Thursday, January 5, 2017

Mystic Chords of Memory and the teaching of American history

Wilfred M. McClay

"It is one thing to believe the past is unworthy of our attention. It's another thing to assert that it is unworthy of our respect. We now confront both of these attitudes at once, and it is hard to say which is the more threatening. It is alarming to have our suspicion confirmed, most recently by a Department of Education survey of 22,000 American schoolchildren, that our young people are learning next to nothing about American history. But it is equally alarming to contemplate what passes for historical study in the academy, the arena in which our leaders are educated. There the reign of identity politics and political correctness has, if anything, only fortified its hold in recent years. It sometimes seems that, to paraphrase the old blues song, if it wasn't for bad history, we wouldn't have no history at all. Indeed, it is a melancholy thing to reflect, as I sometimes do, that the only consolation to be had for the execrable courses our students endure is the fact that they won't remember them after they graduate. Unfortunately, though, they may not remember any of the good stuff either.
It's time, then, to recover some fairly basic truths. Historical consciousness is to civilized society what memory is to individual identity. One cannot say who or what one is -- one can't say one is anyone, or anything, at all -- without some selective retention of experience and source of continuity. One cannot learn, use language, pass on knowledge, raise offspring, or even dwell in society without the aid of memory. Without memory there are no workable rules of conduct, no standard of justice, no basis for restraining passions, no sense of the connection between an action and its consequences. There can be no sense of the future, as a moment in time we know will come, because we remember that other tomorrows have come, too. And there can be no recognition of the sacred, no act of consecration or devotion to the unseen -- for nothing exists but the proximate and the sensate. A culture without memory will necessarily be barbarous, no matter how technologically advanced and sophisticated, because the daily drumbeat of artificial sensations and amplified events will drown out all other sounds, including the strains of an older music.
In our day, even the academic study of history has begun to yield to such barbarism. For an increasing number of younger historians, the whole point of studying the past is to "prove" that all our inherited institutions, beliefs, conventions, and normative values are arbitrary -- mere "social constructions" in the service of ignoble power -- and are therefore utterly without legitimacy or authority. In this view, it is absurd to imagine that the study of the past could have any purpose beyond serving the immediate needs of the present -- and anyone who thinks otherwise is either disingenuous or stupid. The very idea of being enlarged or drawn out of ourselves by encountering the strangeness of the past -- and the strange familiarity of the past -- now seems quite beside the point.
Kirk's view of the matter was different, first of all because, for him, the past was a land of enchantment, pervaded with flitting shadows and ghostly presences. But it was also the source of what little real solidity there is to be found in the world. The study of the past, he believed, should cause us to recognize the ways that the past has authority over us. For historical consciousness, as he understood it, is not merely an awareness of the past and of one's own connection to it. It is the cultivation of respect for what cannot be seen, for the invisible sources of meaning and authority in our lives -- for the formative agents and foundational principles that, although no longer tangible, have made possible what is worthy in our own day. To borrow from the language of religious faith, the tutelage of historical consciousness teaches us what it means to walk by faith, and not only by sight."

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