Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Learning History -- the Glenn Beck Way

If you spend any time watching Glenn Beck's show on Fox, you know this -- he's not a historian, but he plays one on TV.  Kinda.

Americans tend to disappoint when it comes to most kinds of knowledge (history, geography, math, politics, etc.) but we're pretty damn good when it comes to identifying the judges on American Idol, so it's good to know our priorities are right.

Beck is a fascinating guy.  He's even had a New York Times magazine cover article about him, so you know he ranks.  He's not all that educated, but he's got the TV show and the glasses down on his nose and the whole professorial thing going for him -- if he doesn't break into tears.  So the question for me is, when it comes to what people know, are folks actually learning history from Glenn Beck?  Some have criticized Beck's take on history or some of the historians he's promoted on his Fox program.  That's an important topic, whether he relies too heavily on what some call a "master revisionist." 

But a lot of what Beck talks about, outside the wacky conspiracy theories, is straightforward history that many of us haven't talked about or thought about since high school civics class.  Founding Fathers stuff.  Set aside he's occasionally off the reservation in how he (or guests) interpret those bygone days and let's wonder -- since we don't have data -- whether any actual learning about history may be taking place among viewers of his Fox News program.

I'm guessing ... yes.  Good learning, such as names and dates and stuff like that, and bad learning as well as people buy into the crazier of the interpretations offered on the show. 

So what we have here is a Win-Lose situation.  Winning, in that people are exposed to history, and lose, in that people are exposed to some of the weirder versions of history.  All in all, I think the end result is a good one.  But as I said, we have no actual data on this.  No one, as far as I know, has surveyed only Beck viewers to see how much they know about history before and after the programs.  And of course it gets all mixed up in the Tea Party's creative interpretation of history and the founding of the nation and what's constitutional.  Given Beck is a patron saint of the movement, it'd be hard to disentangle what people knew before or after viewing his program.

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