Sutherland’s “Americana” cartoons

August 13, 2006

I stumbled across Bibi’s Box, a blog that appears to be devoted to finding videos available on the internet. Bibi wrote about John Sutherland, a producer for Walt Disney who struck out on his own in 1944. He became famous, or infamous, for doing cartoons for hire that capitalist enterprises wanted to make available for schools.

Some of us Baby Boomers will recognize almost every one of these films. Film distribution was always problematic back then, before Federal Express or UPS and overnight air delivery to almost anywhere in the world, and back when 16-mm film projectors were often old, cranky monsters that defied the most tech-savvy teachers to make a film dance on a screen. Consequently, to increase the circulation, many of these films also ended up in the afternoon cartoon fests that local television stations ran for “kiddies.”

The images are rich. There are time-bound charicatures of middle-class Americans, and full use of other American iconography. In a 1948 film, “Make Mine Freedom,” Sutherland’s film shows a Member of Congress dressed as a southern politician (though without an accent), the labor representative in denim overalls, the capitalist factory boss with a cigar and morning coat with striped pants, and the farmer in stereotypical straw hat. In a later scene, some of the characters parade in a “Spirit of ’76” fashion, with drum, fife and flag, across the Lincoln Memorial.

Some of the images are corny, but they are rich mines for classroom use, where the images form powerful mnemonic devices for kids who don’t know the history of that era. I have used chunks of “Schoolhouse Rock” for individual study on specific areas — last year I required high school history students to memorize the Preamble to the Constitution, and the “Schoolhouse Rock” version helped enormously. Sutherland’s films could be as useful, in certain topics.

In any case, Bibi has links to more than a dozen of Sutherland’s cartoon films.

If you find a good use for one, please let me know.


Berlin Wall’s 45th

August 13, 2006

August 13, 2006, is the 45th “anniversary” of the erection of the Berlin Wall, the totem of the Cold War that came down in 1989, pushing the end of the Cold War. Residents of Berlin awoke on this day in 1961 to find the communist government of East Germany erecting what would become a 96-mile wall around the “western quarters” of the city — not so much to lay siege to the westerners (that had been tried in 1948, frustrated by the Berlin Airlift) as to keep easterners from “defecting” to the West. The Brandenburg Gate was closed on August 14, and all crossing points were closed on August 26.

From 1961 through 1991 1989, teachers could use the Berlin wall as a simple and clear symbol for the differences between the communist Eastern Bloc, the Soviet Union and her satellite states, and the free West, which included most of the land mass of Germany, England, France, Italy, the United States and other free-market nations — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries. I suspect most high school kids today know very little about the Wall, why it was there, and what its destruction meant, politically.

This era of history is generally neglected in high school. Many courses fail to go past World War II; in many courses the Cold War is in the curriculum sequenced after the ACT, SAT and state graduation examinations, so students and teachers have tuned out.

But the Wall certain had a sense of drama to it that should make for good lessons. When I visited the wall, in early 1988, late at night, there were eight fresh wreaths honoring eight people who had died trying to cross the Wall in the previous few weeks (in some places it was really a series of walls with space in between to make it easier for the East German guards to shoot people trying to escape) — it’s an image I never forget. Within a year after that, East Germans could travel through Hungary to visit the West, and many “forgot” to return. Within 18 months the wall itself was breached.

The Wall was a great backdrop for speeches, too — President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin in June 1963, and expressed his solidarity with the walled-in people of both West and East Berlin, with the memorable phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner, which produced astounding cheers from the tens of thousands who came to hear him. There are a few German-to-English translators who argue that some of the reaction was due to the fact that “Berliner” is also an idiomatic phrase in Berlin for a bakery confection like a jelly doughnut — so Kennedy’s words were a double entendre that could mean either “I am a citizen of Berlin,” or “I am a jelly doughnut.”  [Be sure to see the comments below, from Vince Treacy (9/28/2010).]  Ronald Reagan went to the same place Kennedy spoke to the Berlin Wall, too, to the Brandenburg Gate, in his famous June 1987 speech which included a plea to the Soviet Union’s Premier Mikhail Gorbachev: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Construction of the Berlin Wall, photol collected by Corey S. Hatch

Construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 –photo from University of Utah, by Corey Hatch.

Update March 9, 2007: Berlin Airlift information and lesson plans are available from the Truman Library, here, here and here.

Update November 9, 2009: Notes on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall

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If there are fewer posts . . .

August 13, 2006

If I post less often in the next couple of weeks, please forgive me.  I’m in the midst of a flurry of lesson-plan and syllabus preparation, necessitated by several scheduling conflicts.

And that’s a bummer for me, because with schools everywhere starting up for the fall, myriad things to post about pop up every day.

Feel free to drop by and comment, though — please!


Preserving history, for veterans

August 13, 2006

Subsunk over at Blackfive has a question he asks soldiers returning from Iraq. It’s a great question, one that should be asked of every returning soldier.

This is a reminder that history is not just what the academic historians say it is. History is the story of the people who were there, recorded by anyone. You can do your bit for history, too. Go read Blackfive’s post, and think seriously about asking others a similar question. Then record and publish the answer.

We know a lot more about Thomas Jefferson’s views on matters than George Washington, but not because reporters and historians covered Jefferson better. Jefferson wrote it all down, and preserved it, for future generations. Even much of the embarrassing stuff. Washington was much more reserved, often recording in his diary only the weather for the day.

Such recording is, ultimately, the beginning of real civilization. We have a duty to make records to preserve our own memories, and to provide lights for those who follow us — either lights on the path, or lighthouses warning of the rocks.

Blackfive’s question: “What did you do over there that you are proudest of?”


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