Churchill is Fictional

herochurchill.jpgMore than fifth of British teenagers think Winston Churchill was a fictional character.

This is from a recent poll of 3,000 teenagers by a British TV channel. Here are some of the other results.

  • 65% said King Arthur was real
  • 58% thought Sherlock Holmes was real
  • 51% assumed Robin Hood was real
  • 47% believed Eleanor Rigby from the Beatles song was a real person
  • 47% also figured King Richard the Lionheart was fictional
  • 27% labeled Florence Nightingale as a made up nurse

I’m unsure what to make of this (they’re all wrong by the way). I encourage participants in the Hero Workshop to learn from any heroes whether they’re real or not, alive or not. So for my hero sensibilities, I’m not too worried. My education sensibilities are a little rattled though. These results would suggest that movies are doing a better job of suggesting historical heroes than the education system. I know history is far from the top of the pile in schools these days as no child is allowed to be left behind… This seems correctable though.

I have some history students reading – what do you think?

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3 Responses to Churchill is Fictional

  1. Kit February 4, 2008 at 12:54 pm #

    Firstly I want to clarify , that Robin Hood was a real historical character, but the his exploits were greatly exaggerated (Matt and I agreed about this morning).

    But this does lead me onto my actual point, that films do portray historical heroes in such a manner that they can engage the mass audience, something that gets them excited. For example from what I understand from school (please correct me if I have been misinformed) , that William Wallace a la Braveheart was a very unassuming, modest, but powerful leader. Which if you watch the film is not how he was portrayed. Therefore we are not showing necessarily very valuable traits to the audience, but an angry violent patriot. The film still could have been inspirational if the director had chosen to go the for the more unassuming route, but unfortunately potential box office dollars will always deviate from these kind of decisions.

    I think Matt is right that films are doing a better job than the education system and that is sad, as they usually misrepresent important parts of history. For example the film ‘U-571’ depicts American commandos retrieving the Enigma machine to help crack German codes throughout WWII, in fact the British navy recovered documents and code books off 2 separate U-Boats 4 months before the US even entered the war, this is clearly a gross mis-representation of history, but if you ask any movie goer what happened they will happily argue that the Americans saved the day by grabbing the codes..

    Finally the issue of history in the education system is normally associated with moans and groans from the student body. I have been wanting to teach history in high schools since the age of 16 ( I am now 23) and this is almost always the reaction I have observed. History in high schools is too much on the regurgitation of facts and not enough about critical thinking. The latter has been showed by numerous studies to challenge students and thereby increase their interest, where as the former ‘puts students to sleep’. In fact film as a form of media is a great tool for history teachers as they can engage the students, by watching sensationlsit portrayals of historical events and then as a class dissect what was right and wrong about the film historically. Hopefully engaging the students in debate and forming an experience that they remember long term, rather than for the 5 minutes for their multiple choice test, which achieves nothing, apart from boredom.

    Therefore it is of no real surprise (and embarrassment, as I am British) that the British students consulted responded in such a incorrect manner, they are probably not that inspired in their history classes to challenge ‘conventional’ thoughts and have no motivation too, as the conveyance of material is done is such a way that they are not engaged. Considering only about 10% of the population are auditory learners, i.e. respond to traditional lecture format, it is no surprise that in subjects across the board students lose interest quickly.

  2. Josh Best February 5, 2008 at 2:34 pm #

    I think that budget has a lot to do with the heroification of Hollywood stars. A quick comparison of the figures will tell the tale. (Public School and Education budget figures taken from the U.S. Government Education Website, Movie figures taken from, a site that tracks dollars spent on movies in the U.S.)

    In half an hour of research, I was astounded at the disparity in the numbers. Just comparing Hollywood movies released in 2007 and the proposed 2008 education budget, the figures stack up like this:

    U.S. Education Budget 2008 (proposed) – $54.4 Billion to be split among 92,000 public schools. This breaks down to just less than $600,000 per school. Obviously each school does not get that exact amount, but we are shooting for averages.

    Money spent on films in the U.S. in 2007 – $45.3 Billion spent on 992 movies. That works out to a total of around $45.5 million spent per movie (this does not include marketing costs).

    What I am saying is that it is far easier to create a hero that kids will buy into with $45 million than it is with $600,000. Please do not take this as an indictment of the film industry. They do what they do and they do it well. The reason that they can spend so much on a movie is because they make money on those movies.

    The example that Kit used in his reply was William Wallace. Surely, it is easier for Mel Gibson to make him into the Ultimate hero with that kind of financial backing than for your average history teacher. Having said that, it is not impossible for teachers to have more of that impact, and indeed become heroes themselves in the process.

    One of the best history teachers that I had was in tenth grade. I remember vividly that he came to school dressed as George Washington during the week that we were learning about the presidents. Not only did this solidify my knowledge of George Washington and all of his heroic contributions to the foundations of our country, but also it lifted that particular teacher up in my mind as someone who was willing to go above and beyond to teach kids.

    What this says to me is that if teachers are allowed to take the time, that they can impart this knowledge of heroes in a way that will allow kids to remember the accurate facts. None of this Eleanor Rigby nonsense (although, I do love that song). The inherent problem was put best, I think, by Aaron Romoslawski. He said, “Because of no child left behind, I barely know the names of my A and B Students. I have probably talked with them and told them they were doing a good job. My D and E students on the other hand, I know them, their parents, their dog, where they live and their biref life history.”

    What this tells me is that teacher are spending so much time fufiling requirements of a policy that, to be effective, should have a budget three times its size, that they are spending vurtiually no time teaching. This can be seen as an indictment of the education system. If teachers were given the tools and the time to teach effectively, they could rival any Hollywood movie in terms of forming heroes in student’s minds.

  3. Matt Langdon February 6, 2008 at 9:52 am #

    Thanks for the comments guys. You obviously put some time into them. I appreciate it.