The merits of the nine nominees for the Academy Award for best picture are being debated by cineastes around the world. But as a college professor, this year's Oscar nominees also reaffirm the growing importance of the movies in the classroom and how film can inspire young people to greater academic inquiry.
Although most of my students have never heard of the 1970s Abscam scandal, many have seen "American Hustle." The horrors of American slavery are brought back on screen, in "12 Years a Slave," for a generation of white undergraduates who see nothing extraordinary about having African Americans as roommates, teammates or teachers. As difficult as it is to succinctly explain the 2008 economic meltdown, "The Wolf of Wall Street" does a good job of playing up the excess and speculation that contributed to the global economic crisis. And when trying to convey the concept of failed states and why countries such as Somalia are real threats to U.S. national security,
Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said, "The fact that film has been the most potent vehicle of the American imagination suggests all the more strongly that movies have something to tell us, not just about the surfaces but about the mysteries of American life." Today's movies also tell us a lot about the changing nature of teaching.
Two decades ago, most undergraduate syllabuses in political science included texts, scholarly articles and maybe some photocopied commentaries from periodicals. Undergraduate courses have changed dramatically. Gone are most of the long, uninterrupted class lectures when professors would just preach, teach and then point to the assigned reading for further clarification. Today's students are not fazed by guest lecturers who
There is also a YouTube-ready show-and-tell that would have been unimaginable just five years ago. Since most of my students were not yet born in 1989 when Tank Man made his famous protest on CNN outside of Tiananmen Square, watching it before class discussion is part of understanding modern China. My first-year students were only 5 years old on
Recent films have also helped shape how today's undergraduates view America's role since 1945. Born in the early 1990s, my students have seen World War II flicks such as
As long-form journalism retreats, newspapers and television networks consolidate bureaus and the attention span for international news shrinks, the movies are a critical rough draft of history that affects higher education. It is imperative that Hollywood's best pictures continue to get these stories right, because they lay the groundwork for the next generation's understanding of the world and help inform a basic narrative of our politics and policies for years to come.