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Reconstructing memory

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | January 4, 2012

The Berkeley campus has an eatery with an interesting name and story: “The Free Speech Movement Café.” At the 2000 dedication of the café, then-Chancellor Robert Behrdahl lauded the tumultuous student movement of 1964 for having brought adult rights to college students, including the right of  free expression, and for having broadened civil debate.

FSM CafeBack in 1964, however, then-Chancellor Edward Strong strongly resisted the movement – as did probably most Californians; they saw it as an anarchic uprising. Californians now have a different, hallowed memory of the the FSM; old photographs of heroes, posters, and other memorabilia are plastered all over the walls and tables of the cafe.

We have yet blunter examples of how history gets reconstructed in its retelling. Recent California law, for example, required that K-12 students be taught about the historical contributions of women, blacks, and gays. And then there is the Texas School Board order requiring that history textbooks “describe the causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schafly, the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association.”

History is rewritten as much as it is remembered.

Collective memory

Rewriting history is common. Here is a description of the Reconstruction period after the Civil War from the best-selling history textbook of 1911: “Nearly 4,000,000 slaves had been liberated. Very few of them had any sense of responsibility or any capacity or capital for beginning a new life of industrial freedom. Their emotional nature led them to believe that prosperity was to be bestowed upon them without their effort . . .  They were, with few exceptions, utterly unfit for the exercise of political rights . . . [T]he rule of these negro [sic] governments . . .  was an indescribable orgy of extravagance, fraud, and disgusting incompetence . . .” (For more on this long-lasting textbook, see here.)

A leading history textbook of 2011, on the other hand, tells the story quite differently. It describes the freed slaves’ self-education campaigns, their serious participation in politics, and the far-sighted reforms that the black legislators passed.

These are further examples of the creating and re-creating our “collective memory.” (An excellent book on the topic is Kammen’s, Mystic Chords of Memory.)  In a few earlier posts, I described the struggles over defining school history curricula, the proper way to celebrate the 4th of July,  the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, and the “authentic” character of neighborhoods  (here, here, and here). For a time, the status of Abraham Lincoln was also up for debate – was he a liberator? or, as many claimed, a tyrant? – until he was enshrined in that sacred memorial on the Mall (see here).

A similar set of issues arises on a quite different topic: global peace. Some activists stoke our concerns about war by stressing the horrors of modern conflict, evoking the notion that we have lost a peaceful past. Yet, the evidence is clear that the world has moved into an unusually peaceful era in the last few decades (see, e.g., here). One war is one war too many, of course, but somehow the image of a descent into ever-more-terrible war better grabs attention and stokes concern, and so there is value in constructing a “memory” that war has been spiraling up.

Academics are (largely) interested in what “really happened.” Most people are probably interested in what the moral and political message of the past is – or should be. And so we will always be constructing and reconstructing collective memories to serve in our collective struggles of today.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Reconstructing memory

  1. On the LA Times front page this morning there was a news analysis titled “California in retreat on social service spending” that documents the end of the California dream that we dreamed about during the FSM era.

    The absolute fact is that we have totally failed to protect humanity from wars, poverty, class destruction and outrageous greed.

    California government has placed social stability, the poor and families at unacceptable risk because of political and economic tyranny by those who have sold their souls for personal wealth and power with no regard at all for unacceptable consequences that future generations shall have to suffer.

    I was privileged to live, work and raise a family during the 20th century when California was the land of opportunity, but we now have to face the consequences of our failures to protect the long-term future for our children because honor, integrity, morality and compromise are no longer dominant cultural values.

    Now is the time for Berkeley professors and scholars to prove that UC Berkeley truly is the “preeminent public university in America” with leadership to change the course of history before it is too late to produce acceptable quality of life for the long-term future of humanity.

  2. As a member of the class of ’63 I can say that I have experienced the Best of times (Civil Rights legislation) and the Worst of times (Korean, Vietnam and Middle East Wars and outrageous greed). I have experienced cycles of history from Pre-WWII through the political, economic, social and environmental disasters we are producing today.

    It has become most painfully obvious that even though we had the greatest opportunities for advancement of the human race in history, we haven’t accomplished nearly enough to pass on an acceptable long-term legacy to future generations.

    What we have proven most of all is that we have never learned nearly enough from the lessons of history to prevent continuation of never-ending cycles of growth and decay, never-ending failures by our political and intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change, that is unless we finally commit the ultimate failure and become the cause of our own extinction.

    I truly believe that Berkeley is still our last best opportunity to make the right things happen one more time like The Greatest Generation did, but I now wonder, almost beyond doubt, whether we are really capable of creating an acceptable quality of life for all future generations.

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