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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.