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Mistaking fiction for fact

High school students in Britain have been mistaking fiction for fact - and using The Da Vinci Code to support arguments on their exams that measure ability in subjects such as art, history, maths or science.

india Updated: Jun 03, 2006 19:01 IST

By Tariq Panja

It's thick with some big words and makes reference to history - but that doesn't make "The Da Vinci Code" a textbook. Even so, some high school students in Britain have been mistaking fiction for fact - and using the blockbuster to support arguments on their annual tests that measure ability in subjects such as art, history, math or science.

Noting the trend, worried instructors took the unusual step of warning students ahead of tests this year to disregard the book - and its tantalizing conspiracy theories.

"History of art has a wealth of factual resources," said Claire Ellis, a spokeswoman for the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, a private company that administers the tests. "The Da Vinci Code isn't one of them."

The alliance, which is sworn to secrecy on the details, adamantly refuses to disclose the number of students who quoted Dan Brown's novel - or offer any snippets on the mistakes. But downplayed suggestions that the problem was widespread.

They offered a small clue on page nine of their report analyzing the 2005 tests, noting that it was "unfortunate that some candidates thought The Da Vinci Code was relevant." Some students were so caught up by the conspiracy theories tossed around in Brown's book that some junior art history scholars simply adopted the storyline when asked to describe the Renaissance. Teachers said one example of the confusion involved the "The Last Supper" by Da Vinci. The fresco on the wall of the Santa Maria della Grazie Church in Milan figures prominently in the book - and in student exams.


Leonardo da Vinci's famed frescoe 'The Last Supper' has inspired many double-takes in the wake of The Da Vinci Code's claims that the person to the right of Jesus is actually his wife Mary Magdalene, instead of John the Evangelist
The fresco depicts Jesus Christ surrounded by his disciples at the Last Supper. In the book, Leigh Teabing, a British historian, tells cryptographer Sophie Neveu that the figure to the right of Jesus - widely considered by scholars to be John the Evangelist - is in fact Mary Magdalene.

The conjecture is a key theme in the book, which centers around the idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, that they had a child, and that the bloodline survives today.

The novel has proved to be controversial, with many Christian groups protesting against its assertions about Jesus' life and what followed his death. Religion aside, art historians like Evelyn Welch, an expert on Leonardo, says Brown's suggestions are laughable.

"Just about every part of the information and interpretations are not true," said Welch, a professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London. "They have just been included to make a racy detective novel."

Welch believes students may have been caught out by Brown's preface to the book which reads: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."

"It's a classic literary device," said Welch. "He sets it out to suggest that the entire detective story part is fiction but all references to art and secret societies are true. And the unwary appear to have bought this. The fact they are taking an airport novel to answer questions on art history is quite scary." Teachers like Evelyn Butterworth, who grades art history examinations and teaches at the exclusive Catholic girls school, St. Mary's, in Shaftesbury, 110 miles (180 Kilometres) southwest of London, said the tests that pick up Brown's theories on the fresco left instructors scratching their heads, wondering where Brown's theories came from.

When they discovered the author's inspiration was wife Blythe - an art history enthusiast - they were appalled.

"We (teachers) were wondering where on earth she did her (art history) degree," Butterworth sniffed. "But she hasn't done one. She just has an interest like an awful lot of people in the subject, and they often get things wrong."

Some filmgoers, however, seemed to sympathize with the wayward students, siding with them over those who grade the all-important tests.

"It's plausible," said Tom Butler, 34, of London, when asked about Brown's theories before seeing the movie in London's Leicester Square. "I just think that history is written by one point of view. What the Catholic Church wants you to hear is one view." Some even seemed to think that perhaps the graders had been too harsh. Who is to say, suggested movie-goer Sune Thomsen, 37, from Denmark, that Brown was wrong?

"When you're reading the book, it's very convincing," she said. "When you put it down, you tend to think about conspiracy theories."