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from The Textbook Letter, November-December 1997

Exposing Lifetime Learning's Amistad Scam

William J. Bennetta

Corporations distribute bogus "curriculum materials" to the public schools for several purposes -- to plug specific products, to enhance students' recognition of corporate names and symbols, and to sow disinformation that can influence the ways in which students perceive current events or current questions of public policy. Some of these materials consist of videos, magazines, handouts or posters aimed directly at students. Others take the form of kits for teachers. The kits deliver product-promotion literature or other corporate propaganda to teachers, and they show the teachers how to disseminate such stuff in classroom lessons. (For analyses of some bogus materials, see: "Some Trash TV . . . ," in TTL for September-October 1992; "How Exxon's 'Video for Students' Deals in Distortions," in TTL for January-February 1993; "Promoting the Far Right's Fictions," in TTL for September-October 1995; and "What I Say About What They Say About Hunting," in TTL for March-April 1996.)

In December a kit produced by Lifetime Learning Systems (Stamford, Connecticut) caused a stir and drew new attention to the business of plugging commercial products in schools. The product that Lifetime Learning sought to promote was Steven Spielberg's film Amistad, and the kit -- comprising a four-page booklet for teachers plus four "activity" sheets that teachers could distribute to students -- dealt in misrepresentations and misleading claims.

Amistad, a product of DreamWorks Pictures and HBO Pictures, is based loosely on some events that began in the Caribbean in 1839, when some 50 African slaves seized the Spanish schooner Amistad. After killing some of the ship's crewmen, the slaves told the remaining Spaniards to sail Amistad to Africa, but the Spaniards steered her along the coast of North America until she was intercepted by a ship of the United States Navy. The Africans then were held in the United States while a controversy raged over what should be done with them: Were they now freemen, or were they still slaves who should be returned to their owners? John Quincy Adams (who had been the nation's president from 1825 to 1829) became an advocate for the view that the Africans were now freemen, and he prevailed when the case was decided by the Supreme Court in March 1841.

Spielberg's film is a fictionalized rendering of those events, and it liberally incorporates imaginary happenings, invented dialogue, a principal character who never existed, fake speeches, and grossly distorted depictions of historical persons, circumstances and events. It even has a fantastic scene in which, for dramatic effect, one of the Africans appears in the Supreme Court while Adams is arguing his case.

All of that is okay, because historical fiction is indeed fiction: It is synthesized for purposes of entertainment, not scholarship, and the people who synthesize it make free use of fantasy and convenient nonsense.

All of that was hidden, however, by the people who concocted Lifetime Learning's promo kit. The kit-writers continually masked the truth -- that Amistad was merely a commercial amusement -- and they repeatedly implied or said outright that the film was a scrupulous account of historical fact, worthy of being studied in history classes. They explicitly told students that the Amistad filmmakers had labored to make Amistad "authentic" in every detail, and that "scholars were called on to review every aspect of the production." They explicitly told the teacher that the film related "a true story," and they urged the teacher to give lessons in which students would interpret specific scenes from Spielberg's film, as if those scenes depicted real history. Nowhere did they disclose that Amistad, though it referred to some real events en passant, was a work of imagination.

Lifetime Learning Systems mailed the kit to some 20,000 educators throughout the United States, evidently hoping that teachers would construct classes around Amistad and would require students to see it. Indeed, the booklet for teachers carried this exhortation: "Your students may be able to see Amistad at special group rates. Contact your local theater manager for details."

"Recklessly Dishonest"

This was much too much for the film critic Michael Medved. Medved saw the kit before it was distributed to schools, and he blasted it in a long, furious essay that ran in the 8 December issue of USA Today. Here are his opening paragraphs:
It's bad enough when schools miseducate our kids in the name of political correctness, but now a Hollywood studio has gotten into the act, pushing its own recklessly dishonest educational agenda for the purpose of selling tickets.

This week, in conjunction with release of Steven Spielberg's Amistad, thousands of high school educators and administrators will receive a free "film study guide and learning kit" designed to "help you integrate the lessons of this landmark film into your class plans."

The handsomely arranged materials from DreamWorks Pictures pretend to make a contribution to the educational process, but instead distort a crucial episode in our history, using schools to shamelessly promote a commercial (and R-rated) venture.

I didn't grasp why Medved thought that the movie's R rating was relevant, but I read on, with admiration, as he assailed Lifetime Learning's sleazy kit and -- by citing real history -- punctured some of the kit's pretensions and deceptions.

As far as I could tell, Medved made only one slip. This came when he tackled the kit's claim that John Quincy Adams had succeeded in the Supreme Court by invoking an argument suggested by the leader of the Africans, whose Hispanicized name was José Cinqué. Medved commented:

Unfortunately, the real Adams failed to benefit from such advice -- since he and Cinqué never met. The lengthy and supposedly stirring quotes, highlighted with bold italics in the text [of a sheet in the kit], are entirely bogus, invented out of whole cloth by the Amistad screenwriters.

Medved's statement that Adams and Cinqué had never "met" wasn't as precise as it could have been: In November 1840 Adams had briefly observed the Africans when he visited the site in Westville, Connecticut, where they were interned -- and this could be construed, perhaps, to signify that Adams had met Cinqué. Medved was certainly right, however, when he derided the kit's nonsensical claim that Adams had received advice from Cinqué about judicial matters.

Worthless Pictures and Ignorant Raving

Besides debunking the film's fake "history" and the kit's false claims, Medved scornfully observed that the kit is illustrated with pictures of actors, rather than with pictures of any of the historical figures who actually took part in the Amistad affair:

Students might never guess that historians possess images of the actual Cinqué, including a superb oil portrait by Nathaniel Jocelyn. John Quincy Adams (and other personalities in the story) later sat for striking photographic portrayals, but [the Lifetime Learning promotional kit] offers only "production stills" featuring Anthony Hopkins beneath inches of tacky makeup.

That is right. Lifetime Learning has indeed worked diligently to ensure that real history doesn't intrude into the kit and doesn't interfere with the attempt to enlist classroom teachers as pitchmen for Spielberg's movie.

The company has also made sure that the kit has some incendiary material which, I suppose, is intended to promote ticket sales by generating some sort of bogus controversy. This material, incorporated into "Activity Four" in the booklet for teachers, consists of ignorant raving that the kit-writers have ascribed to "Amistad producer Debbie Allen." Allen appears to be a practitioner of dime-store anthropology. Her remarks are beneath contempt, and I decline even to quote them.

Lifetime Learning has been characterized in Education Week as one of the "big players" in the business of pushing corporate promotional items into schoolrooms. (Please see "Some Educators Casting a Wary Eye On Corporate Curriculum Materials," by Mark Walsh, in Education Week for 12 May 1993.) In some of its earlier efforts on behalf of entertainment enterprises, Lifetime Learning has produced "educational" kits plugging the films Schindler's List, Glory and Dances with Wolves.


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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