Smart as a Whip
Can Indiana Jones teach kids about history?
The idea is that teachers might show a Young Indiana episode in which Elizabeth Hurley plays the smitten daughter of a suffragette, after which students will be eager to sit through a documentary about Emmeline Pankhurst. And if they do, they will indeed learn something: The documentaries, whose only real tie to Young Indiana is the choice of subject matter, are well-made and much more scrupulous about accuracy than the series itself.
Is anyone taking the bait this time around? The History Channel was impressed enough (or eager enough to get a piece of the Indy marketing action) to agree to air them. And the Web turns up a few history teachers who are fans of the new releases. Thomas Riddle, a teacher in Greenville, S.C., has set up Indyintheclassroom.com. A lesson plan on the site comes complete with a chronology of WWI, a map of the Somme offensive, and viewing questions. ("Why is Indy sent to a maximum security POW camp?" "How do the Russians provide Indy and De Gaulle an opportunity to escape?")
Riddle, who has received help and encouragement from folks at Lucasfilm (some free early cuts of the DVDs, for one thing), recently organized an event in Greenville's science center called "Walking Through Time With Indiana Jones."* Admirable though Riddle's efforts may be, there is something unsettling about them too, epitomized in a line from the event's flyer: "We've decided to end our exhibition time frame in the '50s, since that is as far as Indy's adventures have been chronicled thus far." The social science teacher bent on using Indy to inspire the next generation of history jocks is confronted with a tricky epistemological problem: "If a war rages somewhere in the world, and Indiana Jones isn't there to fight in it, does it actually happen?"
Lucas' intentions may also be admirable, but in the end, Indiana Jones isn't any better at teaching history than Chewbacca, whose native language must be tonal, would be at teaching Chinese. Still, you could do worse than spend a few hours with Lucas' foray into television. "People aren't interested in ideas. It's personalities they get excited about," Lowell Thomas tells Indy in one episode. The show may not be so good at conveying ideas—don't expect to pop out the DVD and suddenly be able to rattle off Wilson's Fourteen Points. But the personality of Indiana Jones is enough to carry the show along, and the best of his adventures—his romp through Paris with Pablo Picasso, his stint as a stunt double in a John Ford Western—are, if nothing else, something to get excited about.
Correction, May 23, 2008: The article originally stated that Thomas Riddle had received DVDs from Lucasfilm so that he could get a head start on his site. In fact, the site was live before Riddle received the DVDs. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, June 3, 2008: The article originally stated that The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles eventually held a slot on Mondays after Monday Night Football, when most kids were asleep. While it was eventually moved from its Saturday night slot to Monday night, it aired after Monday Night Football only on the West Coast. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
David Zax is a writer living in Washington, D.C.