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Remembering the past. Richard M. who?

ANOTHER school year will begin soon. As usual, my teaching load will include a freshman section of US history survey. While preparing for this class, I've been struck repeatedly by one inescapable thought: most of these students were born in the same year Richard M. Nixon took office as the 37th President of the US. Richard M. who? For these young students, the world is so new, and their personal knowledge of history is limited. This absence of historical memory holds profound implications for them and for our society as they enter adulthood and assume their proper role in the nation's decisionmaking process.

Most of these freshmen were born in 1969, four years after the US escalated its military role in Vietnam, and they were only six years old when Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City. How can they be expected to comprehend the divisiveness the war engendered in this country in the 1960s? Or the lingering effects Vietnam continues to exert on the American foreign policy debate today? On the basis of their own memory, they cannot do so.

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These students were born about a year after the tragic assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy. They can have no direct recollection of the role these men played in the civil rights movement, and little more memory of its underlying struggle. This may lead some of them to question why President Reagan's nomination of federal appellate Judge Robert Bork to the United States Supreme Court has stirred up so much fuss.

They were only three years old when the Watergate break-in occurred, and five years old when President Nixon resigned to avoid probable impeachment. During this summer, they have heard many comparisons drawn between the Watergate scandal and the Iran-contra affair, but their ability to evaluate the legitimacy of those comparisons is limited by their lack of personal memory of 1974's ``Impeachment Summer.''

With the remembrance of the 42nd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki earlier this month, we should also recall that these college students are not the children but, rather, the grandchildren of the atomic age. They have never known a time when nuclear weapons did not exist, and thankfully, they have never seen one used in war.

They cannot directly know the causes or many events of the four-decade-long cold war, so they may lack some of the reflexive distrust of the Soviet Union that has characterized much of this period. This might not be such a bad thing as we approach the possibility of the first substantive Soviet-United States nuclear arms agreement in a decade, but they should be careful to avoid the na"ivet'e that their absence of historical memory might occasion.

Studying the past through the lens of the present, which we all do to one degree or another, is admittedly not the same thing as directly experiencing those events that have shaped our national and global history.

And, as too many politicians, commentators, and even history teachers often demonstrate, the lessons of history are subject to frequent misinterpretation and misapplication.

So, as my freshmen may ask me on the first day of class, ``Why bother? After all, isn't studying the present more important than learning about a bunch of dead people?'' It is not enough simply to respond that the state of Texas or Concordia Lutheran College requires them to study history. A better answer was once suggested by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a dead person whose acquaintance my students will make presently:

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``The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky.''

If they're paying attention as they read their assignments and listen during class time - and if I'm doing my job properly - my students should come to realize what Emerson had in mind before the semester ends.

Joe Patrick Bean is assistant professor of history at Concordia Lutheran College in Austin, Texas.

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