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Selma: Teaching Critical Skills

If it’s current and controversial, it’s a lesson plan.  

The controversy that caught my eye this week was the complaints of historical inaccuracy leveled against the movie, Selma, which tells the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s  1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.

In the December 26 Washington Post, Joseph A. Califano Jr., President Lyndon Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969, takes issue specifically with the film showing Johnson “only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.” Califano says that tapes of telephone conversations between Johnson and King show the two men as collaborators, not adversaries.

Mark K. Updegrove, historian and director of the L.B.J. Presidential Library and Museum, concedes in Politico that director Ava DuVernay gets many things right about the march, but feels the movie is lax in “faithfully capturing the pivotal relationship—contentious, the film would have you believe—between King and President Lyndon Baines Johnson.”

Weighing opposing views and considering evidence from multiple sources is a cornerstone of being a thoughtful citizen and voter. Common Core refers to this standard as the “integration of knowledge and ideas” and requires students to “evaluate authors' differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors' claims, reasoning, and evidence.”

Indeed, analyzing Selma in light of the two opposing points of view of the same historical event asks students to assess not only Selma director Ava DuVernay’s artistic, personal, and historical position, but also asks them to consider primary sources such as archival news coverage, interviews, Dr. King and LBJ’s recorded telephone conversations, and public records in an attempt to understand the whole story. While students should not learn their history from movies or novels, the film serves as a great discussion engine for subjects like non-violent activism, Dr. King, and the civil rights movement. 

But the real occasion I see in the Selma controversy is the opportunity to teach a student to think independently.  When I taught in a conservative rural school, most kids spouted conservative chestnuts.   Now that I’m teaching in a large, liberal urban school, most of my students think in liberal clichés.  Neither group of students practiced the critical skills necessary for a healthy electorate of thinkers. 

Our duty as teachers is to arm students with the tools to analyze these controversies and to recognize and examine their own biases. It’s also our duty to poise good questions on which to gnaw. What are the limits of artistic license? Do the storyteller’s objectives outweigh the facts of history? How are facts interpreted in a work of art? Does a fictional medium have a duty to teach history to people who won’t get it anywhere else? What are the writing challenges of cultivating a legend into a complex character, warts and all?

These questions don’t render well into A, B, C, or D.  Young minds need to wade through and muck around in an argument for a while to make sense of it. Teaching students to develop their own arguments or to parse another’s may be the single biggest lesson they will ever learn and the most important lesson you will ever teach.  Here are a few ways to teach students to be critical thinkers:

  • Cultivate both an open and kind mind.  Teach kids how to be neutral and fair while determining the validity of the arguments on both sides of an issue. Viewing issues with candor and objectivity is a skill most students must learn and practice often.
  • Reflect on your personal bias. Teach kids how to recognize their own superstitions and sentimentalities.  If you want to canonize Dr. King, do you immediately reject DuVernay’s directorial choice to show him smoking and involved in extra-marital affairs? If you want to demonize LBJ, are you likely to celebrate the film’s depiction of him as an obstacle, not a champion, to civil rights?
  • Find credible research. The internet is the best/worst thing out there.  Yes, I can find a treasure trove of public documents, but I can also find propaganda and revisionist fairy tales from every nut on the planet. Kids need to know the earmarks of credibility, so teach them. 
  • Listen to the people who were actually present in history when an event occurred.  Are there primary documents, such as letters or diaries, which corroborate the historical validity of the film’s claims?   What does Representative John Lewis, who actually marched in Selma 50 years ago, think of the movie’s portrayal of the event? 
  • Ask questions.  Why would two people aligned with LBJ be outraged by a less-than-accurate portrayal of the President? What challenges did DuVernay face by compressing a 13 year struggle into a two-hour movie?

DuVernay, who tweeted last week in response to Califano’s article, perhaps said it best: “Bottom line is folks should interrogate history. Don't take my word for it or LBJ rep's word for it. Let it come alive for yourself.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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