Politics & Policy

History as Entertainment

A cable channel walks the line between education and vulgarization.

Is it possible to make good entertainment out of good scholarship?

This is the question that History, formerly and more aptly named the History Channel, embodies. For the lover of history, the channel perplexes and pleases, infuriates and educates, entertains and, yes, vulgarizes. The question: Is History good for the public’s legendarily abysmal historical literacy? Or does it bear some responsibility for that lamentable state of affairs?

Shows like The Presidents and Engineering an Empire, and documentaries like The Link (about the recent and purported “missing link” primate fossil named Ida), are all first-rate. The problem is that these shows swim in a sea of ahistoric and unhistorical programming. We’re not talking just about Ice Road Truckers, a fairly compelling and well-done reality show, but also dreadful series like UFO Files and MonsterQuest, as well as endless documentaries on Nostradamus, Atlantis, the coming apocalypse, and all manner of pseudo-science.

#ad#Consider Life After People, a popular series that indulges the apocalyptic mindset while pushing a none-too-subtle left-wing environmental agenda, all with the cheesy, computer-generated graphics that make even good History programs look like cheap video games from 1997. Life After People purports to explain — via interviews with experts — what will happen to man’s edifices after the last human has vanished. The cause of said vanishing is seldom explicitly stated, but is nonetheless clear: global warming (oops, sorry, “climate change”). The show simply assumes that climate change is real and catastrophic, and moves on to what will happen to the Statue of Liberty after we’ve fried or drowned.

My own enjoyment of History has proven scattershot. I delighted in The Dark Ages; I scratched my head over Modern Marvels: BBQ Tech. Often I have caught glaring historical errors. For example, I once observed a narrator discussing the practice of human sacrifice among the Maya while the screen showed an Aztec form of that gruesome ritual. A harmless enough error, I suppose, but the show proceeded to confuse in ways large and small the two civilizations — which are not the same and (despite some overlap) flourished in different geographic and temporal spaces in pre-Columbian North America.

When it comes to history, I am strictly a consumer (though a voracious one), so I decided to consult some heavy-hitters on the subject: Victor Davis Hanson and Susan Wise Bauer.

Hanson is a renowned classicist, the author of great books such as Who Killed Homer? (co-authored with John Heath) and Carnage and Culture, and a columnist and political commentator who contributes to NR and NRO.

Hanson is, to my surprise, relatively sanguine about History. Overall, he finds the standards of the channel “quite good,” and he has generally been happy with his own interactions with the channel. He reminded me of the days when there were great popularizers of science who were also great scholars, such as Carl Sagan. In the absence of such figures today, Hanson says, History is providing a valuable service by “filling that void,” or at least trying to.

Hanson cannot help but lament the historical illiteracy of today’s youth. He feels that History’s heavy use of video game–like graphics may be an effort to reach a young audience. I asked him if it was better to have high-quality history programming unwatched by kids or low-quality history that they do watch. “I don’t have an answer to that,” he said, pointing out that how much to “vulgarize” has been long debated among academics. In his own work, he reckons he has often chosen to err on the side of popularizing.

He does find the trend toward monster shows and reality programming “troubling,” and feels that the network was better when it showed more World War II documentaries (back then, it was often derided as the Hitler Channel). But Hanson confesses that some of the reality shows are quite engaging.

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Susan Wise Bauer, professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, also has a mixed view of History. I became aware of her misgivings while reading her excellent book The History of the Ancient World, a footnote in which makes a somewhat less-than-favorable mention of the channel. I e-mailed Bauer about that footnote. Her answer:

Well . . . I wouldn’t say it’s been “more harmful” than not. I’m glad that viewers can tune into the History Channel on a quiet night rather than being stuck with a SciFi Original Movie. But I do think that TV lends itself to events/wars/biographies much more naturally than to ideas. Documentaries on WWII battles or Julius Caesar or the bubonic plague can be entertaining and enlightening. But programs that try to deal with ideas tend to look for some sort of sexy viewer hook which is often distorted, or outdated and discredited. I think I’d just seen one when I wrote that footnote.

#ad#I don’t think the professor is being entirely fair here, at least in regards to the quantity of idea related programming on History. The Universe is an excellent series almost exclusively devoted to cutting-edge ideas in physics and cosmology, even if those fields are more accurately called science than history. Still, her point that History often presents ideas from silly angles, often to the detriment of the subject, is well taken.

In the end, History is probably a good thing. And who knows? Maybe all those reality shows are part of a brilliant bait-and-switch ploy on the part of the network’s programmers; perhaps they hope that someone will tune in to Tougher In Alaska and find himself mesmerized by a promo for more educational programming.

That is my hope. Now if you’ll excuse me, they’re about to catch a sea monster in Lake Champlain. And I know it’s real, because it’s on the History channel.

Matt Patterson is a National Review Institute Washington fellow and the author of Union of Hearts: The Abraham Lincoln & Ann Rutledge Story.

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