The History Channel and History Education
Libby Haight O'Connell, October 1995
The History Channel, part of A&E Television Networks, is a 24-hour-a-day programming service that began broadcasting in January 1995. It features original documentaries, special miniseries, and historical movies in its nightly prime-time schedule. Part of the History Channel's mission is to raise awareness about the vitality of history, promote history education, and encourage the preservation of historic archives and sites.
Professional historians have helped the channel achieve its goals. The History Channel, for example, features a debunking session, hosted by Sander Vanocur, when it shows Hollywood's historical movies and miniseries in Movies in Time. Recognizing that many members of the public depend on Hollywood's interpretation of the past, the History Channel gives historians a chance to respond to the silver screen. Professor Lawrence Stone appeared on one debunking session, commenting on The Private Life of Henry VIII. Other historian-commentators have included Eric Foner on The Blue and the Gray, Gordon Wood on George Washington, Cynthia Whittaker on Catherine the Great, and Steve Gillon on RFK. This fall Richard Slotkin will speak on Daniel Boone, Gerhard Weinberg on Inside the Third Reich, and Simon Schama on Napoleon.
Every Sunday morning, starting in October, the History Channel will feature History on Campus, a series of lectures produced at different universities and colleges around the country. Marjorie Spruill of the University of Southern Mississippi, Joseph Kett and Cindy Aron of the University of Virginia, Kenneth Lockridge of the University of Montana, Peter Stearns of Carnegie Mellon University, and James Banks of Cayuga Community College are just a few of the participants.
Although the History Channel is aimed at a general audience, a number of its programs are excellent resources for senior high school and undergraduate history studies. Every weekday night at 7 p.m. the channel runs Year by Year, a compilation of news reels from a specific year in the 20th century. The program is hosted by Karen Stone. Starting with the week of November 6, for example, there will be an hour of newsreels from each of the following years: 1929, 1941, 1953, 1957, and 1966. The newsreels are a compelling primary source, not only for the subjects covered but also for what is left out of them. Where are the African Americans? By and large, they are invisible. And American women, outside of Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart, seem to spend their entire day trying on hats—unless they are riveting for the war effort. (Of course, riveters always stop to powder their noses, so the public should not think they have lost their femininity.)
The History Channel also produces Year by Year for Kids, aimed at elementary school children. Along with animated history narratives, such as Christopher Columbus, The North Americans, and The Discoverers, it composes the History for Kids time block on Saturday mornings. Quite a change from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers!
Every morning at 9 a.m. (EST), the History Channel offers History in the Classroom, which features documentaries run without commercial interruption. The documentaries may be taped for classroom use, with all rights released for one year. The programs range from a social history of the Empire State Building to The Crusades, a four-hour British production that premiered this spring in prime time. One of the channel's best documentaries, Blood and Iron, a history of the German war machine, will premiere at 8 p.m. on October 30 and 31 and November 1. It is an international production, using German archival footage that has not been seen before in North America. Blood and Iron will also air on History in the Classroom later this year.
To support History in the Classroom, the History Channel produces classroom activities for high school teachers. Thanks to the recommendation of Theodore Rabb, president of the National Council for History Education, the History Channel invited Henry Kiernan, director of curriculum for West Morris Township High School, in New Jersey, to write the teaching materials for The Crusades. The materials will be sent free of charge to 20,000 participating teachers in the United States. Teachers may also receive a six-month calendar for History in the Classroom programs and support materials for several other documentaries. Because of the exceptional scholarship that has gone into The Crusades and Blood and Iron, these documentaries are also appropriate for university-level courses.
A note for those who despair about the future of history, who wonder if anyone outside the academic village really cares. We at the History Channel are overwhelmed by the response from our viewers. About 5 million people receive the History Channel—only a twelfth of the possible cable audience. Yet we are inundated by letters. A few people delight in pointing out mistakes, and some people write to mention their personal role in an event that has been documented in a recent program. The large majority, however, simply want to engage in a conversation about a historical topic that is near to their hearts and minds for a variety of reasons. We knew people took history seriously, but we never predicted this response.
The History Channel would like to extend its appreciation to all of the historians who have supported it in its first year. The channel is in its infancy. Errors will be made, alas. But the network owes a debt of gratitude to all of you who have consulted, commented, criticized, and researched. Those who would like more information about the History Channel, History in the Classroom, or History on Campus should write or call Libby Haight O'Connell, History Channel, 235 E. 45th St., New York, NY 10017. (212) 210-1402. Those who would like to receive the History Channel should call their cable operators.
—Libby Haight O'Connell is the historical consultant for A&E Television Networks and the History Channel.