July 30th, 2003
Vidal's History - And Yours?
Procedures for Teachers


Media Components

Computer Resources:

  • Modem: 56.6 Kbps or faster.
  • Browser: Netscape Navigator 4.0 or above or Internet Explorer 4.0 or above.
  • Personal computer (Pentium II 350 MHz or Celeron 600 MHz) running Windows® 95 or higher and at least 32 MB of RAM and/or Macintosh computer running System 8.1 or above and at least 32 MB of RAM.
  • Software: Any presentation software such as Power Point or Hyperstudio (optional), if students decide to conduct their presentations with electronic visual aids.

Bookmarked sites:

Bookmark all of the Web sites used in the lesson and create a word processing document listing all of the links to distribute to students. Preview all of the sites and videos before presenting them to your class.

Web sites with biographical information about Gore Vidal:

Web sites with information about the Fall of Rome:

Web sites with information about the rise of democracy in Greece:

Web sites with information about democracy in the United States

  • United States Government Printing Office

    Links to the federal government documents that define our democratic society, including The Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation.


Teachers will need the following supplies:

  • Board and/or chart paper
  • Ideally a screen on which to project the Web-based video clips
  • Handouts of Web resources if computers are not available in the classroom

Students will need the following supplies:

  • Computers with the capacities indicated above
  • Notebook or journal
  • Pens/pencils


Introductory Activity:

1. In a whole class discussion, pose the question, “What is history?” As the students are brainstorming answers, record the responses on a large piece of chart paper.

2. At first, students may offer superficial responses. Some of these answers may include:

  • a subject that you study in school
  • something that happened in the past

3. As students offer their definitions of “history,” help them to arrive at the conclusion that history is:

  • a formal, written account of actual events
  • a record
  • a record that is biased based on the historian’s experiences, heritage, lineage and general background

4. After students have established that “history” is something documented, ask these follow-up questions:

  • Who writes history?
    • journalists (they might be considered the “first line” of historians)
    • historians
    • students
  • Whose history is the correct history and why are they different?
    • This is a difficult question and will probably yield different answers. For example, if a student and his family were to write a history of a family event, each version would be slightly different based on the writer’s perspective. Age, gender, experience, nationality, heritage, immigrant status, education, etc. are all factors.
  • Whose history should we accept?
    • Ultimately, the idea that you want all students to come away from this lesson with is the fact that all histories are not precise. They are all subjective. Encourage students to question and be aware of possible discrepancies.
  • Why is it that certain theories about history are accepted more than others?
    • In the case of historical figures, an extremely negative event or an extremely positive action can have a lasting impression. Consider the following American politicians and the general impressions that people have of them.
    • Rudolph Guiliani – As mayor of New York City, he was considered ruthless, dictatorial and arrogant. Post 9/11, he was proclaimed Time Magazine’s Man of the Year and “America’s Mayor.”
    • Richard Nixon – Though he was considered an excellent president in the realm of foreign relations, many Americans’ perception of him is tainted by the Watergate scandal and his famous “I Am Not A Crook” speech.

Learning Activities:

1. The students will begin by examining some famous figures from American history. Hand out the “Different Versions of History” worksheet to each student. There are three columns in the chart. The first lists the name of a historical figure. In the second column, students will simply jot notes about what they know about the person (without conducting research). They should have some general ideas about each person based on their knowledge of American history and current events. In the third column, which will be completed after viewing the video, students will record Gore Vidal’s views and comments about each of the historical figures.

2. Have the students fill out the second column independently for 10 minutes. After the students have finished jotting down notes, reconvene the class for a general discussion. Chart the student responses about the four men – Abraham Lincoln, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and Timothy McVeigh. Generally speaking, the answers given for Lincoln and Jefferson will be more positive, while the ones about Burr and McVeigh will be negative in nature. Ask each student to choose one of the four men to focus on.

3. Watch segments from the AMERICAN MASTERS episode, “The Education of Gore Vidal.” Give students time to take notes after they view each clip. Ask them to keep in mind the prior discussion about history – and what they know about their chosen historical figure – as they view the segments focusing on the following people:

  • Aaron Burr (7 minutes)
  • Timothy McVeigh (34 minutes)
  • Abraham Lincoln (63 minutes)
  • Thomas Jefferson (70 minutes)

4. After watching the video, ask students to form groups based on the historical figure they are focused on. In these groups, they will begin to fill in the third column of the “Different Versions of History” worksheet. Each group should focus on how Vidal’s portrayal of their historical figure differs from the general comments they generated before watching the video..

5. After conferring in groups, each student will read an article about the man they have just discussed. If you have limited computer and Internet access, photocopy the following articles in advance and distribute them to students.

6. After reading the articles, answer the questions on the “Guided Reading Questions about Gore Vidal” worksheet. Note that some of the answers for these questions will not come directly from the readings. Instead, the students should make inferences by comparing the documentary to the readings.

  • Thomas Pryor Gore, Gore Vidal’s grandfather, once said, “Every pancake has two sides.” What does that mean and how does that relate to Gore Vidal’s philosophy about writing about history or historical figures?
  • How does the “every pancake has two sides” quotation apply to the historical figure you’ve chosen?
  • Why is it so important to Gore Vidal to present the other side of the argument?
  • Are you convinced by Gore Vidal’s theories about the person you are focusing on?

7. Once the students have completed their group work, they will reconvene to share their answers with the rest of the class.

Culminating Activity/Assessment:

1. As the students will have learned from “The Education of Gore Vidal,” the author himself, having been born into the “American ruling class,” is very disappointed with how the United States has turned out. In the video (at the 78 minute mark), he talks about how one of his characters in The Golden Age says that America “started out wanting to be like Greece and ended up like Rome.” For the culminating activity, the students will research different aspects of the rise of democracy in Ancient Greece and the fall of Rome so they can understand the historical context of this quotation. After hearing all of the information and analysis, the class will then determine the validity, accuracy and relevance of the quotation. Ultimately, the major concept that they should have learned from this unit is that as students of history, they should always question what they have read: They should be aware of how news or historical treatments are slanted by writers’ agendas and contexts.

2. Divide the students into thirteen groups of 3 students each (if possible). Ask each group to consider one of the topics listed below. Students who focus on topic 1 should explore factors that led to the emergence and success of democracy. Students who focus on one of the other topics should look for three to five present-day examples that support Vidal’s comment about America’s likeness to Rome.

  • What are democracy’s core principles? What factors led to democracy’s emergence and success in Ancient Greece? What are some of the criticisms of democracy and its principles from Ancient Greek history?
  • How did a decline in morals and values contribute to the fall of Rome?
  • How did public health issues contribute to the fall of Rome?
  • How did religion, specifically the rise of Christianity, contribute to the fall of Rome?
  • How did political corruption contribute to the fall of Rome?
  • How did excessive wealth contribute to the fall of Rome?
  • How did unemployment contribute to the fall of Rome?
  • How did lack of innovation contribute to the fall of Rome?
  • How did inflation contribute to the fall of Rome?
  • How did urban decay contribute to the fall of Rome?
  • How did poor technology contribute to the fall of Rome?
  • How did military spending contribute to the fall of Rome?

2. Once they have completed their research, students will present their information to the entire class. If time is available, encourage the students to prepare formal presentations with presentation software or poster board so that they can communicate their ideas orally and visually.

3. After all of the students have presented their research, the class should discuss the accuracy, validity and relevance of Vidal’s character’s comment: “America started out wanting to be like Greece and ended up like Rome.” Students should base their opinions on the information that was presented in class. After the students are done disagreeing, concurring, disputing, supporting and/or discrediting each other’s ideas, ask them to reach consensus about the topic.

4. Once students have articulated their position as a group, play Gore Vidal’s response to NPR’s Leonard Lopate’s question, “Is there a parallel between the Roman Empire and the American Empire?” The interview can be found at http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/1000/vidal/interview.html.

5. What is Gore Vidal’s answer to the question? Did the students come to the same conclusion as Gore Vidal?


Cross-Curricular Extensions:

  • Archeology – The study of Ancient Greece and Rome must always include understanding archaeology. Students will recognize that they can learn about people by looking at the artifacts they left behind. What will archeology students of the year 2300 learn about your society by looking around your school’s building or your home? This can be a creative assignment.
  • Architecture – Compare and contrast the architecture of Ancient Greece and Rome to the architecture of government buildings in Washington, D.C.
  • Biographies – Who are the Founding Fathers of the United States? What were their most significant contributions to the world?
  • Perspectives – Students should take an event in American History and then give the other side of the story. For example, Americans celebrate July 4th as Independence Day. How is this event in history taught in England?

Community Connections:

  • Create a book group comprised of students, parents, and faculty and choose one of Gore Vidal’s books to read and discuss.
  • Using The City and the Pillar as the impetus, high school students can discuss the ways in which issues of homosexuality and sexual preference affect them as teenagers.

Inside This Lesson


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