Real History, Real Education, Real Merit - or Why Is "Forrest Gump" So Popular?

Article excerpt

In this recent dialogue about history and history education I am most struck by the fact that there is so much that I just don't understand. Why do so many people agree with the critics of social history? It's a little like the fact that I don't understand the incredible popularity of "Forrest Gump." The majority of my fellow citizens, the very people who apparently do not like my history, already have their own copy of the movie on video. When asked why the story appeals to them, I imagine they point to the joyful innocence and generosity of the central character, the loving determination of his mother, and the fairy tale quality of his adventures. They see a film that - unlike the history I offer - reinforces the Christian perspectives and "family values" of our culture, a new version of the "American Dream."

Skeptics, the group I belong to, the apparent minority, find fault with all of the above and see the characters as stereotypes playing out a simplistic, anti-intellectual fantasy that mocks our educational, political and entrepreneurial processes and institutions. Perhaps I have overstated the pros and cons of the film. There can, of course, be less extreme reactions. But whether a fan or a skeptic, you do have to admit that the movie, for a new version of the "American Dream," is full of contradictions: Forrest Gump does not get the girl, and his son is another "Little Man Tate."

Are you having difficulty following my logic? I shall explain. You see I had tears in my eyes with everyone else when Forrest woke up to find Jenny gone and again when Forrest took such delight in his very intelligent little boy. But these touching shifts in the plot contradict the apparent message of the film. If Jenny left him, what happened to the rewards Forrest should have earned for his good Christian heart and lifetime of loyalty? And weren't we supposed to applaud our American hero's success despite his lack of intelligence by traditional measurements? Forrest was "special." If so, what happened to the "anti-intellectualism" of the film if the happy ending is Forrest's discovery that he has a brilliant son? Did I go dewy-eyed over the wrong turns of events? And then there are the biggest contradictions of all, the basic "mantras" of the film. Just how does "you make your own destiny, Forrest" reconcile with the serendipitous nature of "Life is just a box of chocolates"?

I guess my confusion about the film centers on those two sentences. They actually sound familiar; statements of underlying values, however contradictory, that perhaps explain why the film speaks to so many people. As a good social historian, I want to know what they signify. What do people in the United States hear in those words that they find so appealing, so "real"? To be more specific, after nearly thirty years as an educator and historian, how can those sentences help me better understand popular assaults on so much of what I value in my work, and so much that I believe about teaching and writing history? For it seems to me that the people who like the movie are the same outraged citizens who call in to talk radio shows and write angry "My Turn" pieces in Newsweek. They are the same grassroots opposition who support the conservative attacks on social history.

To appreciate my views on the current debates you need to know that I come to my liberal/educational reformer/feminist social history perspective from very traditional and privileged beginnings - beginnings that probably mirror those of the academic and government leaders who so harshly criticize what I do. The California public system, a private girl's school in New York, and an elite women's college gave me an education that would have delighted William J. Bennett, Diane Ravitch, Chester E. Finn Jr., and Lynne V. Cheney. Father Serra was a hero to us and to his mission Indians; the fourth grade trip to the Los Angeles County Museum showed an upright Tyrranosaurus Rex; Latin was a required subject; and I had parts in Shakespeare's Richard II and Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis in high school. …