When history and memory collide

In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.

This week, guest columnist Todd Groce, president and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society, looks at how we understand the past.

By W. Todd Groce

W. Todd Groce

W. Todd Groce

As another academic year gets under way, I am reminded of a study released this past May that reveals how little American students know about their nation’s history. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, last year only 18 percent of middle school students scored at a level of proficiency in history. Additional studies have demonstrated that this glaring lack of historical knowledge is not confined to the young, but is a pervasive problem even among adults.

What’s fascinating about these studies is that they have appeared at a time of intense debate about history. Since the shooting in Charleston last June, Confederate iconography has undergone a dramatic reexamination. The passion with which we are arguing about the removal of the Rebel battle flag and statues of Confederate heroes seems to disprove the findings of the experts.

How can we square our supposedly poor understanding of history with this keen interest in the future of historical symbols and the larger discussion about the role they play in our contemporary lives? If we are ignorant of the history, why do we care so much about it?

flagEveryone, even an individual without a formal education, has some notion of what he or she thinks happened in the past. This notion usually derives from family stories, school and religious instruction, political leaders, or movies we’ve seen. It shapes how we perceive ourselves, the way we interact with others, and the decisions we make, big and small, every day.

This personal notion of the past can be termed “memory” and should not be confused with “history.” In fact, memory is frequently at odds with history. According to Yale University professor David Blight:

“History is what trained historians do, a reasoned reconstruction of the past rooted in research. . . . [On the other hand,] memory is often treated as a sacred set of absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage or identity of a community. Memory is often owned, history interpreted. Memory is passed down through generations; history is revised. Memory often coalesces in objects, sites, and monuments; history seeks to understand contexts in all their complexity. History asserts the authority of academic training and canons of evidence; memory carries the often more immediate authority of community membership and experience.”

Historian Bernard Bailyn has aptly stated memory’s appeal: “Its relation to the past is an embrace . . . ultimately emotional, not intellectual.”

Unlike history, memory is a static, fixed narrative we typically learn as children designed to be passed down, unaltered, from one generation to another. Any deviation from this story, any attempt to provide context, meaning, or a new understanding, is often condemned as “historical revisionism,” a phrase that carries an ugly, threatening connotation. According to such critics, if we could just get back to the “facts” and rid ourselves of “political correctness” and its corrupting influences, we would get at the “true” story once again.

march-to-the-sea-savannahWhat many people don’t realize is that all history is revisionism. Any time someone picks up a pen or sits at a keyboard and writes the story of the past, they are engaging in revisionism — a revising of the story to give it meaning, context, and usefulness to the present generation. Just like medicine and any other field of learning, history is continually revised based on new research and findings. We don’t want doctors treating patients with medicinal bleeding and unsterilized instruments, so why would we want history that is frozen in time?

As Blight points out, memory is deeply emotional rather than intellectual. During the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the Georgia Historical Society installed two new historical markers about the March to the Sea that attempted to de-mythologize the subject. Despite decades of scholarly research demonstrating that Sherman’s destruction was primarily limited to foodstuffs, livestock, factories, and railroads, the suggestion that most private homes escaped unscathed triggered an angry reaction from those raised on stories of Southern victimization.

“Some of us still remember,” declared one outraged older Savannahian when she read the marker text. “My grandmother told me that Sherman burned all the houses to the ground. Are you telling me she was a liar?” Obviously, this woman wasn’t alive during the Civil War, but memory is not confined to eyewitnesses. It is transmitted across time.

Historian and Atlanta native C. Mildred Thompson's 1915 book on Reconstruction in Georgia differed from previous histories in its moderate racial views.

Historian and Atlanta native C. Mildred Thompson’s 1915 book on Reconstruction in Georgia differed from previous histories in its moderate racial views.

De-mythologizing the past and supplanting memory with history is not easy. It’s difficult to think anew about something that seems familiar, to look at the past dispassionately and with a sense of wonder rather than defensiveness. The recent backlash over the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol shows just how deeply attached we can be to “heritage” — a term synonymous with memory — and how that heritage and even our identity can appear to be under attack when they are called into question by history.

If history and memory are not interchangeable terms, the same can be said of history and the past. Although the past never changes, history does. History is the meaning that the present gives to the past; as society changes, so too does our interpretation of the past.

For instance, prior to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, hardly anyone (especially in the South) talked about slavery’s role in triggering secession. In fact, African Americans seemed irrelevant to the conflict. Today, however, we understand just how seminal slavery was to tearing apart the nation, as well as the vital role that African American soldiers and sailors played in defeating the Confederacy. Did the facts change? No, but society did. Black political participation and leadership encouraged historians to reexamine the history of the war and helped restore the centrality of African Americans to the story of our nation’s greatest crisis.

Ironically, at a time when the clash between history and memory is more heated than ever, there are educators and politicians who consider history increasingly irrelevant as a subject of academic study. Confronted by the new emphasis on STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math), a number of major historical organizations across the country, including the Georgia Historical Society, have launched a “History Relevance Campaign” aimed at promoting the value of history. If you would like to read more or learn how you can get involved and support this worthy effort, go to www.historyrelevance.com.

The ongoing debate about flags, monuments, state holidays, and street names is the latest battle in the long war between memory and history. Whether we are finally able to resolve this debate depends upon our willingness to look beyond memory and seek an historical understanding of how we got to this point. If we are willing to take the past on its own terms and accept it as it happened — even if that contradicts what we have always believed — then maybe we will find a measure of reconciliation with our history and with one another that has escaped us for so long. Ultimately how we decide to see our past — either through the lens of history or that of memory — will determine the kind of people and society we will become.

Dr. W. Todd Groce is President and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society and the author and co-editor of two books on the Civil War era. 

Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

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