Saturday, March 10, 2007

‘The Movement of the Mind’: History as Communal Memory

The following is a recent essay I wrote for an history scholarship discussing the relevance of studying history-in particular, ancient history-to contemporary life. Please feel free to comment on or disagree with my characterization of the discipline and its practitioners:

" Americans, pragmatic as we are, struggle to see the meaning in studying history. Henry Ford, a most American entrepreneur, once said that “the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today.” In our age of assembly lines, silicon chips, and personal digital assistants, is there any use in studying the past? Yes, there is! Studying history has overtly practical purposes, such as understanding other societies in order to form foreign policy and also becoming familiar with the context of famous works of art, literature, and law. This essay, though, is going to focus on a different light that history sheds on contemporary life. Apart from purely pragmatic uses, the study of the past offers us a well of tradition and ideas to shape our cultural identity. The historian, then, serves as a preserver of this well of communal memory among otherwise disconnected generations of people.

" Before the 20th century, history was studied and taught to educate citizens in the cultural inheritance and morals of their land. In the mid-20th century, postmodern philosophy prompted historians to condemn such “metanarratives,” stories by inevitably biased authors that consciously or unconsciously sought to convert hearers to some belief system of the author’s. This—how to separate meaning from the person conveying the content—is an epistemological dilemma which modern historians have yet to resolve. As it were, that modern historians shy away from telling meaningful stories about the past as they once had done has had the effect of diminishing the historical identity of our culture and leading to a cynical disjointedness of modern people from their ancestors.

" In just over a hundred years, everyone living today will not be walking the earth. In two hundred years, people we will never meet in our lifetimes will be taking care of our homes, farms, businesses, libraries, gardens, and ideas. Generations of people come and go and there is only one reason why we call ourselves by the same name “Americans” as the colonists called themselves two hundred years ago: memory. Not only the memory of neurons and synapses, but, given the duration of time, the memory of storytelling and books: communal memory. Scholar Fr. Pat Reardon, in a recent lecture at the University of Wisconsin, pointed out that the correct answer to the question of ‘who am I?’ is, “I am who I am because I remember who I am.” If one has no recollection of their past—their upbringing, experiences, and relationships—then they can not testify to who they are (witness patients of amnesia). What holds on the personal level also applies to society at large. G.K. Chesterton once wrote of communal memory, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” And herein is the crux of why history is important to person and culture: our predecessors were people much like ourselves who have transmitted to us tools for living and gems of understanding which our society can choose to ignore at the same peril of an individual who chooses to forget his memories. In this way, as it always has, history can shed light on the present.

" If we are to accept history as communal memory, then what is the job of the historian? Renowned scholar of antiquity Chester Starr once wrote, “It is the conviction of the present writer...that the historian must always come back to the movement of human emotions and the human mind in his deepest probings of the forces moving man’s history.” Historians are the preservers and conveyers of old emotions and ideas; they are the mouthpiece for the dead in Chesterton’s democracy. History today is enriched by relatively new disciplines such as archaeology, statistics, and computer science. While these fields primarily observe the material remains of human life, it would be a mistake for historians to not deepen their inquiry into the most important forces behind the story of man: ideas. As beautiful as the Parthenon is to behold, humanity would not suffer its loss as much as it would the erasure from its collective memory of ancient Greek ideas about democracy; as marvelous and venerable as the Old City in Jerusalem is, it is not comparable to the enduring treasures within the Hebrew Scriptures.

" Robert Putnam writes in his book about the decline of American communities, Bowling Alone, that “fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live.” Whether the cause of the fragmentation and isolation of American communities is a lack of historical identity or something else, our society could profit from the deep well of communal memory that has sustained it for many generations until today. To this end, historians should not shy away from telling good and truthful stories of ancient ideas that can continue to inspire. Even the pragmatic carmaker, who we should remember regardless of his advice on history, could have appreciated a good idea. "

1 comment:

Deanna said...

People should read this.