A Biography of America

By Herbes-Sommers, Christine | American Heritage, October 2000 | Go to article overview

A Biography of America


Herbes-Sommers, Christine, American Heritage


IT'S ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE TO TELL OUR NATIONAL STORY ON TELEVISION, EVEN IF YOU'VE GOT 13 HOURS AT YOUR DISPOSAL. THREE PEOPLE WHO DID IT EXPLAIN HOW--AND WHY.

An Interview With Donald L. Miller and Douglas Brinkley

DURING THE FALL OF 1997, our production team at WGBH-TV, Boston's Public Broadcasting System station, began developing a television project that would capture the sweep of American history with, we hoped, real rigor and drama. We knew we wanted to merge the art of master teaching with television's powerful visual and narrative techniques, but that was as far as our planning had gone--when I suddenly recalled the image of a man and a moment. * The man was a hard-edged history professor, unsmiling but not humorless, ferociously intimidating to us freshmen. He would unfailingly begin his classes with a ritual. Without a word, he'd approach the desk at the front of the room, unbutton his left shirtsleeve, unbuckle the worn alligator band of his watch, and prop the watch on the desk. He would rebutton his shirtsleeve, sit down, and fold his hands. His gray eyes would squint into the room, and he'd break the silence. You would be brought to attention by the precision and studied drama of these movements, knowing the power of the mind behind them.

I never missed his class, but I was sorely tempted one beautiful May day. Freshmen libidos were running hot, and the life of the mind was simply not all that compelling.

The topic of that day's lecture was World War II. The professor entered the room and went through his ritual, but with one difference. He didn't sit behind his desk. He sat on its front corner and leaned into the room. "Ladies and gentlemen, today we will think about war. We will think about one war. We will think about what it was like to oppose that war when there was every reason to support it." He made a sharp intake of breath and squeezed the bridge of his nose. "I am a Quaker. And I was a pacifist during World War II. It was the most awful time of my life, and here is what it was like." The May morning dropped away.

A man and a memory. The personal infused with the universal, by a master teacher. A moment of illumination for a group of college students.

Could this kind of experience be captured on video for college students as well as for a wider television audience? And could it be done not just for one program--one class--but for two full semesters? That was our challenge in developing and ultimately producing a series of 26 half-hour videos covering the full arc of the American story and supported by the World Wide Web and print.

WGBH-TV received funding for this series from the Washington-based Annenberg/CPB, a partnership between the Annenberg Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We all shared a vision: to assemble a "dream team" made up of the Library of Congress, the National Archives, a major textbook publisher, and prominent historians from across the country.

We believed there was a real need. "It's time to tell the whole American story in a new way, to bring traditional themes together with new scholarship," Michele Korf, the executive producer and director of educational programming at WGBH, insisted.

We knew too that there were intellectual land mines everywhere. The study of American history had been under siege for years. The pendulum had swung from the right to the left--from a narrative dominated by dead white males to multicultural, gender-sensitive social histories--and we were somewhat heartened by the general sense that it was now hovering somewhere near the middle. But we weren't looking for a homogenized consensus; what we envisioned involved risks.

The core production team came together at WGBH under their vice president Brigid Sullivan: As senior producer and project director, I would work with the producer-director Fred Barzyk, a legendary veteran in public television circles. …

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