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Paul Horton: The New American Amnesia: Trouble in Gatopia II

Guest post by Paul Horton.

The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their own history.

Orwell


A lot of people I've been running into lately can't seem to remember important details about anything. I get stuck on spelling "the" sometimes and I reverse digits on my phone number a bunch. We all wonder why, even those of us under fifty and who haven't delivered kids, we seem to be loosing our memories.

A recent study (was it released today?) revealed that 9% of Americans take sleeping pills to get to sleep. Somebody a few years ago (10? 20?) said that we had become a Prozac nation, though I have heard (when?) that aluminum, not reading, and lack of exercise can also contribute to memory loss. And, of course, those sports that use the head as another appendage, football and soccer, do lots of damage, too.

But the sort of memory loss I want to talk about involves memory in the singular use. This kind of memory loss is the favorite subject of our nation's memory therapists otherwise known as historians. You know, those talking head guys on all of those PBS documentaries that are all narrated somehow by one guy, David McCullough.

Lots of historians foam at the mouth about this kind of memory loss: Russell Jacoby in his Social Amnesia (my personal favorite), Clive James in his Cultural Amnesia, and Christopher Lasch in his book about our national disease, The Culture of Narcissism.

In my humble opinion, though, I think we have finally found a memory therapist who has nailed the loss-of-memory problem. In an absolutely brilliant short article recently published in The Organization of American Historians, The Magazine of History, Augustana History Professor Lendol Calder suggests that young people who enter his freshman history classes no longer bring with them any story of American History. Since most non-geeky non-history people will not read it, I'll try to serve the wider public with this all too short synopsis.

I know what you are thinking, what does he do, stimulate the dead history brain cells in some kind of Walker Percy like machine? (MRI?). His method is not that complicated, but even more ingenious, if there is such a thing anymore as low-tech genius.

Professor Calder quizzes every incoming freshman history student. Yes, on the first day of class! He requires them to write a 600-word narrative of American history before they do anything else. He has collected these narratives for nearly twenty years and has developed rubrics and categories to classify them. Most of these stories, it turns out, fall within four categories: 1) The Glory Story about America as the beacon and defender of World freedom 2) The Gory story of American genocide, racism, and imperialism that is the flip side of the Glory Story 3) The High Ideals story of a country that messes up a lot, but still strives to overcome its shortcomings, and 4) The Chaos story where there is simply no narrative, just big events that students can not place on a timeline; kind of like a Jackson Pollack fling-a-thon or a bunch of responses to Leno's "On the Street" history questions thrown together randomly, and 5) there are the responses that can't be categorized and its not worth going there, wherever there is (in some kind of cloud?).

You can probably guess where this is going. Calder says that between the Spring Term of 2000 and the Winter Term of 2011, the number of students who penned the Chaos Story rose from 28% to 72%. Sadly, Calder concludes that, "in a remarkably short time, the capacity to find any meaning at all in the past and articulate it in a coherent narrative seems to have evaporated."

Yes, I can hear the statisticians among you objecting: "but isn't this a limited sample?" Yes, Professor Calder suggests that these are preliminary results based on a limited sample and he has enlisted professors from all over the country at differing kinds of colleges to use his model pre-assessment and categorization scheme. Strikingly, British researcher Denis Shemilt has reached remarkably similar conclusions, "Investigations into pupils' constructs about the past...indicate not only that few British fifteen year olds develop useful and historical narrative frameworks but that, for many, the 'event space' within such narratives form and grow incoherent and lacking in order and meaning."

This conclusion, of course, begs the important question we all need to answer, why this troubling loss of memory? Corporate education reformers could respond that this loss of memory represents is yet another failure of the American School system.

Calder would say, to the contrary, as Kenneth Bernstein did in a Washington Post blog posted by Valerie Strauss, that Corporate Reform and teaching to the test for exit exams and AP courses have so atomized our national historical narrative that it no longer exists. Because of the focus on memorizing the trees that standardized tests require, we have lost the idea of the forest.

Calder presciently argues that our national history is at a very important disintegration point: our memory is melting away into a rising ocean (sound familiar?) We need to teach "Big stories. We can't afford to neglect storytelling when it is fundamental to human comprehension of the world. My blindness about this became apparent when studying stories students tell and don't tell anymore. It is a disposition they have learned from their schooling and the zeitgeist [i.e. vacuous popular culture and digitalized information]. If I am right about this, then our work is cut out for us. If we do not put back stories at the center of history teaching, the past will be unaffected, but the future of history will be in doubt. Why would anyone value something they learned to regard as pointless?"

So, the moral of this story is that digitalized, atomized, passionless data collection that passes as education is probably killing our collective identity---our history. Storytelling is probably at least 50,000 years old and the most important form of knowing for humans for 49, 900 of those years. Have the standardizers lost our minds somewhere?

I can't remember: Lendol, were you the guy in Austin with a long beard and ratty army jacket? I know we were in the same history class.

I do know and will not forget that you are an A+ teacher, the kind of teacher who is brilliant without confusing us all with big fancy words. I hope that education policy makers will take the time to listen to you!

Oh, I forgot, the Education czar in Seattle has all of our memory stored in "the Cloud."

Part I of Troubles Ahead for Gatopia? can be found here.

Paul Horton has taught for thirty years in virtually every kind of school. He began his teaching career in a recently integrated rural Texas middle school. He then taught for five years in a large urban high school in San Antonio's West side where the majority of young people were ESL. He has been teaching at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the country's most diverse independent school founded by John Dewey, for fourteen years.

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