19 September 2015

The Problem With "Memory Studies"

The most recent issue of Hillsdale College's Imprimis, has a fascinating article in it about the current state of "Historical study and history education in the United States today." The piece was adapted from a talk given by Professor Wilfred McClay.

While the ultimate target of McClay's damning piece is the new Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History framework, he takes down several targets on his march toward the AP issue. And one of them is "Memory Studies." Many of his criticisms and observations echo much that has been written and pointed out on this blog over the last 10 years. For example:

. . . the chief purpose of a high school education in American history is as a rite of civic membership, an act of inculcation and formation, a way in which the young are introduced to the fullness of their political and cultural inheritance as Americans, enabling them to become literate and conversant in its many features, and to appropriate fully all that it has to offer them, both its privileges and its burdens. . . . As the historian Donald Kagan has put it, “Democracy requires a patriotic education.” It does so for two reasons: first, because its success depends upon the active participation of its citizens in their own governance; and second, because without such an education, there would be no way to persuade free individuals of the need to make sacrifices for the sake of the greater good. We now seem to think we can dispense with such an education, and in fact are likely to disparage it reflexively, labelling it a form of propaganda or jingoism.
And that flies in the face of what (generally speaking) many current educators, academics and professional historians believe. 

McClay also points out that teaching the concept (in a positive way) of American Exceptionalism is a necessary part of education. As he states:
as historian Donald Kagan has put it, “Democracy requires a patriotic education.”
And teaching that America is exceptional promotes patriotism. This is common sense - and I speak from experience. It's what I was taught. Many others will nod in agreement. Other progressive educators and historians will scoff:
We now seem to think we can dispense with such an education, and in fact are likely to disparage it reflexively, labeling it a form of propaganda or jingoism. But Kagan begs to differ with that assessment. “The encouragement of patriotism,” he laments, “is no longer a part of our public educational system, and the cost of that omission has made itself felt” in a way that “would have alarmed and dismayed the founders of our country.”

McClay explains how this negative attitude toward AE and "patriotism" has come about:
perhaps history is useless because the road we have traveled to date offers us only a parade of negative examples of oppression, error, and obsolescence—an endless tableau of Confederate flags, so to speak—proof positive that the past has no heroes worthy of our admiration, and no lessons applicable to our unprecedented age.
The need for heroes in a culture of a nation has been a frequent topic here. But as progressive historians seem to be so obsessed with our past imperfections and sins, they resist recognizing and celebrating our heroes and achievements. This is the result of presentism, arrogance and a false belief that their generation is always, and in every way, morally and intellectually superior to all that have gone before us. Grand narcissism on parade. 

McClay continues:
This loss of faith in the central importance of history pervades all of American society. Gone are the days when widely shared understandings of the past provided a sense of civilizational unity and forward propulsion. Instead, argues historian Daniel T. Rodgers, we live in a querulous “age of fracture,” in which all narratives are contested, . . . The broad and embracing commonalities of old are no more, undermined and fragmented into a thousand subcultural pieces.
Does that not describe our times and much of modern America? Who deserves the "credit" for this state of affairs? We know. 

McClay echoes much of Professor Gordon Wood's recent criticisms (See here, here and here):
As historian Thomas Bender laments in a recent article, gloomily entitled “How Historians Lost Their Public,” the growth of knowledge in ever more numerous and tightly focused subspecialties of history has resulted in the displacement of the old-fashioned survey course in colleges and universities, with its expansive scale, synthesizing panache, and virtuoso pedagogues. Bender is loath to give up any of the advances made by the profession’s ever more intensive form of historical cultivation, but he concedes that something has gone wrong: historians have lost the ability to speak to, and to command the attention of, a larger audience, even a well-educated one, that is seeking more general meanings in the study of the past. They have indeed lost their public. They have had to cede much of their field to journalists, who know how to write much more accessibly and are willing to explore themes—journalist Tom Brokaw’s celebration of “the greatest generation,” for example—that strike a chord with the public, but which professional historians have been trained to disdain as ethnocentric, triumphalist, or uncritically celebratory. Professional historians complain that such material lacks nuance, rigor, and is prone to re-package the past in terms that readers will find pleasing to their preconceptions. They may be right. But such works are at least being read by a public that is still hungry for history. The loss of a public for history may be due to the loss of a history for the public.
McClay also touches on the recent debates over Confederate symbols and monuments:
Consider in this regard our startling incapacity to design and construct public monuments and memorials. Such edifices are the classic places where history and public life intersect, and they are by their very nature meant to be rallying points for the public consciousness, for affirmation of the body politic, past, present, and future, in the act of recollection and commemoration, and recommitment to the future. There is a profundity, approaching the sacramental, in the atmosphere created by such places, as they draw together generations of the living, the dead, and those yet unborn in a bond of mutuality and solidarity. The great structures and statuary that populate the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—such as the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument—or the solemnity of Arlington National Cemetery, do this superbly well. There is a sense, too, that cemeteries honoring fallen soldiers of the Confederacy somehow deserve our general respect, even if the cause for which they fell does not. But these structures were a product of an earlier time, when the national consensus was stronger.. . . And in a different but not unrelated way, the sudden passion to cleanse the American landscape of any and all allusions to the Confederacy or slaveholding—a paroxysm more reminiscent of Robespierre than of Lincoln—also suggests the emergence of a public that is losing meaningful contact with its own history.
McClay again explores the whys and hows this all happened. When reading his comments, think about the fact that so many of these progressive historians and bloggers pretend that all this has somehow come about organically or in a vacuum, without any push from academia and activist historians. We all know that's absurd and McClay correctly places the blame for much of this exactly where it belongs:
Why has this happened? . . . more generally, it has happened because the whole proposition of revering and memorializing past events and persons has been called into question by our prevailing intellectual ethos, which cares little for the authority of the past and frowns on anything that smacks of hero worship or piety toward our forebears. The past is always required to plead its case before the bar of the present, where it generally loses. That ethos is epitomized in the burgeoning academic study of “memory,” a term that refers in this context to something vaguely suspect.
Bingo. Memory studies, at least in the context he's referring to here, are inherently controlled by presentism. This is why we see many of those who embrace such interpretations and perspectives shouting TAKE IT DOWN in bullhorn fashion when it comes to, not only Confederate imagery, but all of our history which "has been called into question by our prevailing intellectual ethos" - an ethos which is, in my opinion, full of hubris; among other things. McClay continues his critique of memory studies with this:
. . . the systematic problematizing of memory—the insistence on subjecting it to endless rounds of interrogation and suspicion, aiming precisely at the destabilization of public meanings—is likely to produce impassable obstacles to the effective public commemoration of the past. Historians have always engaged in the correcting of popular misrenderings of the past, and that is a very important and useful aspect of their job. But “memory studies” tends to carry the debunking ethos much further, consistently approaching collective memory as nothing more than a willful construction of would-be reality rather than any kind of accurate reflection of it.
Note that McClay's comments very accurately explain why so many localities are no longer recognizing any type of commemoration, let alone celebration, of events tied to the Confederacy. (The recent removal of Jeb Stuart's portrait from a Virginia courtroom is a perfect example.) Again, there are those who will claim this has all occurred in a vacuum. But McClay's piece thoroughly discredits such a claim. 
Scholars in the field examine memory with a jaundiced and highly political eye, viewing nearly all claims for tradition or for a worthy past as flimsy artifice designed to serve the interests of dominant classes and individuals, and otherwise tending to reflect the class, gender, and power relations in which those individuals are embedded.
That paragraph explains, very succinctly, the problem with memory studies. 

There is much more in Professor McClay's piece and I highly recommend it to all readers. Even if you disagree, you will at least understand why so many of us look back at memory studies with a jaundiced eye of our own.

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