17 May 2010

Memory, History, Education

"In fact, [Dr. Karim Nader] says, it may be impossible for humans or any other animal to bring a memory to mind without altering it in some way. Nader thinks it’s likely that some types of memory, such as a flashbulb memory, are more susceptible to change than others. Memories surrounding a major event like September 11 might be especially susceptible, he says, because we tend to replay them over and over in our minds and in conversation with others—with each repetition having the potential to alter them."*

When Alec Couros sent me the article quoted above, I had just finished the virtual performance of a presentation to the Computers in Education Society of Ireland on "Human Communication." My argument was that the "Gutenberg Era" was an aberration in human knowledge construction, with its fixed-texts locking down our information and cultural memory. More "human" I argued, was the form of constant change by all hands typical of both "pre-Gutenberg," and now.

This may be a difficult idea for many educators. Our entire education system has been constructed in the era of the book and fixed text. In the idea that "unchanged" text and "consolidated" memory is best. Adapting and changing texts and memories with each use, based on the circumstances of each recall and retell, seems sloppy and unreliable. Our best witnesses seem to be those with the most consistent memories, our best histories are those which quote exactly.

But if that is truly an impossibility with human memory, perhaps all of our notions of both history and knowledge are a "fiction" - it is the consistency and the fixed nature of text which is made up.

Chris Marker's 1962 masterpiece La Jetee on the concept and strength of memory (see NetFlix Streaming for English or here for English Subtitles)

Though you usually would not know by looking at either an American school or an American news program, history matters, and so memory matters. History is how we construct ourselves on this earth. And memory touches so much of what we do in classrooms. If the "accuracy" we seek is illusory, how does this alter pedagogy?

"People tend to have accurate memories for the basic facts of a momentous event—for example, that a total of four planes were hijacked in the September 11 attacks—but often misremember personal details such as where they were and what they were doing at the time. Hardt says this could be because these are two different types of memories that get reactivated in different situations. Television and other media coverage reinforce the central facts. But recalling the experience to other people may allow distortions to creep in. “When you retell it, the memory becomes plastic, and whatever is present around you in the environment can interfere with the original content of the memory.”'

Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour tries to bring collective memories together

The same director's L'année dernière à Marienbad (1961) challenges whether any memory can truly be shared.

The tragedies of our collective world are powerful motivators. Would US elections - and thus - US society be different without any memories of September 11, 2001? Why do these memories motivate those closest to the tragedy - New Yorkers - in ways different than many others? What might Northern Ireland be like without reinforced memory? What might happen there if that collective memory was encouraged to shift rather than solidify? Iranian President Ahmadinejad is probably quite politically "right" in his Holocaust Denial, no matter how absurd it sounds. The world would view Israeli politics in a very different way if the Holocaust was forgotten. And yet, if memories were completely plastic, why wouldn't the now 60+ year-old boundaries of African nations be more accepted than they are?

All of this suggests our "writing" and "re-writing" process. When we recall a memory, can it really ever be unimpacted by the surroundings of our recall? The lost love recalled while alone on a rainy day is a different perception than that same lost love recalled as you look into the eyes of your current love on a sunny day. And when it is "refiled" - "Nader suggests that reconsolidation may be the brain’s mechanism for recasting old memories in the light of everything that has happened since" - it will be different, depending on whether the recall was in the former or latter environment.

How does that impact how we "teach" history?

And what of the other educational memory moments? The notion of reconstructing memory with every recall may further exacerbate the issues with the differing home environments of students, or even with what class comes next in the schedule. It might force us to rethink everything about how we group students.

Because we also know that memory goes with passion - if it isn't important we do not remember it (and if we do, we're usually labelled as ADHD or Aspergers) - how do we arouse that interest, that reason to remember, without twisting the recall environment?

I don't have answers here, I only have more questions. And now that we live in a world where fixed texts, and one-version histories, are disappearing, these questions seem to take on new levels of importance.

- Ira Socol

* http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/How-Our-Brains-Make-Memories.html
** Ketchum, Divided Loyalties, 262


HomerTheBrave said...

The teacher's dilemma: "If I can't be definitive or authoritative about the grand body of knowledge that is our cultural heritage, then what do I really know that should be taught?"

Teachers are in the business of teaching stuff to kids. But they are human beings, and so therefore must suffer crises of relevance, just like the rest of us. The problem is that, before they are old enough to really know any better about the subjective and ephemeral nature of 'facts,' they have racked up student loans as part of a career of learning how to be definitive and authoritative about their facts of choice.

Poor teachers.

Anonymous said...

This makes me think of the whole of education - if your memories of English class are accompanied by memories of humiliation and shame and guilt, how will this effect your ability to remember the learning content of the class? If your memories of maths class all include feelings of failure and inability, how does that affect your ability to read about the same subject in the textbook?

It's a lot bigger than just history...