Photo courtesy of Alex Mcaulliffe

To compare dry lessons about names, dates and events in a history course with a dramatized, for-profit television program based on names, dates and historical events is to miss the point of studying history. There are indeed many great and worthwhile reasons for people to study history, of their own culture and that of others, but to be told the fates of a set of characters in a memorable way is not high on that list.

Studying history allows a person to think more critically about the stories that they are told, and see how the shaping of those narratives by the powerful bolsters the status quo.

Studying history allows a person to understand that “our present is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine,” as Yuval Noah Hirari wrote in his book “Sapiens.”

Studying history allows a person to see that “history” is a selective cultural memory that should never be accepted as handed down. I am glad to hear that you were interested enough to fact check “Medici” — yet any good history teacher worth his salt would encourage you to read more deeply and look for multiple perspectives.

The best prestige drama imaginable will never take a contrarian or alternative approach to a historical period because they exist to make profits. They will tell you about the Borgias as re-enacted people, but are unlikely to show how the concentrated wealth and influence of the city-states, combined with the curiosity and greed spurred by Columbus’s discovery of the New World, led to the rise of multiple European capitalist empires within such a little
space of time.

“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one,” wrote Ray Bradbury in “Fahrenheit 451.”“Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war … Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn was grown in Iowa last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.”

Dramas are an even more persuasive and “real”-feeling way than textbooks to learn the facts and minutiae of the past without necessitating the development of an eye for historical manipulation, the signs of a real story swept under the rug, the historical trends and forces in play that are larger than the any of the specific individuals in question.

I understand that for many at this school in particular, the idea of studying history seriously sounds like a grievously misplaced opportunity cost — time and effort most probably better spent working out or studying math and science or networking for professional life. That is all fine and good, and there is definitely a benefit in making a rational decision to opt for one course of action over another.

Yet I fear that to write off the study of all past human lives as told by the people who lived them in favor of those that re-create it with as much shock and pomp and circumstance as possible is a grave mistake.

By all means, continue with enjoying prestige TV dramatizations of historical events — I confess that I do too, at times. But please do not confuse entertainment with education, or a linear story presented in one television-ready and accessible way with the real, tumultuous, multi-faceted history of what is being shown that actually occurred.

*This article was a response to an editorial piece, “TV dramas make history tolerable”*

  • Mary Ann Burney Allen

    I both agree and disagree with your argument. Dramas of history are definitely not the same as living history. They are always told by a point of view. But then everything is. Even if I witness the same even as someone else, the way that I would tell it is based on MY history.

    But histories sell. Shakespeare knew it and Hollywood knows it. And we need to make them interesting if we are going to hook people in. But these dramas should only be a first step for the study of history. See a show or movie you like, go read more on those characters. Try and go to museums and look at artifacts from that time. You might find things are different. But it gets you involved in history. And you might learn great stuff that you never knew before. I know that I’m really amazed by “Hidden Figures”. Who knew that many women worked in the Space program and that a fair number of them were African American?!