Monday, August 10, 2015

History as Remembering

Can you remember something that happened before you were born? An event at which you were not present?

Scholars sometimes call this ‘historical memory’ or ‘collective memory.’ It is a powerful societal force.

Imagine three different people living in the United States: their various ancestors didn’t enter the country until after 1835. One is an African-American, one is an Asian-American, and one is a European-American. Yet all three can say that “we” rebelled against British tyranny in 1776.

While “historical memory” empowers individual citizens to use the ‘we’ in this way, it does not require them to abandon their own particular ethnic heritage.

This acquisition of historical memory is only one of many important reasons for studying history, as historian Wilfred McClay notes:

The study of the past makes the most sense when it is connected to a larger, public purpose, and is thereby woven into the warp and woof of our common life. The chief purpose of a high school education in American history is not the development of critical thinking and analytic skills, although the acquisition of such skills is vitally important; nor is it the mastery of facts, although a solid grasp of the factual basis of American history is surely essential; nor is it the acquisition of a genuine historical consciousness, although that certainly would be nice to have too, particularly under the present circumstances, in which historical memory seems to run at about 15 minutes, especially with the young.

The etymological meaning of ‘remember’ is to become part of something. By learning, rehearsing, and internalizing the country’s story, a citizen becomes part of the country, and the country becomes part of the citizen.

The success or failure of the effort to instill a collective memory into students, while retaining and celebrating their peculiar ethnic heritages, will ultimately be the success or failure of the country, and of civilization.

Not only knowing, but also perceiving one’s self to be a part of, the national narrative empowers the individual to see himself as heir to grand notions like rights and privileges, but also as inheriting duties, obligations, and responsibilities. This collective memory is necessary to human society.

The chief purpose of a high school education in American history is as a rite of civic membership, an act of inculcation and formation, a way in which the young are introduced to the fullness of their political and cultural inheritance as Americans, enabling them to become literate and conversant in its many features, and to appropriate fully all that it has to offer them, both its privileges and its burdens. To make its stories theirs, and thereby let them come into possession of the common treasure of its cultural life. In that sense, the study of history is different from any other academic subject. It is not merely a body of knowledge. It also ushers the individual person into membership in a common world, and situates them in space and time.

One cause, then, for an individual’s feeling of alienation is the failure of the educational system to help him overcome distances, not only of time and space, but also of race and gender, to identify with the national narrative.

It is possible, desirable, and necessary for social well-being that the ‘we’ of collective memory cross lines of race and gender: an African-American can look at a portrait of the Founding Fathers signing the Declaration of Independence and say ‘we.’ A European-American can look at Frederick Douglas or W.E.B. DuBois and say ‘we.’ A woman can look at George Patton or Douglas MacArthur and say ‘we.’ A man can look at Amelia Earhart or Susan B. Anthony and say ‘we.’

Yet the educational system cannot instill this historical memory alone. This is a larger project, requiring intentional participation of parents, neighborhoods, clubs, teams, performing arts groups, etc. It is a grand task, requiring society’s various networks.