My students seemed to really enjoy the act of writing their own obituaries. As I mentioned the other day I like to begin the year with a lesson that forces students to challenge the way they think about the idea or concept of history. We tend to see history as a subject to be studied in books rather than as a biological necessity rooted in the cognitive and physical architecture of the brain. To put it in Daniel Dennett’s terms, we are programmed to string words together into complex narratives that are based in large part on our ability to recall our individual and collective pasts. To make the point I shared a story that can be found in Oliver Sacks’s book An Anthropologist On Mars. I don’t remember all of the details, but one of the chapters is about a man who after 1972 was unable to integrate his short and long-term memory. Even as late as the 1990’s when he was being treated by Sacks he still believed that it was 1972. This man’s long-term memory remained intact up to the year 1972, but was unable to add on following the trauma. At one point in the story Sacks took this man to a Grateful Dead concert. Following the concert Sacks asked him how he liked it. His response conveys the tragedy behind his personal affliction: he suggested that the music sounded as if it was ahead of its time. If you have some sense of how the music of the Grateful Dead evolved between the early 1970’s and 1990’s you can appreciate the reference. It took a few minutes for my students to grasp what all of this meant for the patient; imagine that every new experience would be washed away within a matter of hours. The following day Sacks approached his patient and asked how he liked the Grateful Dead concert. He responded by indicating that he had seen the Dead last year in 1971 out in California.
I asked my students to think about what would be lost if we were unable to remember. They talked about not being able to build friendships or learn from past mistakes. Their answers tended to revolve around the ways our individual identities would be threatened or permanently lost. One of the students commented that she felt very fragile after realizing how quickly our sense of self can be damaged or lost.
I was able to transition to the obituary exercise by drawing a connection between our deep need to remember our own pasts with that of others. Why do we feel such a need to remember the lives of others? Studying the individual obituaries gave us a chance to think about this question along with the more specific issue of how we remember. Students explained why they preferred specific entries over others. Finally, I asked them to share their own obituaries with the class. It’s a great way to break the ice during those first few days and for me to learn a bit about each student. Some of them imagined their own deaths in the present while others imagined a rich life well into their 90’s. At the end I asked the class to think about the one common thread that coursed throughout each obituary. It took some time for them to focus in on it, but they eventually nailed it:
Each of us has a deep need to remember and/or to be remembered.