‘Learning With the Lights Off’ examines textbooks on celluloid
It’s probably safe to say that most American students, especially baby boomers, had their first exposure to documentaries through educational films shown in their grade school and high school classrooms.
Remember “Hemo the Magnificent,” Frank Capra’s jazzy, partially animated documentary on the workings of the human circulatory system? Or remember those gory, scared-straight cautionary films about drinking and driving, featuring gruesome footage from fatal car crashes?
While many of us suspected that audio-visual offerings were used by teachers to catch a break from classroom duties and to keep squirming pupils occupied for a quiet hour or so, educational films in fact have a long and respected place in the annuls of public education.
That place is chronicled in scholarly, somewhat dry detail in the book “Learning With the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States” (Oxford University Press, $34.95). This weighty, 544-page tome – edited by professors Devin and Marsha Orgeron and David Streible – collects 22 essays by education wonks examining the vastly influential role that non-fiction films, seen in classrooms by millions of people, played in defining 20th century values and preoccupations.
A far cry from the slick Hollywood films that saturate popular culture, educational films were generally released in 16mm format and covered a gamut of practical classroom issues from personal health to public safety to race relations and the inner workings of government.
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