“Never Forget.” Easy to Say. Difficult to Guarantee
To Americans, British “Remembrance Day” is “Veterans’ Day”. Unfortunately, Humans have short memories (yes, 100 years is ‘short’). This cataclysmic conflict, as those before it, remains stuck in the mundane. Whatever was set aside by the contemporaries to keep the event alive in the collective memory, has lost it’s context. Now, the special day of commemoration is an excuse for sales, entertainment, and/ or a holiday (day off from our jobs).
I try to bring the ‘historical moment’ alive in my US History class because my students will not be able to relate. This is difficult and one must resort to a bag of pedagogical tricks to retain student focus. Connectedness to a moment in time weakens as the chronological distance increases. The society, likewise, loses it’s focus regarding the special nature or character of a historical moment. It needs to reattach itself to that moment and Veterans Day was supposed to do that with respect to WWI. Can a person in the US, make such a connection nowadays? Is there anything that can break through the blankets of media attention given to sales and shopping opportunities?
I’m not suggesting that my fellow citizens exhibit a unique trait in their apparent disinterest in the historical underpinnings of holidays. I believe that this behavior is part of human nature. The phenomena that makes the Holocaust of the mid-20th C. such an emotionally packed topic of discussion also makes discussion of the 13th & 14th C. Mongol Conquests so NON-emotional. The greater the distance in time, the weaker the connection/ collective memory. Both eras witnessed the deaths of millions (according to historical records) at the hands of other humans.
Some our oldest cultures have tried to keep memories of significant events in the past alive through tradition and rituals. For Americans, we have a plethora of immigrant traditions we can choose from that exhibit this quality. Being a native of Brooklyn, New York, I immediately think of Judaism. But, even in this case, that faith has many hurdles to overcome to maintain a connection between it’s followers and the past. The Jewish diaspora and the pressures to assimilate that all cultures encounter in new lands weaken the strength of tradition and ritual. Cultural vigilance is necessary, though not 100% effective. In a pluralistic society, how can we establish secular traditions and rituals that do not weaken over time to the point that some significant anniversaries (Veterans’ Day) have? How can we capture the awareness that still exists in some, but smaller, communities and infect the rest of the nation with it?
I could end my blog entry here and leave the solution to all of you. That, however, has never been part of my character. I have tried not to complain about anything without also offering a solution. I’m certain that whatever I suggest will not appeal to many. But, I subscribe to the view that the only thing worse than a bad plan is no plan at all. So here I go…
1. Attack the problem where it appears first and has the longest-lasting impact. That would have to be childhood education. School curriculums must include references to these historically significant periods (significant to our nation and humanity in general). I don’t mean one in-class lesson on Thanksgiving, Veterans Day, Pearl Harbor, etc… The curriculum MUST include them to a degree and depth that exceeds a brief mention as the anniversary approaches.
2. School curriculum inclusion should be augmented by ‘experiences’. It’s the experiential element that binds us to the past with a powerful force. Experience leaves its mark on our hearts and in our minds like no in-class lecture could ever do. Museum tours, class visits by any living participants, field trips to relevant sites, guest lecturers who are experts in the field, etc…
3. Support for this effort must be institutional and executed by those who realize the importance of the effort.
4. Which historical anniversaries are chosen should be collaboratively determined. The hosting institutions (schools, school districts, cultural organizations, etc.) must have a voice to offer their suggestions. However, I believe the starting point should be the current anniversaries that are observed nationally. We can work from there.
5. Local authorities can determine whether or not, and to what degree, locally significant historical periods can be included in this educational effort. I would suggest, however, that there be a set criteria as to what would qualify a historical event for inclusion. This caveat is important for several reasons. But, in our own history of sectional disputes, any glorification or immortalization of those disputes to reanimate the argument that one section had against another defeats any purpose to honor the lives and efforts of those who tried to resolve those differences. We must not obscure our collective sacrifices, successes, and dreams because they are what makes us “One from the Many”.
In this last item, I may strike a nerve with some. As a lover of History, I don’t suggest that any topic be excluded from academic investigation. The classroom should be open to discuss all matters, equally subject to debate and the tests of historiography. That, however, is not the point of this blog entry. Within these lines of text I want to encourage all of us to think deeply (Ponder) why it was necessary to perpetuate the memory of a moment in time, like Veterans’ Day. Then, do our best to ensure that time does not weaken the solemnity and respect that those who suffered and sacrificed are due. I am an American, but the justification is all human.