Thursday, March 1, 2018

Historical Postcards Redux

The most popular post I've ever written dates back to 2008.  It's called "Historical Postcards and the Battle of New Orleans."  It's not my favorite post, or my best written, and I can't explain its popularity.  But it gets at something that still really fascinates me, the question of national memory.  Why do we remember certain events and people (the Civil War, Joe DiMaggio) while others slip away (the Korean War, Stan Musial)?  And what become the indelible images, the "postcards," that are stamped in the memory of a generation?

In the 2008 post, I took a stab at naming the five events that had the greatest impact on my generation (mid-to-younger Boomers): 9/11, the Challenger disaster, the moon landing, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the assassination of JFK.

It's now a decade from that 2008 post, and the Pew Research Center has asked roughly the same question, expanded to include a "series of related events."  As you can see, 9/11 ranks first, followed by the election of our first black President and the tech revolution.

This list, which includes events over some sixty years, can be broken down by generation.  Pew has done that:

It's interesting to compare the Millennial (b. 1982-2004+/-) and the Silent generations (b. 1925-1945), born about sixty years apart.  Their results are very different because of the way the question (in YOUR lifetime") is asked.  Still, the overlap years, 1982 to 2018, share 9/11, Obama, and the tech revolution in common.

I don't have any profound conclusion to draw from these lists.  I suppose, if I were writing school curriculum, I would make sure the things that a prior generation found of highest impact were taught to generations that had not experienced them first-hand.  But even that conclusion is tentative and fraught.

For example, in historian Joyce Appleby's Inheriting the Revolution, she wonders what the first generation of Americans, "had they met one another in old age," would have reminisced about.  She thinks: the French Revolution that "split their leaders into antagonistic Federalist and Republican camps"; General Anthony Wayne's victory over the confederated Indian tribes at Fallen Timbers that opened up the upper Ohio River valley to settlement; the outpouring of grief at the death of George Washington; the Haitian revolt that created the first black republic; the Richmond theater fire of 1811 with its 71 fatalities; Lafayette's tour through the states in 1825 and 1826; the voyage of the Clermont on the Hudson River; the Cane Ridge revival meeting that drew 20,000 people; and the total darkness of the June 1806 total eclipse.

Would you want to write all of these events into the modern curriculum?

It seems impossible today that 9/11, the top event across four generations, will ever fade.  But, remember the Alamo?  Kind of.  Remember the Maine?  Not much.  Remember the Richmond theater fire of 1811?

Which is why I continue to find this question of national memory so fascinating.