The Hollywood View of History

Many of my students suffer from what I call “The Hollywood View of History.” This term stands for an approach where students expect that a discussion of any historical event will end with “. . . and then the US stepped in and saved the good guys from evildoers!”

To give just one example, I have to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining that “No, the US didn’t help Bartolome de Las Casas liberate the indigenous peoples of the Americas from slavery in the XVIth century.” This is why when I teach the Spanish Civil War I repeat many times (and write on the board, and make everybody say it aloud) that “The US refused to help the Spanish Republicans to defend the legitimate democratically elected government from the fascists. The Republicans were helped only by the USSR and the International Brigades, consisting of volunteers from all over the world.” (Please don’t argue with me about this because I don’t have much energy for stupidity right now.)

Still, 70% students wrote on our first mini-quiz that “the US helped the Republicans to defend themselves from the fascists and the Soviet Union.”

Another issue was that, even though I said many times that the Spanish Republicans of the 1930s have nothing in common with the US Republicans, many students wrote “The Republicans in Spain were conservative fascists.” Republican = conservative is their way of applying the worldview that is familiar to them to other countries.

You have no idea how annoyed I am with the Spanish Republicans for not choosing some other appellation. They should have thought of how hard it would be for me to teach the Civil War to Americans in 2012! Those inconsiderate bastards.

P.S. This is an advanced course on Spanish culture and all students are expected to speak, read and write fluently in Spanish. Please stop writing me emails saying that students misunderstand what I say in class because I speak in Spanish. I have already answered half a dozen of these emails and I can’t take it any longer. I teach advanced courses in Spanish this year. These courses have a butt-load of pre-requisites and everybody speaks Spanish in them. Nobody becomes a Major in Spanish without speaking Spanish. Our language program is outstanding and our students have a very good level of Spanish. This is not a linguistic problem but an ideological one. Let’s just deal with this reality and move on already.

11 thoughts on “The Hollywood View of History

  1. If ‘Deutschland’ can be translated into English as ‘Germany’, maybe the Spanish word translated as ‘Republican’ should be arbitrarily translated as something else in English. (NO! Those words are NOT cognates!! Or some such.)


    1. It’s actually very important that the Spanish Republicans are Republicans and not anything else. They fought on the side of the 2nd Republic, that was absolutely crucial to their identity and it still is to the survivors and their descendants.


      1. Besides which, the people who were fighting them were monarchists, and eventually did restore the monarchy after Franco popped his clogs. So not only were they Republicans, they were republicans.


  2. When in high school (very long ago) an English teacher had us read an essay by S. I. Hayakawa in which he tells how his students viewed the Spanish Civil War. They thought that the Loyalists and Republicans had united against the Fascists and Communists. Goes to show why it’s good to pick an honorific-sounding name for your group.


  3. ‘kay. I gotta stop just quoting my most cackling laughter generating lines of yours, but, I just laugh too rarely lately, it’s just delightful to read this: ” They should have thought of how hard it would be for me to teach the Civil War to Americans in 2012! Those inconsiderate bastards.”

    Thank you, again. 🙂


  4. This post goes a long way towards providing a rational explanation for why American foreign policy is as insane as it is.

    These are ADVANCED students, remember. Within a year or two some of them may (because of their language qualifications) apply for (and get) jobs in the US diplomatic service. After a couple of years they may be sending foreign polcy memos to Washington.

    Be afraid. Be very afraid,


  5. You’re totally right, and I like your name for it. “The Hollywood view of history.” Probably because our schools don’t teach history in a very systematic way — there’s very little before high school, and once you get to high school the quality varies and the content is massively US-centric. (My high school history courses: European history, US history, and US government, which was also kind of a history class in that it dealt with historical reasons the US government functions as it does — these classes were good, as far as they went, but the only non-US one, European history, did not get very far into the 20th century before the school year ended. We were really only able to cover the two World Wars. The Spanish Civil War was not mentioned at all, I don’t think.)


  6. Really amazing if these are advanced students that they’d just assume that the word “Republican” as used in a different country means the same thing as its use in the United States. Also amazing they’d think that America saved the day all over the place.


  7. O! That reminds me: my history teacher (full disclosure: the best teach I had in high school, and my favourite subject) explicitly explained the development of the US civil rights movement. He even mentioned it would make an excellent exam question. And still my classmates were horrified at the ‘difficult questions on the development of the US civil rights movement’.

    Yes, if only he had announced it more clearly…

    Some people just can’t be helped.


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