Decolonizing my social studies classroom (one film at a time)

In my world geography course, my students know that I have one golden rule: don't bore me, and I'll try my darndest not to bore you. Using current events alone, it's relatively easy to find a hundred bits of interesting information about other places and spaces and repackage it all in sensationalist terms. Obviously, everyone "loves" a crisis (that isn't happening to them). If you can (at worst) get students to learn a little bit about another place while talking about its problems, or (at best) help them learn to treat each new country as a separate entity with a complex narrative ... that's probably more than they'll glean from their regular diet of news headlines on Facebook trending.

But teaching history is a bit trickier.

Satirical Stereotype Map of the World (source)
First, at the secondary level, there's this inconvenient and unfortunate reality that by the end of the year, most classes never get much past the unit on WWII. Obviously, several important things have happened since then;  a lot more than can be compressed in a rushed four week treatment of American military escapades or the U.S. civil rights movement at the end of term. But, more importantly, when the lens is moved slightly outward from the center of North America, the same period of history is suddenly revealed to be an era of rapid globalization and decolonization, of an increasingly industrializing and democratizing global south, of countless multipolar tectonic shifts that cannot be tamed or explained by the stubby historical measuring stick of the Cold War. Ironically, this temporally cramped, myopic focus on robust American political and cultural activities during the same period paints a picture that is in itself protectionist, de-globalizing, and re-colonizing. So, right, exactly the opposite of the emerging global reality. And worst of all ... it's boring.

How can one expect American students to be interested in a world that is defined only in relationship to perceived U.S. wins or losses? Yes, at first glance, this may *seem* the best way to make a foreign culture relevant to a person firmly planted in their home culture, but this is really the pedagogical equivalent of a person feigning public interest in a romantic partner who apparently has no other life outside the romance. Sure, the chemistry might be there, the power dynamics might be exciting, but what are you going to talk about afterward? The weather?

Literally the first result when you search the
year 1963 on Google Images (source)
Furthermore, learning about JFK's assassination for the umpteenth time may be useful in civics class, but it's the height of folly to assume that (A) students will still care at that point of mindless repetition, and (B) that this one, single, event in American history is more important to talk about than other events happening the same year everywhere else.

For example, three far-reaching events that also occurred in 1963:  

*Josip Broz Tito named President for Life in Yugoslavia

*Police raids in South Africa capture numerous African National Congress leaders, including Nelson Mandela

*The first Bond film, "Dr. No" is released in the U.S.

But, why should students be interested in these events any more than the death of a president they never knew?

For some, it's enough to draw the cause and effect connections across the temporal landscape:

1. Tito remained in a sort of benevolent dictatorial power until his death in 1980. His demise is generally considered the beginning of the process of Balkan fragmentation and the rise of ethnic nationalism that generated the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

2. Mandela remained imprisoned for the next 27 years, the ANC went further underground (and out of SA entirely), and eventually emerged as the primary negotiating partner in the development of the new post-Apartheid constitution in 1993. Of course, though it's maintained its majority representation in the South African parliament, and remains for many the party of Black liberation and Mandela, the ANC has been constantly beset by corruption and legal charges against its most prominent representatives in the last 15 years--most recently--with the accusations of state capture and the constitutional court ruling against the current president, Jacob Zuma.

3. 26 Bond films have been released to date, and could there really be another film series that better reflects the the new retro-European ideal of neocolonial power? Certainly, one couldn't find another franchise that beats Bond in illustrating the mythologization of Western intelligence services in the Information Age.

But for the other 9 out of 10 students, these correlations will mean nothing at first. A long collapsed Yugoslavia and a genocide that happened in a mythical time (today's high school students were born after 1995) means nothing to them.

What *might* mean something to them is that they've heard and hummed the James Bond theme their entire life, and maybe they like the movies. Or maybe they DON'T "get" the movies, but are kind of curious about the phenomenon itself.

Entertainment is personally relevant. Entertainment entertains. 

Or, to give another example, the first image above is from Half of a Yellow Sun (Nigeria, 2013). Significance to world literature or film aside, there's nothing like some drunk postcolonial sociology to make a film worth seeing. If you're a sociology nerd. For most non-Nigerians, the heart-rending personal stories within the story are what might make it worth giving up a Friday night at a Marvel film ... not the social commentary. BUT, the social commentary and unique cultural points of view are still there to be absorbed, nonetheless.

So, instead of asking my students to read a textbook and take history tests chock full of dates they will forget tomorrow, I decided to design a curriculum that would take students through the years of 1945 to 2016 movie by movie, one pop culture moment after another, with political scandals and propaganda in scores, and without confining ourselves to the casually self-centered historical comfort zone of American life.

It's still a work in progress, but it's been quite an interesting two years of teaching this course ... to say the least. I've found a lot of things that work, and a lot of things that don't, and over the next few months, I'm going to write about it; focusing on the pop-culture items, documentaries, and discussions from around the world that I've employed to try to make the scary places outside our American borders (A) personal, and (B) interesting to my world history students.

I hope you enjoy!

Note: I am a tutor who teaches middle school and high school classes at a small academy in the Twin Cities, MN, that provides non-traditional students with a part-time, private-school-esque experience. Thus, I have a bit more room to experiment and to develop curriculum than the average public school professional.


  1. I really like the satirical stereotypical map of the world and I do hope the movies reflect those stereotypes. It would be dreadful to find they weren't true. :-)

    1. SSW, yes I only allow stereotype reinforcing cinema in my classroom. Obviously, American kids only know how to talk about India in reference to cows, caste, and crazy Bollywood numbers. Or maybe poverty.

      Seriously, though, often I start my world geo classes with kids writing their stereotypes of a place on the white board as fast as they can. Then we "wait and see" if the mental image tracks with what they study.

  2. I'm glad you noticed the smiley.In 1984 when P T Usha from India was placed 4th in the 400m hurdles Judi Brown the American lady who won the silver medal said she was shocked that a woman from India actually competed in sports, "I thought they were in purdah" was her comment.
    You can see the race here.
    Usha was and still is probably India's greatest athlete and she had just started running the 400 metre hurdles, you can see her technique is faulty in the video.
    Ayway some of us were a bit confused about that remark. We knew we had millions in India who were illiterate and ignorant, but we did think that people in the US had access to a better education.

    But then India did not fit very comfortably into the US scene then just as Korea (both North and South) did not fit well into the average Indian's ken then so we are all even steven.
    In 1984 I guess to most Indians all Americans looked like Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford and occasionally Lionel Ritchie sang.


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