On Facebook today, a friend close to my age commented that "we didn't learn about Pearl Harbor in school." A shame, right?
Well, actually, no. It's more a shame that "kids today" need to have someone in school teach them about it. And it's a shame that a lot of them are going to pay scant attention, more interested in the latest missives from SnapChat. Just five years after 9/11, I was sitting in a car repair shop waiting room, and on the TV, the news station was showing the annual reading of the names in remembrance. One young woman looked at the screen and said "What's ...? Oh, it's that thing in NY with the towers and all." And then she went back to her phone or magazine or whatever had claimed her attention. I was kind of outraged. That was 10 years ago; the number of people like her must have multiplied tenfold by now.
Pearl Harbor and the Great Depression are taught in schools now, but back in the 1960s, we learned about it from our parents. Many of our fathers shipped out to the Pacific in response to the Japanese attack. Too many of my classmates lost grandparents in the Holocaust, or had family members who escaped Nazi Germany by the luck of the draw.
And of course, The Depression. We ALL knew what that was. We had parents who watered down ketchup and folded our blankets double, who became nearly hysterical if we appeared to be wasting food. Neuropsychologists have confirmed that the children of parents who endured hardship and trauma actually carry mutated genes -- biological memory, if you will -- of events that took place long before they were born. So some of their understanding of the events is "nature," but most of it is still "nurture."
We heard the stories and formed pictures in our heads. Pictures of nylon stockings treated like gold; blackout curtains; families forced out of their homes, wandering just like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. The panic over polio. We all knew that World War II "cured" the Depression, but at such a price. Throughout my childhood, my mom's voice would periodically tremble, and she'd give out with "Franklin Delano Roosevelt...and don't you ever forget it!" We learned about the nineteen thirties and forties, not only in terms of what they were, but also what they weren't. They were about community, never about individuals. They were about sacrifice, never about self-indulgence or ego. All the things that Archie and Meathead argued about on All in the Family lay at the heart of our parents' remembrances of those decades that were trying to recede into the past, only to be kept alive in their hearts and minds. They cared about them, so we did too. When someone close to you tells the same story over and over again, you internalize it. You may be getting the story just from their point of view, but then, you hear similar stuff from your friends and their parents. So you take it in, and understand that it's true. This is nothing like sitting in a classroom, being read to from a textbook. Even if the book has lots of interesting pictures. It just isn't the same.
All of the recent angst over the election ... Sure, I'm unhappy. I wonder how any thinking, caring person could not be worrying. But as many classmates have said, we've been through this. Many of us emerged from college in 1981 (especially in the "blue" states) and saw the truisms we'd grown up with suddenly rendered irrelevant as soon as Ronald Reagan said "...so help me God." Too, too ironic that less than two months before we gained Reagan, we lost Lennon. Instead of the weeping Indian next to the trash-clogged stream, we had "trickle-down economics." Instead of the ideals of Woodstock, we were inundated with disco, celebrating the joys of materialism. Designer jeans. Suddenly, the homey savings bank down the block was an impersonal corporate entity, where money seemed to be sucked out of your hands, with fees generating income only for anonymous executives in North Carolina or Delaware. A jarring reversal of things we'd grown up expecting to see continue, now that we were adults. This unpleasant personal history is the only thing keeping me even marginally sane as Inauguration Day approaches. We've seen this before. We came through it, maybe not entirely unscathed. Now it doesn't feel so much like a "sea change" as just a pendulum swinging back in a direction we thought maybe we'd seen the last of in 2012.
But it's truly worrisome to think that much of the electorate this time around has no personal memory of key moments of American history. They're too young to have heard about World War II or the Depression from their parents, or even their grandparents. Now that vibrant personal history is homogenized, sanitized, and packaged in large-print paper-bound texts ... with teachers who also have no personal connection to it! And the editors and publishers of the texts may have no memory of it, or worse, they have a political agenda that makes it expedient to spin the stories in an untrue direction. If you'd like to know more about that, Google The Gablers and Texas textbook publishing.
Once the older generations pass, it's up to those who follow to keep the truth alive. History is most meaningful when it still "happens" to us.