Blogs > Cliopatria > Memory, history, and thwarted mudslinging

Mar 21, 2004 1:05 pm

Memory, history, and thwarted mudslinging

Historical insults aren't what they used to be.

An article on the CBS news website finds that John Kerry’s attempts to link G.W. Bush with Herbert Hoover are floundering because most people don’t know who Hoover was. Likewise, the Bush campaigning is discovering that for most people “Hanoi Jane” Fonda is just another semi-retired actress; so unless they can prove an affair, their attempts to link her with Kerry will also come up lame.

I suppose this is another example of American historical amnesia, and thus a Bad Thing. On the bright side, think of it this way. Neither of these comparisons is useful in understanding the candidates, their actions, or their ability to lead. So we can be pleased that the misuse of history has been defeated by the ignorance of history.


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Oscar Chamberlain - 3/23/2004

I have a bit of an advantage over most instructors when it comes to Harding. There's a liquor store nearby in the nearby city of Barron called "Warren G.'s". And it has a profile of the great man on a sign out front.

Hey, you've got to start somewhere.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/23/2004

It's funny how traditions have a life cycle of their own. They are passed down from generation to generation, imperfectly, becoming attenuated in the process. Consider Hoover, who continues to be a term of abuse in Democrat circles (though apparently, only amongst the better read). Compare unemployment rates in the US under Hoover, with unemployment rates in Europe at the same time. Hmm. Then look at GNP and unemployment figures under Roosevelt, and see how they track over time and correlate with his policies. Hmm. History is almost always more interesting than political rhetoric.

Hanoi Jane is another such term. The majority may not know or care who she is, but a certain segment sure does, and will.

Seems contemporary politicos have mastered the art of appealing to the animosities of smaller and smaller segments of the population.

Derek Charles Catsam - 3/22/2004

Jonathan --
The problem is, I was teaching at a Master's Institution, so I could not simply say "here's the material, sink or swim" and while my students did not know much, they were eager to learn. But they would read a book, and I would know that they read it, but it would not give them enough foundation to work from for a good discussion on African history because they'd have to ask a ton of baseline questions. In other words, because they were MA students and few were aspiring PhDs, they did not even know how to be grad students, how to fake it as it were, like a PhD student or MA student at a PhD granting institution might quickly learn to do. With only six in the class, if I had decided to be a hardass the ones who remained may have resented me, and if enough left, I'd have had no class. I've come to the point where I simply do not expect students to have much background in Africa, even if they are grad students. Crack the whip where you can, hold hands where you must.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/22/2004

I've downshifted, too (I'm doing it now in a course on Japanese women's history, where I've got students who know history, or women, or Japan, but about two out of 20+ who actually know something of all three; I'm going to have to seriously rethink this class next time, but there's nothing like a textbook out there.)

But I would think that graduate students would be capable of (at least being scared into) getting through the basic material on their own quickly. I took graduate courses where I had to do some real serious foundational work at the beginning to come up to the level of the course, read the material extra times, and listen very carefully to what was being said before jumping in. I never had a graduate seminar downshift. Kids these days....

Derek Charles Catsam - 3/22/2004

I'd echo Jonathan's and Michael's points as well. I teach both US and Africa. Last semester I taught a graduate seminar on Africa -- I cannot even tell you how quickly I had to downshift from graduate readings seminar to proseminar to advanced undergrad-level seminar to de facto survey. Nothing is quite so much like being on the trapeze without a net as preparing a course as a seminar and within the first week realizing you need lectures, introductory ones, and lots of them.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/22/2004

You folks are just depressing me. We _could_ solve the thing by simply declining to teach anything and then the fact that no one knows anything will demonstrate that we have been successful! We did that in part at the last place I taught, where everything east of Babylon was declared off limits in a World Civilization course. Even some of the professors couldn't pronounce the names of things, much less know anything about what they were.

Michael C Tinkler - 3/22/2004

I don't understand what I keep doing with links in this interface! Here's the link to the Washington Post story:

Michael C Tinkler - 3/22/2004

Not even POP history is safe in the curriculum -->Worries About Suitability Knock '1776' From Curriculum.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/22/2004

Americanist? Excuse me, I'm an Asianist who also has to teach World history. I had one student in 50 who'd heard of Thomas Malthus this semester, and one who'd read John Stuart Mill, and, sure, they'd all heard of samurai......

Michael C Tinkler - 3/22/2004

Welcome to the real world, Americanists, in which students know nothing about the past! At least they should be able to pronounce all the names in your discipline by sounding them out. Try teaching the Middle Ages! And if we're trading "end of knowledge" stories, in my pilgrimage seminar last semester one student out of 12 had read any portion of the Canterbury Tales (and that the prologue and in a modern English version) before we started.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/21/2004

Actually, if you want historical amnesia frustration, try this: I've been comparing the Bush administration to the Harding administration....

Ophelia Benson - 3/21/2004

Hoover, Hoover...hmmm...a dam? Vacuum cleaners? Founded a planned community named Hooverville? Something like that?