04 April 2010

History and Memory

In the summer of 2001 I had the good fortune of spending a week at Amherst College studying the Underground Railroad with David Blight, and Jim and Lois Horton. It was a fascinating experience and helped me grow in my understanding of the complex interplay between history and memory. Professor Blight, in particular, opened the door to thinking long and hard about the nature of historical memory related to the Civil War. Why do we remember what we do? How are our memories shaped by present circumstances? Is history really "what happened" back there, or is it how we choose to remember it? These are relevant questions for any of us who teach history.

Professor Elliot Gorn of Purdue University wrote on this subject in a thought-provoking article published in 2000 titled, "Professing History: Distinguishing Between Memory and the Past." "It's not easy being a historian," writes Professor Gorn, as he lays out the nature of competing versions of the past and how those outside the field view historians as "mindless empiricists -- tweedy, seedy, and dull." Of course, he does not leave it at that, but goes on to explore the complicated nature of history and how teachers of history need to explore that with our young students.

Much of the difficulty with history relates to our confusion of history and memory. As Gorn writes, "Collective memory involves folk or popular notions of the past, which tend to be mythic and usually flattering to those whose past they describe." This type of "history" gets us into trouble because it papers over differences that were very real, allows us to see the past as we want it to be -- allows us, in short, to miss the richness of history, the "tragedy, sadness, moral ambiguity -- and, therefore . . . reluctant to engage difficult ethical issues."

Gorn has hit the nail on the head in this article. The debates we continually witness about "what history should be taught in our schools" clearly illustrate this tension between collective memory and history. Is our job to provide a soothing version of the past for our students that reinforces a popular but naive collective memory? Or, should we challenge out students with the truth, at the risk of upsetting them? As Professor Gorn says, that's our job and I heartily agree.

Here's a link to the full article by Professor Gorn.


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