Potholes on Memory Lane

  Jerome Shea       May 11, 2009      Weekend Wonk

James Loewen’s point about Sasa and Zamani actually has to do with events, not people. Like people, history begins “live,” exists for a time as Sasa, and eventually becomes Zamani. A simple rule of thumb: what you are still seeing on the six o’clock news is “live” history. The auto company bailouts are still happening. A couple of years from now, when Chrysler dealers are selling Fiats and when GM is limping along hawking Cadillacs, Buicks, and Chevrolets—when, in short, the bailouts are a thing of the past (a telling phrase)—then they will be Sasa, past events that millions of people will be alive to remember (and argue about). And a hundred years from now, that story, along with the Madoff scandal, the Taliban incursions in Pakistan, and a host of other events that are now riveting our attention will be Zamani. They will have joined the Peloponnesian War and the Salem witch trials in the shadowy graveyard of history. No one but historians will care about them, and even they with only an intellectual passion.

All of this got me thinking of my own perspective on the years and the decades. One gets a feel for history in this way, for what seems to have happened in a kind of elastic yesterday and for what seems impossibly remote.

I was born in 1942. Of course, my memory reaches back only until perhaps 1945. (I’d like to say that I can remember ration stamps, but in fact I can’t). By the early fifties, however, I was pretty well aware of my surroundings, even if those surroundings consisted mostly of a small ambit of childish things. In high school I finally began to be aware of a larger world. In college, I knew as much about politics as any literate adult. When I was a junior, JFK was killed in Dallas, the signal memory (“Where were you when you heard about it?”) for my generation, just as 9/11 is for my children’s.

My point is that all those decades, from the early 1940’s until today, have a kind of stretched presence for me, a very definite reality. They are like a really big room the dimensions and furnishings of which I can appreciate, can see and touch. By contrast, the 1930’s are a kind of no man’s land, half real, half unreal. Because my brother was born in 1938 (during the worst hurricane ever to hit Rhode Island), that decade is semi-real to me. But the 1920’s are as remote for me as the 1620’s. Again, I’m talking feelings here, psychological impressions. I do know my history, thank you very much. I know about the Harding scandals, the Klan lynchings, the stock market crash, and so forth. But in Mark Twain’s helpful distinction, I recognize these events, but I don’t realize them. I was not witness to them. They were not part of my life. Warren G. Harding and Jerome P. Shea have no shared history, did not overlap.

My son, Dan, was born in 1977. I’ll bet the rent that for him the 1960’s are as remote as the 1920’s are for me. Of course, I am utterly astounded by that. How could that possibly be so? The 1960’s, for gosh sakes! EVERYBODY knows the Sixties!

All of which brings us to Beloit College. Since 1998, this Wisconsin school has been publishing “What Your Freshmen Don’t Know,” a list of things that these eighteen-year-olds have no Sasa knowledge of, or the ways in which the world they we born into and became slowly aware of differs fundamentally from the world that is Sasa to their elders. Here are some things that (supposedly) apply to the class entering in 2006:

As you can see, this is semi-serious (and questionable) at best. At worst…well, here is one respondent’s view, and I think he has a point:

“The list seems to be degenerating into a sensationalist attempt to exhibit the newer generation’s ignorance. Earlier on, the list was a pretty good compendium of ‘reality checks’ for modern administrators, but now it is nothing more than a bunch of semi-accurate assumptions thrown together to make old people feel more ‘worldly.’”

The older generation has always baited the younger this way and, frankly, we should be ashamed of ourselves. The original idea, and a good one, was to dissuade professors from running on and on while their students sat there bored and bewildered. As antidote, I try to imagine some wizened codger staring at me incredulously and saying, “What do you mean, you don’t remember Prohibition?”

This is not to say that students shouldn’t read history, but that history—Sasa history—is a tad trickier than we thought. Recognition is not realization. Let’s cut the kids some slack.

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