History by hearsay

There's a commonplace that each generation must write its own history. I recall hearing this a lot in college, in part as a reminder that history was not studied for the sake of the dead, but for the sake of the living.

The idea carried a weight of obligation: Historians were responsible for shining certain oblique lights from the past into their own time, illuminating unusual or troubling characteristics of the present. I always assumed that rewriting the past was a kind of moral duty, a noble cause - with the slightly mildewy characteristic that noble causes so often acquire.

It wasn't until I began teaching that I learned a more realistic version of my ''noble cause.'' My students in freshman English had ideas about the past, too - especially the recent past. They knew, or thought they knew, all about Vietnam, sit-ins, Watts, Martin Luther King, Watergate, and a variety of other milestones. Most of them were born in 1965 or 1966 and came of age long after the events that interested them had become famous or infamous legends.

As I talked to them and read their papers I came to understand that they, too , were rewriting the past: They were trying to bring to bear on the present the puzzle pieces of information they had gleaned from rock 'n' roll, television, and various books. They compared and contrasted political problems, trends in dress and family life, and music as a way of situating themselves, of finding out who they were in relation to a previous generation they knew to be in some way remarkable. In this sense they were like the historians I knew in college.

In another sense, however, they were utterly unlike these historians. For many of my students, the past was the stuff of conversation - a kind of television miniseries or casual oral history. Fact was not particularly important. Though they believed that what they knew was factual, they did not usually bother to research it; they trusted hearsay.

In one paper, a student compared American society in the 1960s and the 1980s, using representative song lyrics from the two decades. His interpretation of the '60s was fascinating, after I got over the initial shock. He had understood the famous lyric ''It's your thing, do what you wanna do'' to imply that the decade was full of self-absorbed people who, through their selfishness, were leading the country to anarchy. His interpretation of riots and sit-ins followed from this judgment: Such events happened more or less spontaneously as people vented their frustration at not being able to do their own thing. He was glad to conclude that the '80s had left this kind of selfishness behind.

To me the inadequacy of the student's response was obvious - in part because I had lived through that period, and knew the source of, for example, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war protests to be more than incidental selfishness. Yet there was a gulf between us. I had lived through it, and he had not. I could not give him my experiences, I could not take him through the time tunnel (or even re-create for him the brilliance of ''The Time Tunnel,'' a very '60s television show).

I could help him, essentially, in only three ways. I could tell him that he had misunderstood; I could give him a glimpse of my experiences, my perceptions; and I could send him to the library. I could tell him that rewriting the past from hearsay was dangerous and liable to lead not only to misevaluating the past , but misevaluating the present as well. I could tell him that an understanding of society's evolution over the last couple of decades could indeed give him a better perspective on the range and seriousness of the problems of the present - but only if he studied those decades, thought about their contradictions and complexities, and tried to arrive at an appreciation for what those people had lived.

In this way - without the stereotyped moral duty or noble cause - he would begin actually to rewrite history for himself, discovering the power of a genuine remembering.

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