Memory is an essential part of what makes us human. Personal remembrances of past experiences sit alongside historical memories taught us by our parents, teachers and clergy. We incorporate our memories into our present behavior. Often, the past shapes our present actions. Indeed, we often cannot process current events or experiences without having memories of earlier ones.
There is no time of year that doesn’t have some holiday, some remembrance, of an important past event. The calendar, as a result, reinforces memories and refreshes past experiences making them feel like present ones.
In all of our lives, we have days, weeks, and months that remind us of personal experiences that touched our lives. The birthdays of our loved ones are regular reminders of a host of experiences which we associate with the celebrants.
Dec. 7 is always marked on American calendars as Pearl Harbor Day. The few remaining survivors of that event meet and the government acknowledges the history of that fateful day. Young children who have never heard the voice of President Franklin D. Roosevelt before may hear a piece of the famous speech he gave the next day describing Dec. 7 as one that “will live in infamy.”
Without the various reminders of wartime anniversaries, World War II would fade into memory. How vivid the historical memory remains is largely dependent on the quality of teaching and the child’s interest in history.
By dramatic contrast, young generations of Japanese, Chinese and South Korean children are taught detailed descriptions of World War II from their perspective. The current Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, wants to revise textbook descriptions that blame the Japanese for their aggressive behavior during the war. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusoke Kishi, was a member of the war cabinet in Tokyo during the war. Though arrested by the Americans at war’s end and suspected of being a Class A war criminal, he was released without charge. Surely Abe’s historical memory of the war is colored by his family experience. Recently he paid a visit to the Yasukani shrine, where soldiers were buried alongside wartime criminals. The shrine remains a controversial site for a political leader to visit.
But it is a good example of personal and historical memory intersecting.
Surely that is the most powerful form of remembrance: the memory that touched our lives or the lives of family members. Some cultures do a better job of inculcating historical events into the minds of their children than we do, so that the historical event seems like a personal memory, one that the students incorporate into their very being. During the 1990s, when Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians were fighting, each called up memories of battles fought in the 1300s — the 1300s! American education cannot compare in this regard. Though re-enactors recreate the battles of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and historical plays are given on the first Thanksgiving, few American children feel a visceral connection with historical events.
Perhaps it is the presentmindedness of our culture that prevents our young people from identifying with the past. Perhaps it is the inadequate means we use to teach history. Perhaps it is an unspoken conviction that the present and the future are much more important than the past. Or perhaps it is the cluttering of our minds with the diversions of the present, thus preventing us from conversing with the past.
Or finally, perhaps, it is because older people often invoke the past in discussing contemporary society and the young are unwilling to identify with that tendency.
In any case, it may be a combination of these and other factors. But the result is the same: a lack of remembrances, either personal or historical, in the memory bank of contemporary Americans. When analysts talk about the “old days”, they generally mean the 1960s or 1970s. When popular cultural events are discussed, the 1950s are analogous to the Middle Ages. The distant past disappears and memory encompasses a much shorter time span. The philosopher George Santayana wrote that those who forgot the past are doomed to repeat it. Whether it returns as farce, tragedy, or comedy depends on the circumstances, but assuredly many human events do repeat themselves in one form or another. Without memory, there is no way to judge the results.