Broadcast of PBS’s Series on Civil War To Be Accompanied by School Materials

By Mark Walsh — September 19, 1990 3 min read

For five nights next week, the Public Broadcasting Service will be bringing the terror and the tragedy of the Civil War into American homes and, through a variety of related educational materials, potentially into American classrooms as well.

Beginning Sept. 23, PBS will air “The Civil War,” the much-anticipated documentary series by the acclaimed director Ken Burns. The series is divided into nine episodes, with one airing the first night and two each on the following four nights. The first installment airs from 8 to 10 P.M. Eastern time. On subsequent nights, it is set to air from 8 to 10:30 P.M.

The series has been heavily promoted by public-television officials and arrives accompanied by an array of educational materials designed for schools.

For example, some 70,000 educational kits were distributed free of charge to social-studies teachers nationwide, videocassette versions of the series have been packaged for sale to schools, and an interactive-videodisk program is in the works.

Mr. Burns has previously produced award-winning documentaries on the Congress, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Gov. Huey Long of Louisiana. He began research for the Civil War series more than five years ago, searching out thousands of photographs and other artifacts from the period.

The filmmaker and his associates pored over some 50,000 photographs, as well as paintings, broadsides, and newspapers of the day.

“In essence, we endowed each photograph with life, trying to make history come alive,” Mr. Burns said. “We did not want to use stale professors on camera to recount the history of the war, which had been the way it had been communicated to us in the past.”

Mr. Burns tells the sweeping story of the causes, events, and aftermath of the Civil War without resorting to the use of “docudrama” or re-creations. Instead, he uses a number of engaging techniques, such as interspersing photographs of major battles with tranquil shots of the same battlefields today.

Actors, authors, and others give voice to the diaries and letters of major figures from the period. Included are the talents of the actors Sam Waterston (Abraham Lincoln) and Morgan Freeman (Frederick Douglass) and the playwright Arthur Miller (William T. Sherman).

General Motors Corporation, the sole corporate sponsor for the series, funded the distribution of educational packets for teachers. Such educational guides to major television productions have become the norm in recent years. (See Education Week, Nov. 23, 1988.)

The educational guide for “The Civil War” includes a teachers’ manual and handouts for students that include timelines, background material, and discussion questions.

In addition, PBS Video is marketing videotapes of the series to schools. The entire documentary package, including educational materials, costs $350.

There are also plans to incorporate the series into a videodisk program, a burgeoning technology that combines video elements with computer software.

A videodisk would “allow a student to explore the realm of the Civil War from any possible dimension,” said Lynn Fontana, of the Center for Interactive Educational Technology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who is directing the project.

However, the project is only funded through the design phase, she said. It may be late 1992 before the videodisks are ready to be marketed to schools, she added.

While Civil War buffs and others eagerly await the series, some edu4cators wonder whether it will caphe attention of middle- and high-school students.

“I was very impressed with the program,” said G. William Whinnery, a social-studies teacher at John A. Rowland High School in Rowland Heights, Calif. Mr. Whinnery viewed the series in advance as a member of an advisory panel for the educational guide.

But Mr. Whinnery does not plan to assign it to his students as homework. The 11 hours over one week require more of a commitment than most students will make, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 1990 edition of Education Week as Broadcast of PBS’s Series on Civil War To Be Accompanied by School Materials