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Can Ken Burns Documentaries Replace Teachers? A U.S. Senator Floats the Idea

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 25, 2016 2 min read
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Did you enjoy “The Civil War” documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns? U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, is apparently a fan—in fact, he thinks such films can do a lot of the work teachers typically do.

As reported by the Huffington Post, during a political forum in Wisconsin earlier this month Johnson discussed what he called the “cartel” of higher education. He praised the potential of technology to improve education, but said it wasn’t being utilized enough. Pressed by an interviewer about potential problems with online education, Johnson responded by saying he would support some combination of using teachers and technology. But he went on to highlight his experience volunteering at Catholic schools in Wisconsin, and the struggle over how to make instruction easier.

Johnson then said this:

If you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers that kind of know the subject? Or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns’ “Civil War” tape, and have those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas.

Click here for audio of the senator’s remarks; the relevant piece about online education and Ken Burns begins at about the 31-minute mark.

Although the senator didn’t specify that he was talking about K-12 teachers, his preceding comments about Catholic schools indicated that he was thinking about public schools as well as higher education as far as the benefits of educational technology.

And American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten blasted Johnson for his remarks, the Huffington Post reported, saying, “What Ron Johnson doesn’t get is that education happens when teachers can listen to students and engage them to think for themselves.”

(It’s also worth noting that by today’s standards, whatever you think of educational technology, a video documentary first broadcast on PBS in 1990 is a different animal than the Chromebooks, iPads, gaming software, and other facets of ed-tech that preoccupy many of those working in education today.)

So there’s Johnson’s idea. What did the documentary filmmaker have to say in response? On Tuesday, Burns gave the senator’s idea the fish-eye:

In 2014, our coworker Liana Heitin wrote about a visit Burns paid to social studies teachers. During his remarks, Burns was very clear about how he felt about his audience: “I’m here with my congregation. You are my people. You are the reason I make these documentaries.”

Johnson was first elected in 2010, and is up for re-election this year.

And courtesy of PBS, here’s how one teacher says she uses Burns’ film to teach the civil war:

Photos from top: U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson speaks as the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a field hearing earlier this month (Mike Burley/Telegraph Herald/AP); Ken Burns participates in the “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps War” panel during the PBS Television Critics Association summer press tour in July (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

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