When History and Memory Collide

by W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.

A recent study by the National Assessment of Education Progress reveals the sad fact that only 18 percent of middle school students are proficient in history. Additional studies demonstrate that this glaring lack of historical knowledge is not confined to the young, but is also a pervasive problem among adults.

Oddly enough, these studies appear at a time of intense debate about history. Since the violence in Charlottesville and Charleston, Confederate iconography has undergone a dramatic reexamination. The passion with which we are arguing about the removal of Confederate flags and statues seems to disprove the findings of the experts.

How can we square our supposedly poor understanding of history with this keen interest in the future of historical symbols? If we are ignorant of history, why do we care so much about it?

The answer: there is often a profound difference between how we remember the past and what the evidence suggests actually happened.

Everyone, even those without formal education, has some concept of the past. This notion usually derives from family stories, school, or movies we’ve seen. It shapes how we perceive ourselves, the way we interact with others, and the decisions we make about the future.

This personal notion of the past can be termed “memory” and should not be confused with “history.” According to Yale University professor David Blight:

History is what trained historians do, a reasoned reconstruction of the past rooted in research. . . . [On the other hand] memory is often treated as a sacred set of absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage or identity of a community.

The historian Bernard Bailyn says that memory is “an embrace” of the past, a relationship that is “ultimately emotional, not intellectual.” It is a fixed narrative designed to be passed down, unaltered, from one generation to another. Any deviation that provides context or a new understanding is often condemned as “historical revisionism.”

But whenever someone writes the story of the past, they are engaging in revisionism—a revising of the story to give it meaning, context, and usefulness to the present generation. That is why history and the past are not interchangeable terms. Although the past never changes, history does. History is the meaning that the present gives to the past; as society changes, so too does our interpretation.

For instance, prior to the 1960s, slavery’s role in triggering secession was generally missing from the public narrative about the Civil War. Today, however, we understand just how seminal slavery was to tearing apart the nation. Did the facts change? No, but society did. Black political participation and leadership encouraged historians to re-examine the history of the war and helped restore the centrality of African Americans to the story.

De-mythologizing the past and supplanting memory with history is not easy. The ongoing debate about flags, monuments, state holidays, and street names shows just how deeply attached we can be to “our heritage”—a term synonymous with memory—and how that heritage and even our identity can appear to be under attack when they are called into question by history and the evidence.

Yet, no matter how difficult or painful it may be, an honest examination of our past is the only way to resolve this debate. We cannot move forward until we look beyond the lore and seek an historical understanding of how we got to this point. If we are willing to take the past on its own terms, then maybe we will find a measure of reconciliation with our history and with one another that has escaped us for so long.

Ultimately how we decide to see our past—either through the lens of history or that of memory—will determine the kind of people and society we will become.


W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.
W. Todd Groce, Ph.D., is President and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society.