unsuccessful film—which shows that minute historical accuracy (e.g. Jackson being wounded in the finger at First Bull Run) does not guarantee a good movie. And what a pity, since its failure prevented the making of what would have been a trilogy.

I hope these two articles have been of use to some folks. Let me know.