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An “Historic” Media Literacy Conference

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Date posted: July 29, 2011

At last week’s National Association for Media Literacy Education’s conference in Philadelphia, we were visited by several historical characters, ranging from members of the Continental Army to Jefferson and Franklin. It makes one wonder how much of our understanding of the “Founding Fathers” and the historical era around the American Revolution is accurate and how much was created by the media, be it books from 200 years ago or miniseries like HBO’s recent John Adams.

We know that many of the myths about George Washington came from a hagiographic biography by Parson Weems in 1800. Weems thought that stories like chopping down the cherry tree would endow Washington with clear virtues that the general population should emulate.

Washington, himself, was acutely aware of the symbolic nature of even the smallest decisions—the clothes he wore, the carriage he rode in, the way he was addressed—and, as president, consciously chose to appear dignified, as befits the office of president, without looking regal.

The story we normally tell of the founding of our nation glosses over several unpleasant truths, such as the contradiction between a declaration that all men are created equal and a Constitution that includes slavery and denies women the right to vote.

Thoman-and-FranklinIt is interesting to see how the Revolution is portrayed in the city where the United States was born, looking at iconic symbols like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, at how tour guides tell the story, and how historical figures are represented by modern day “actors.” How can you give the flavor of the times, and tell a complicated story that played out over a number of years, to a group of tourists with fidgety kids and limited amounts of time?

It’s another way to look at media literacy. Who is telling the story? What is their intent? What techniques are they using to deliver the message? How do you, or others, understand and make meaning of it?

I have to say the visits by Mr. Franklin and Mr. Jefferson were quite interesting. The gentlemen were from History First Hand in Philadelphia and they really knew their stuff. They carried on conversations with many media-savvy educators, conveyed a sense of what these men might have been like, conversed about the issues of 1776 without oversimplifying or sugar coating then, all without breaking character. Very enjoyable and thought provoking.

With this being the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and thousands of reenactors at Manassas, VA, recently reenacting the first major battle of that war, it will be interesting to see if we carefully reexamine the causes, losses, outcomes, and lasting impact of the conflict, or whether we go through the next four years buried under romantic notions and superficial understandings of our nation’s most bloody conflict.