Collective Memory 101

Next week I head down to Charleston, South Carolina for the Civil War Trust’s annual teachers institute.  This is my third year working with CWT and it’s always a rewarding experience.  My talk is on the history of Civil War monuments and how they can be integrated into the classroom.  As a preface to my talk I need to introduce the concept of collective memory.  Here are a few points from Michael Kammen’s seminal study, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture, that I hope will help to get the ball rolling.

If collective memory (usually a code phrase for what is remembered by the dominant civic culture) and popular memory (usually referring to ordinary folks) are both abstractions that have to be handled with care, what (if anything) can we assert with assurance?

1. That public interest in the past pulses; it comes and goes.
2. That we have highly selective memories of what we have been taught about the past.
3. That the past may be mobilized to serve partisan purposes.
4. That the past is commercialized for the sake of tourism and related enterprises.
5. That invocations of the past (as tradition) may occur as a means of resisting change or of achieving innovations.
6. That history is an essential ingredient in defining national, group, and personal identity.
7. That the past and its sustaining evidence may give pleasure for purely aesthetic and non-utilitiarian reasons.
8. And finally, that individuals and small groups who are strongly tradition-oriented commonly seek to stimulate a shared sense of the past within their region.

From Charleston it’s back to Gettysburg for the Richard Bartol, Jr. Educator’s Conference, which is organized by the National Park Service and Gettysburg Foundation.  I get to talk about digital media literacy, but the highlight for me will be my talk on teaching the movie Glory in the Majestic Theatre.  It should be a lot of fun.

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6 comments… add one
  • H Donald Capps Jul 31, 2012 @ 6:02

    I think that Gordon Wood may have best summed up the issue of “popular memory” in his review of Jill Lapore’s “The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History” in the New York Review of Books (“No Thanks for the Memories,” 13 January 2011):

    “Popular memory is not history…”

  • Mary Ellen Maatman Jul 2, 2012 @ 10:55

    Excellent set of points, Kevin. What are your favorite resources (books or articles) for delving into these ideas?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 2, 2012 @ 11:23

      I still think David Blight’s Race and Reunion is the best place to start. Others are free to offer their own suggestions.

      • Mary Ellen Maatman Jul 3, 2012 @ 10:17

        I agree. I think Blight’s book is terrific, and very persuasively argued.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 3, 2012 @ 10:21

          So, if you are familiar with Blight’s book let me recommend both John Neff’s Honoring the Civil War Dead and David Goldfield’s Still Fighting the Civil War.

          • Mary Ellen Maatman Jul 5, 2012 @ 12:41

            I’ve seen Goldfield but haven’t looked at it for a while, and I will look forward to reading Neff. Thank you!

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