Popular interest in history is peaking like perhaps never before in the 21st century. Films such as Spartan gore-fest 300 have proven big hits at the box office in recent years, and many more ancient world movies – including Centurion, Clash of the Titans and Valhalla Rising – are set to arrive in 2010.
TV historians such as Simon Schama and David Starkey are household names. Dan Brown's Lost Symbol dominated the fiction chart in the past year and all of the novels shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2009 were set against historical backdrops, with the winner – Hilary Mantel’s Tudor England-based Wolf Hall – proving the most popular Booker prize winner of all time.
The past most definitely sells. Yet, for some reason, interest in history as a subject of study is dwindling among young learners – in England pupils taking history at GCSE level has dropped as low as one in three. Some voices argue that we need to do a better job of firing youngsters’ imaginations when it comes to teaching history, by using learning tools that excite as well as enlighten – in other words making better use of edutainment, as it has become known.
Can historical fiction – in the form of novels, plays, films or even video games – pass as education when it comes to teaching history? Or are the old fashioned ways still the best? We asked a number of commentators, and their responses were consistent: with caveats, there’s undoubtedly a place for entertainment in modern learning, as a means of channelling youngsters into the streams of traditional education.
Masters and Soldiers
Historical fiction is basically anything that takes real historical events – even just a kernel of them – as the starting point for telling a tale. They’re about as old as history itself, with perhaps the earliest work of historical fiction dating back as far as 800 BC, when Homer wrote about the Trojan War in the Iliad. In the last couple of hundred years, all from books by literary giants such as Walter Scott and Gore Vidal, to classic movies such as Spartacus, Ben Hur and Gladiator, and video games like the Call of Duty franchise, could be considered works of historical fiction.
No one would be so daft as to suggest that Call of Duty or the Sims 3: World Adventures expansion packs represent especially enlightening history lessons. However, games such as Civilization are packed with facts and personalities that bring the ancient world to life, and the new field of 'serious gaming' continues to produce games especially designed to educate as well as entertain.
Other sources are more easily accepted as educational. Few people would be so bold as to claim that the Iliad fails to play a key role in teaching us about classical history, or that Shakespeare can teach us nothing about the ancient world of Cleopatra, Mark Antony or Julius Caesar. It lifts characters and tales from the ancient world off the page and into our imaginations, even if Homer’s epic tale of Gods, heroism, fate and warfare has to be taken with a large pinch of salt. There are lots of other modern works of modern historical fiction that deserve to be treated similarly.
Opening the Book on Edutainment
“I have to confess that the word ‘edutainment’ makes me bristle a bit,” says Margaret Donsbach, editor of historicalnovels.info, “because it seems to imply there’s something flimsy and suspect about anything that combines entertainment with education. Ideally, learning something worthwhile should always be at least a little bit fun. I’m sure a lot of academics find their work tremendously enjoyable.”
Historical novels are, in Donsbach’s opinion, a highly useful educational tool. Traditional academia, if approached from a standing start, can present an uninspiring and imposing prospect, she believes. “While some historians do have an engaging writing style, the typical history book is terribly dry, and more likely to persuade students history is boring than to convey how exciting the study of history can be,” she says. “If educators remind students that historical fiction is an imaginative endeavour inspired by the historical record, not an unadorned compilation of facts, it can be tremendously valuable in conveying a sense of what the past was like and whetting students’ appetites for learning more.”
Donsbach points to the likes of Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels for young people as examples of works of fiction that have inspired a desire for further investigation of the past. “The Eagle of the Ninth (which is currently being adapted into a major motion picture) inspired a lifelong love of history and historical fiction for many people my age and is still attracting readers,” she says. Many people may equally have had their interest in history fuelled by the television mini-series based on the novel I, Claudius by Robert Graves. “It made many people viscerally aware that ancient Romans were real creatures of emotion, intellect and imagination,” says Donsbach. “It was a far more authentic portrayal of life in ancient Rome than the heavily romanticised films of earlier decades.”
As the 2009 Booker prize shortlist demonstrates, quality historical fiction still arrives by the bundle every year. Long may it continue, because the steady flow of such novels, as well as other forms of historical fiction, has in Donsbach’s opinion had a pervasive effect in keeping popular interest in history alive and thriving. “Perhaps the individual novels and films that make a big media splash are actually less important than the cumulative influence of a variety of quality novels and films,” she concludes, “which stimulate the kind of quiet, persistent reflections that are, ultimately, the most illuminating and life-changing.”
Historical Cinema – Inspiring, But Not Trustworthy
Film critic and author Eddie Harrison believes that the big screen – which has seen a vast array of ancient world hits and flops over the years – similarly has an important part to play in bringing the past to life on an educational level. However, he’s quick to warn against movies ever being treated as anything more than a loose introduction to history.
“I’m a firm believer that film has always played a vital role in connecting audiences with history,” he says. “But film, in my opinion, should only be seen as a jumping off point for further learning, and only as a tertiary source, never primary or even secondary. I’d no more encourage someone to consider a film as a historical document as I would advise them to use a Henry James novel as a guidebook to New York. It would be a complete misunderstanding of the purpose for which the work was created. The narrative of a film requires real events to be bent and reshaped according to artistic and commercial concerns, making all films extremely unreliable as historical sources, whatever their claims to authenticity might be. They should be enjoyed, but not trusted.”
Harrison points to the likes of Jean Jaques-Annaud’s Quest for Fire (1982), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (set for cinema release in 2010) as examples of movies that manage to engage and entertain while also skillfully evoking ancient historical settings. “I’d happily confess that Clash of the Titans (the 1981 original) was a film which got me interested in Greek mythology,” he continues, “and that the wild anachronism of Raquel Welch’s cave-girl boots, false-eyelashes or even her very existence in a world of dinosaurs never impeded my enjoyment of One Million BC.”
But then there’s the “graveyard” of ancient world movies too, as Harrison calls it, which is well-stocked. “It would be hard to muster much enthusiasm for Richard Gere in King David, John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror or Joan Collins in Land of the Pharaohs,” says Harrison. “Anyone who uses these texts to further their understanding of history is likely to do more damage than good.”
Historical Learning in the Age of the Technological Revolution
Blogging for The Guardian, historian Bethany Hughes suggested that deteriorating interest in history as a GCSE subject in England can be reversed with innovative new approaches to teaching that serve to “make history cool again”. She points to the example of Zack Snyder’s film 300 – which was based on a graphic novel, and influenced by Hughes documentary The Spartans – as an example of historical fiction that inspired unprecedented interest from young people, and indeed owed much of its box office triumph to the fervent backing it received from them. “The massive grassroots success,” of that movie, Hughes wrote, “demonstrates there is a vast appetite among 15-25 year olds to share in the experience of the long-dead.”
In 300, the historical record came together with Hollywood fantasy to create a thrilling example of visual storytelling that – however loosely factual, and gratuitously gory – crucially had the power to inspire interest in Spartan legend and the classical Greeks. “The film quoted Herodotus virtually verbatim, and has been watched by more than 150 million worldwide,” Hughes continued. “Its success – aided by enthusiastic bloggers who promoted the film online and were later listed in the credits – has made educationalists think again. Maybe it is not just social history – the belt buckles and soup ladles – that connects us to the past, but a grander idea, an idea that shared memory is essential to being human.”
Technology, in particular the internet, is something that Hughes was eager to stress needs to be harnessed more as a tool for feeding young people's hunger for finding out about the past. Its role in doing so is practically enshrined in classical thinking, as one ancient Greek example shows:
“At the end of the 20th century technology was all,” wrote Hughes. “History was a dirty word. But then the millennium came and went and the future did not hold all the answers. History instructs us in the cock-ups and triumphs of others. And new technology services that fundamental humanist benefit. Around 1,800 years ago, one man had the same idea. The Greek philosopher and medic Galen wrote that human civilisation develops best when techne (skill or craft) buttresses human enlightenment. The result: ‘Greater and better by far than our fathers it is our boast to be.’
“The technological revolution is itself a direct descendant of the Ancient Greeks’ historia and the web is populated by young people who want to dive into the past,” she summed up. “We just have to jog their memories and remind them that a GCSE in history is one way to start.”
Technology is being used more and more both inside and outside of the classroom. Schools are increasingly keen to employ computer games and web-based resources as part of their arsenal of teaching tools, and several museums including the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and Glasgow's Hunterian, are going mobile with iPhone apps.
Virtual reconstuctions can offer an immersive educational experience, and are a great way to discover ancient history whilst actually having fun. Projects like Virtual Sambor Prei Kuk, King Tut Virtual, Digital Karnak and Virtual Roman Leicester offer a high level of detail and historical accuracy. Virtual reality is a tool also used by archaeologists and museums to actively teach - and learn - about historical sites and artefacts.
Assume Nothing - Question Everything
Peter Brown is the Head of learning and Interpretation at the Manchester Museum. For him, edutainment is a vital tool for sparking young peoples’ love of history, as long as it’s accompanied with a firm respect for where the fiction ends and the facts begin.
“As a long-standing advocate of ‘stealth learning’ I’m all in favour of anything that stimulates people’s interest in a subject,” he says. “Although I’ve lost count of the number of times young museum visitors have said, when asked what they’d learned, that they were too busy enjoying themselves!
“It’s true that new myths are created when artistic license and factual accuracy come to blows but in my experience even young children understand that there is a difference between storytelling and reportage. They enjoy the thrill of mummies coming back to life while being completely aware that it doesn’t happen.”
Brown stresses that young learners above all have to be taught that, no matter what they’re studying – be it a blockbuster film, a Sims expansion pack, or an academic textbook – they need to scrutinize the facts as they’re presented and ask the right questions. “The real problem is in the subtle anomalies and inaccuracies that are harder to spot,” he says. “Through our learning programme we encourage learners to be critical of all sources, including the museum and their teachers, when they are researching a subject. The more discriminating they are, the less worrying ‘edutainment’ becomes.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies