The future of historical amnesia

I’m continually surprised at the number of people who know little and care less about events before they were born.  Since I was 30 or so, I’ve been muttering to myself, “Kids these days!  They think history began with the Kennedy assassination.” “…with Watergate.” “with the Reagan administration.” “…with the Monica Lewinsky scandal.” “…with the 9/11 attacks.”

Historical knowledge gives you a frame of reference for understanding the present, as well as providing a reminder that things weren’t always the way they were today.  Without knowledge of history and culture, I would be at the mercy of the advertising, propaganda and the mass media.  If I didn’t remember the Joe McCarthy era, or have knowledge of the internment of the Japanese during World War Two, Big Red Scare of the 1920s or the Alien and Sedition laws in the early days of the American republic, I might regard our present Homeland Security state as normal

My earliest historical memory is of World War Two.  I don’t remember Pearl Harbor, but I remember patriotically collecting scrap paper and metal, and I do remember how my third grade class was given the day off in honor of V-E Day.  My earliest memory of a political argument was from when I was in the sixth grade, and I argued for re-election of President Harry Truman against the challenger Thomas E. Dewey.

But World War Two didn’t occur merely because Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo were evil people.  It had its roots in World War One and the blood-and-soil nationalism of the 19th century.  Truman and Dewey didn’t come out of nowhere.  They were the political heirs of Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, of the Great Depression and New Deal, and of the conflicts of the Populist and Progressive eras around the turn of the previous century.

It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect everyone to be as fascinated with history as I am.  But I continually find people who consider themselves to be highly educated who are ignorant of basic historical facts.  I wonder whether this historical amnesia is distinctively American or whether it is universal in the modern world.

Click on xkcd for cartoons and occasional infographics like the one above.

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2 Responses to “The future of historical amnesia”

  1. informationforager Says:

    Yep, You’re right. This whole history thing is very important. You’re right about Truman following FDR. In fact, FDR basically took many of his ideas from Al Smith and Huey Long.

    I kind of hate this whole time thing though. We can’t stop it, we can’t slow it down. It just keeps on rolling. I realized this a couple of years ago when reviewing an old movie(1985) called “The Falcon and the Snowman.” I had originaly seen it when it was released in the theaters. It’ basically about two US teenagers that became spys. My epiphany came when I reviewed it and found that the actual guys that committd the crimes had actualy been released from prison. They served less than 25 years but that 25 years somehow became a blip on the radar in my life. Thanks.


  2. Atticus Finch Says:

    History is a funny thing. 1.) The victors write history. 2.) People forget history and facts are changed.

    With that being said – I can read about the world wars, the great depression, etc., but I can never know what it was really like. There is something said to having experienced an event.

    I often wonder how much that is taught in the history books is actually fact. I remember being taught Columbus discovered America. Later I heard that Scandinavians found it first. Then I realized the Native Americans were basically killed and moved off the land. So what’s true?

    It is a shame that history is so well manipulated and so easily forgotten. That’s why I step back and realize that sometimes its a good think to let someone who has experienced a thing or two lead the way. The only thing I can do is keep reading, keep experiencing and try to cut through all the clutter.


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