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Posted at 02:43 PM ET, 03/29/2012

Study: Historical inaccuracies in films can hinder learning

Historical inaccuracies in popular movies that are used by teachers as learning tools can end up confusing students, a study by Duke University researchers concludes.

The researchers asked 36 undergraduates to look at nine texts of 800 words each about a historical figure or event, and also had them watch nine five-minute clips from popular movies that had related content.

Movies used in the research were:

* “Glory,” about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry in the Civil War. In reality, most of the infantry’s recruits were freemen from the North, but in the movie, most of those shown were identified as former slaves from the South.

* “Amadeus,” which portrayed the adult Mozart as juvenile and vulgar even though there is no evidence that that was his public persona.

The students were asked to detect historical inaccuracies in the film clips but found only 35 percent of them, according to the study, titled “Positive and Negative Effects of Monitoring Popular Films for Historical Inaccuracies,” which will appear in the July/August print edition of Applied Cognitive Psychology.

And, it turned out that the students who read accurate historical accounts and then watched the film clips learned just as much incorrect information as students who watched the clips but did not read the historical accounts.

“Unfortunately, students aren’t very good at catching the major historical inaccuracies in popular films, even when explicitly asked to do so,” Sharda Umanath, a doctoral student in Duke’s psychology department and lead author of the study, was quoted as saying in a Duke news release. “The difficulty of detecting the errors makes informing students about what exactly the inaccuracies are in a film absolutely vital to the learning process.”


A scene is shown from 3-D version of James Cameron’s epic "Titanic." (PARAMOUNT PICTURES VIA AP)
The Duke release notes that when the 3-D version of the 1997 blockbuster film “Titanic” is re-released in theaters April 4, movie-goers will see things that are not historically accurate. For example, the film shows First Officer William Murdoch shooting two men and shooting himself to death, though surviving crew members actually reported that Murdoch is believed to have died in the water after trying to launch lifeboats.

“These films represent a double-edged sword because students will often remember whatever information is in them, regardless of whether it is true or false,” Andrew Butler, a postdoctoral researcher in Duke’s psychology department and co-author of the study, was quoted in the release as saying.

The issue of how popular culture has affected modern perceptions was considered in the 2011 book “The End of the Holocaust,” by Alvin H. Rosenfeld.

Rosenfeld argues in part that popular films about the Holocaust, such as Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” have contributed to a miscomprehension of the Holocaust experience. In a review of Rosenfeld’s book in the Jewish Daily Forward, Lawrence Langer writes:

“...It is not surprising, therefore, to find Rosenfeld citing with little enthusiasm Rabbi Harold Schulweis’s approval of “Schindler’s List”:

...because it enables the viewer to enter the dark cavern without feeling that there is no exit…. Memory of the Holocaust is a sacred act that elicits a double mandate: to expose the depth of evil and to raise goodness from the depth of amnesia.

“Rosenfeld might have added that expressions like ‘dark cavern’ and ‘depth of evil’ belong to a rhetoric of avoidance that encourages too many commentators to extract hopeful examples from the Holocaust experience while leaving the popular imagination untouched by grim images they might otherwise find unmanageable.”

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By  |  02:43 PM ET, 03/29/2012

 
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