My freshmen students LOVE to study history and memory: It's a revolutionary idea to them, and indeed to most people, that history isn't handed down from generation to generation of historians carved on stone tablets (or in dry-as-dust textbooks), unchanging, but that historians constantly return to original sources from the past to ask new questions in light of present concerns, and argue with each other (constantly!) about what it all means.
In class, I have the students look at three examples of the same event described in three editions of the same textbook, published in the 1920s, 1950s, and early 2000s, and we are amazed by how each passage is different, and how it reflects the times in which it was written. We also consider how (understandably) resistant many people are to the fact that history is—and must be—constantly rewritten, and how "revisionism" is considered to be some vast conspiracy of historians who were schooled in the 1960s, when it's a constant of the writing of history from ancient times to the present.
It's understandable that they're resistant, but it's wrong. Not necessarily in a moral sense, but because it blinds us to our options in the present.
One of the best ways to check out how the memory of history can be totally divorced from the past is to think of family folklore. How many old family stories, I ask, reflect badly on the family or any of its members? I encourage students to do their own research into family history, and to embrace the baddies, because they are interesting, and because honesty is liberating. We are not responsible for the deeds of our dead ancestors: We need to try to understand them and the times in which they lived, and come to terms with what we discover.
Race is a hot-button topic throughout America, and nowhere more than in the South. Many of my students are initially shocked by the involvement of Africans in the slave trade, or by their ancestors' participation in lynchings in the South of 100 years ago. But the more they study the subject, the more they come to comprehend the cultural and social pressures, and the power of delusional thinking, that lead to dreadful deeds. The lesson to take away, I think, is to appreciate that our ancestors were complex human beings, just as we are. We are not responsible for their beliefs and actions, but we are responsible for our own. We should never shy away from the pursuit of truth in history as in life, because dishonesty and willful ignorance dishonors the past and ourselves.
Yet how we commemorate history is so often decided by people who have apparently never thought about these issues, or who have, and are more concerned with maintaining political correctness (on the left or the right) than in self-examination, and honest and rigorous examination of the past. That's no way to deal with history in a democracy. And I am so glad to see Roger Cohen's short but sweet article in the New York Times this week that reminds us, gently, that searching for truth in the past can, does, and should set us free in the present. As he says, "That's scary. It can also be salutary."
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