School of Humanities, Art and Social Science (SHASS) 50th Anniversary Colloquium, “Asking the Right Questions” (Session 3) 10/7/2000
WILLIAMS: I'm Rosalind Williams, and I want to welcome you to the third colloquium session, "How do history and memory shape each other?" Here it is a beautiful Saturday morning, and yet we're starting off on a serious, if not at almost a somber theme. But this is an anniversary celebration. And this session is a reflection upon the meaning of such remembrances.
And in discussing this session ahead of time, which I had the pleasure of doing with John and Pauline-- Jillian was, alas, unavailable, but the three of us talked quite a bit. And we thought about the meaning of 50th anniversaries, and came to realize that 50th celebrations are very special, because that's the moment when personal biography begins to be come transformed into the public record. With awareness of our own mortality comes awareness that there is a larger collective story.
So what is that story, and who is going to tell that story? Every year at commencement we see this here at MIT when the students who are graduating-- and I'm speaking here especially the undergraduate students-- are all lined up and filing into Killian Court. Before they get to the court, there's always a moment, and exactly how the moment happens depends upon the logistics of commencement that year, but there's a moment where the graduates confront the 50th reunion class.
And it's a moment of great poignancy, because the 50th year alumni are looking at the students, and they're seeing themselves. And the students are looking at the alumni, and they're seeing themselves. And that's a moment when history almost becomes visible, becomes palpable. It's as they say a very poignant moment.
And I think we here today are engaged in a similar moment. In modern times, and by this I mean particularly in the 19th century, the composition of the personal past, personal memory, got more and more attention. Freud is the obvious person, but Proust, many other artists, were giving a lot of attention to the personal past. But the historical past began to lose much of its authority. So by the beginning of the 20th century, at many levels of culture there was a prevailing assumption that societies could and should shed what was often called the burden of the past.
And I can't recollect the details of the Futurist Manifesto right now, but I remember this line of Marinetti's about a racing car being more beautiful than the Parthenon, and one of his co-futurists saying that the most essential artist of our times is fire. They wanted to get rid of the past. At mid-century, however, the mid 20th century, when this school was founded, the burden of the past never seemed heavier.
Because in the preceding decades there had been human losses that were incomprehensible. There had been much too much fire. MIT, of course, was deeply engaged in both of the wars. And in that whole history of loss in the early 20th century, efforts to come to terms with those losses, both individually and collectively, led to conflicting responses in the post-war period-- a determination never to forget, but also a desire not to remember. And what one society wanted to forget and remember was often different from what another society wanted to.
And I think we are still living with this cultural ambivalence. We're surrounded by historical amnesia on the one hand, and on the other by an obsession with oversimplified historical myths. We're also subjected increasingly to-- somewhat in parallel to what Steve Pinker was talking about yesterday-- is an implicit theory of human nature. I think we're surrounded by an implicit theory of history, which is this rhetoric of change management that equates history with technology, and change with the latest software upgrade.
We're exchanging the burden of the past for a burden of this perpetual change, the burden of the future. Real change, real change, historical change, is far more difficult, far more upsetting than a technological upgrade. It's closer to what Louise Gluck was describing in her poem yesterday about the cotton mouth. It's more like rebirth, having to start a new life. And it's a hard thing.
But that's historical change. The panelists here today are going to reflect upon the complex relationships between myth and history and between remembering and forgetting. And they're going to speak in roughly chronological order. Pauline Maier is based in the 18th century, Dame Gillian Beer in the 19th, and John Dower in the 20th.
But by the end of the session, we will discover that this is a very simplistic way of describing any of them. By the way, the discussion that follows we hope to have a note of what-- I think it was Pauline-- called substantive informality. And so please keep that in mind while you're listening to them for your part in the discussion. I would call your attention to the bibliographical summaries in the program, because I will not be repeating them, but I really want to make sure you do read them.
And then I'll just add a few words about each of the speakers. In introducing Pauline, well, I've been discussing this session at home with my family, because it's been fun to get ready for it. And so last week my son came home, and he's a junior at Newton North High School. And he said he had seen Pauline in class on TV. It was the PBS show, one of their series on the American Revolution.
And this is a reminder to me and to you both how much of Pauline's work has involved-- well, I was trying to find the words, because if we call it public outreach it just sounds a little banal. I'd like to think of what Pauline has done as acts of citizenship in the spirit of the formative years of our republic, that she has herself studied. And it's also a reminder, it's not just physics at MIT that has influenced national education in history.
Also, just to take what Pauline has done. She's involved with other TV programs on the History Channel and with PBS. She has written a textbook in American history for the junior high level. She is co-authoring another textbook, funded by the Sloan Foundation, that is going to give a prominent place to the history of science and technology. And Roe Smith, another MIT faculty member, is also a collaborator in that project.
And when Pauline's book, American Scripture was published on July 4, 1997, you were hot. MIT was hot. It was wonderful.
Every day there was news, and the publicity was just great. And we all felt such shared pride in that event. In that book, and elsewhere, Pauline is examining not only the making of the Declaration of Independence, but what it is meant to subsequent generations, how this revolutionary manifesto became a guide to established governments. And in terms of governance, I also want to conclude by mentioning that Pauline has had a leading role in the governance of this school, and a leading role in the history of this school.
When she arrived here the next year, she became head of the history department, was head for nine years, and also during the mid 1980s chaired the committee that reformed the teaching of the humanities here at MIT. That's when I first encountered Pauline. She came in with these committee meetings, ran the meetings, she knew everything, she was so knowledgeable, and so thoughtful. And I was in awe of her, and I still am. Thank you.
MAIER: Thank you, Roz. After an introduction like that, I think what I should do is just leave. It's only downhill from here. And I should also explain I haven't been around very much, because I have my own private experience of the passage of time. I have been attending my 40th college reunion of Harvard Radcliffe, which will explain any lapses of coherence in this talk, and the bags under my eyes, et cetera.
Our assignment here, as I understand it, is to reflect on the complex relationship of memory, myth, and history. Many of you are aware that there is now a vast literature that focuses on this topic-- some of it produced by another member of my household. As I understand it-- and I don't pretend to be an expert. We have a division of labor in my household-- is that that literature focuses to a large extent on collective memory. That is, on how groups assume an identity by defining, constructing as the preferred verb seems to be, a view of the past, several decades after the events that are described occurred.
My own reflections are for better or for worse somewhat different. I do have some interest in collective memory, as you'll see, but I'm going to focus much more on individual memory. And my comments are much more, I think, personal than theoretical. What insights I have to offer come from an event I witnessed and another that I studied. At Harvard's commencement in June, 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall announced what became the Marshall Plan, a program of massive economic aid to war-torn Europe designed to reestablish, in his words, political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of that momentous event, Harvard organized a colloquium in the spring of 1997. It invited 10 or 12 men who in one capacity or another had participated in the plan, along with a handful of historians who'd studied the Marshall Plan and its impact. From my perspective in one of the back rows at the Harvard Science Center, the event soon came to seem less like a colloquium than a revival, as one old timer after another rose to testify, confident that, perhaps because he was after all at Harvard, and what he said would become part of the historical record, and indeed, would set the record straight.
They spoke to particular specialized points that often were to someone like me, who does not closely follow the debates over postwar history, more bewildering than informative. Speakers were, however, obviously antagonistic toward one of the participating historians, Alan Milward, who I later learned had questioned the Marshall Plan's impact. That explained the emotional character of the proceedings.
These veterans of more glorious days were reaffirming the significance of their service. They were reclaiming their place in history from the professionals who were taking it away. As I witnessed the drama, it crossed my mind that I was about to publish American Scripture, which offered the history of a far simpler event, the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. And a good deal of the testimony upon the evolution of the Declaration of Independence, a testimony upon which historians have relied, was given almost 50 years after the drafting had been done.
And in the course of my research, I discovered that on point after point that testimony was incorrect. So I wondered, was it worth even trying to get the message of those septo- and octogenarians waiting patiently or impatiently for their turn at the microphone? And the story I studied myth was also a component. After the War of 1812, a new generation of Americans had risen to power, and it was anxious to keep the memory of its revolutionary fathers from being lost. They made it their mission to preserve and print the documentary record of the revolutionary era, many of which remained in private hands, and were becoming scattered and lost.
Meanwhile, guns, buttons, and other mementos of the revolution were suddenly being honored like religious objects. And the revolutionaries themselves assumed a superhuman character. To be sure, that tendency was apparent earlier in books such as Mason Weems's Life of Washington, which was first published in 1804 and gave us the cherry tree story, and more to the point here, a Washington who had a remarkable resemblance to both Moses and Christ, depending on what passages you looked at.
I'd like to give you an example, because it's rather characteristic of the tendencies of the time when Americans' collective memory was being defined. I want to quote Weems's version of Washington's death, and his-- shall we say-- ascent into heaven. "Breathing out, Father of mercies, take me to thyself. He fell asleep. Swift on angels' wings, the brightening saint ascended. While voices more than human were heard in Fancy's ear warbling through the happy regions, and hymning the great procession toward the gates of Heaven.
His glorious coming was seen far off, and myriads of mighty angels hastened forth with golden harps to welcome the honored stranger. High in front of the hosts were seeing the beauty forms of Franklin--
Warren, Mercer, Scammel, with all the virtuous patriots who on this side of Colombia toiled or bled for liberty and truth. But oh, how changed from what they were when in the days of flesh bathed in sweat and blood they fell at the parent feet of their weeping country." It's over top, right?
Not all authors went that far. But this was part of our response, of sort of the way the Americans were coming to remember and to honor their revolution. Of course, occasionally the record didn't somehow fit the objectives of the writers of the history, and the editors of documents in this era. But they could fix that.
Jared Sparks, one of the leading writers and editors of this period, spent a good deal of time suppressing or rewriting passage that seemed too racy, or colloquial, or in a word, human. Even John Adams's grandson, Charles Francis Adams, who I think was one of the most skilled editors of that generation, and conformed more closely to modern editorial standards than many of his contemporaries, refused to let his cantankerous ancestor, John Adams, say things such as "he don't," or "you wasn't," or "he eats strawberries," or "she ain't obliged."
So what I'm saying, here almost literally, the act of remembering changed not just the past, but the record of the past. We can fix the record of the past. I mean, modern editorial projects very nicely restore the original language. But we still have those religious overtones that were expressed in almost grotesque detail by Mason Weems. And if you doubt this, visit the National Archives, where our precious national documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are displayed on what can only be described as an altar with a declaration up where the tabernacle should have been.
This is the period, in fact, where the Declaration of Independence became a national icon. It had been saved from obscurity in the 1790s by members of the Republican Party, who were very pleased their leader had written it, they said. But in this period, after the War of 1812, say the late teens and '20s, it became a national icon. It's honored, for one thing, in that famous painting by Jonathan Trumbull, which is now in the rotunda, I think, of the capital, of the Declaration of Independence that shows the committee essentially presenting its draft to the Congress.
It's often called the signing. It's not the signing. There's a lot of confusion about that painting. In any case, it's first printed. Now it was printed, of course, for distribution in 1776. But now you get copies of the written version that was signed. And then in 1823, you had a facsimile edition published. I brought my book along. It gives me confidence.
But the cover has in the background the written version of the Declaration of Independence. We know what it looks like. But nobody, aside from a few who could pull it out of the drawers in the Department of State, knew what the handwritten version looked like before 1823 when the facsimile was published. What had been distributed was, of course, a printed version earlier on.
And it becomes a national icon, as I say, as it had never been before. And we are very beholden, actually, as historians to the Americans of that era who were very anxious that no more revolutionaries would go to their grave with unrecorded memories. So they went out and they asked questions that-- what is surprising to us, I think-- no one had bothered to ask before, such as, how was this document written?
As it happens, however, of course, far fewer persons were involved in drafting, editing, and adopting the Declaration of Independence than in creating and administering the Marshall Plan. And life was shorter in the 1820s than in the late 20th century. As a result of the five people who had been on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, only two remained to tell the story-- John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Neither of these men had to face an Alan Milward, that is, a historian who questioned the significance of what they did. That doesn't mean they liked the histories being written in their time. John Adams, cantankerous as I said, hated them. [CHUCKLES] He said they distorted the people he had known in life beyond all recognition. This is the point where you're getting all these sort of filial, patristic biographies coming out. Weems's tendencies replicated in the biography of one revolutionary after another.
He said the idolization of Washington and other revolutionaries reminded him of the canonization of Catholic saints. And John Adams was a good old Puritan to the very end, so that wasn't something he was going to accept. The country needed, he said, a second Protestant Reformation.
These heroic histories, he feared, would traumatize the young by giving them impossible models to imitate. In 1811, Adams confessed a very great secret to a younger American. And you have to love him for this. As far as I am capable of comparing the merits of different periods, he said, I have no reason to believe we were better than you are.
And on top of all these problems, the histories of the late 1810s and 1820s emphasized the wrong events. Can you believe they gave great impact to the announcement of independence and not to independence itself? And as a result, they were giving honor to the wrong people. The record clearly needed to be corrected. And Adams was ready.
In August 1822, when Timothy Pickering wrote him asking for a minute detail of facts concerning the Declaration of Independence, which for Pickering and so many others had become the most important act of the Second Continental Congress, a detailed history would be not merely an interesting curiosity, Pickering said, but would do substantial justice to the abilities and energies of the leaders in that great measure. Eddie told Adams, you alone can give a full statement of them.
Now, Adams was a few months short of his 87th birthday at the time, and he said, I'm utterly incapable of complying with your request. And then he promptly wrote several pages in reply, giving to anybody's standard a very long letter. He had just received a chance, like those veterans of the Marshall Plan at Harvard, to set the record straight. I was incessantly employed, he wrote, through the whole fall, winter, and spring of 1775 and 1776 in Congress during their sittings, and on committees, on mornings, and evenings, and unquestionably did more business than any other member of the House.
Actually, I think that's right, going through the records. And actually, Thomas Jefferson affirmed that. Not that Jefferson was there to witness it. That's another story. No one had argued and worked for independence longer or more strenuously than Adams. Thomas Jefferson, who by the summer of 1776 had been about a year a member of Congress, but had attended his duty in the House but a very small part of the time, and when there had never spoken in public. Nonetheless, as Adams complained in an earlier letter, Jefferson had run off with all the glory. It was even more annoying Thomas Paine was saying he was exclusively responsible for independence.
Adams execrated Paine. But Jefferson was a friend. They had resumed their friendship, as you know. There are a wonderful set of correspondence between Adams and Jefferson in their old age. And that made him sensitive. He wasn't really unkind to his friend, Thomas Jefferson. Despite his sporadic congressional service Jefferson had, Adams volunteered a happy talent of composition. As a result, Adams had urged his appointment to the drafting committee. Indeed, he claimed, the committee actually asked both Adams and Jefferson to prepare a draft declaration, but then he, Adams, had persuaded Jefferson to write it up.
And his account is often cited. And I won't fight off the temptation. "'You should do it,' I said. 'Oh no.' 'Why will you not?' 'Reasons enough.'" Oh, I guess it was Jefferson telling Adams you should do it. "'Why shouldn't Adams do it?' 'First, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious'"-- this is Adams-- "'I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write 10 times better than I can.' 'Well,' said Jefferson, 'if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.'"
Much of what Adams said also appeared in his autobiography, which he wrote 15 or so years earlier. But the notion that the drafting committee had appointed both Adams and Jefferson as draftsmen was new and very suspect. Was Adams trying to run off with at least some of the glory? Now it turned to Jefferson. Jefferson had a very different attitude toward the histories being written in his time.
This always was surprising to me. You think of him as such a secular enlightenment figure. He loved all this religious glop. In fact, Trumbull had made his first painting of the Declaration of Independence in the late 1780s on Jefferson's suggestion. He had actually sketched for Trumbull the hall where the Second Continental Congress had met. It's almost emblematic, because later Trumbull discovered that Jefferson's sketch was wrong. He'd remembered it incorrectly.
Our first clue that memory is very flawed, as Jefferson himself understood as you'll see in a minute. And but sort of the religious business, he gave to his great grandson-in-law, I guess, Joseph Coolidge, the desk on which he'd written the Declaration of Independence. Which he said he'd written the Declaration, and he predicted that in another 50 years it will be carried in processions like the relics of saints. He had no reservations about everything that Adams so execrated.
So he didn't object to the histories, but he did object to Adams's account, which Pickering had used in a 4th of July oration that was subsequently printed and came to Jefferson's attention. In several details, Jefferson wrote James Madison an often quoted letter of August 30, 1823. Adams's memory was mistaken. He gave Adams full credit for his role in getting independence through the Congress. Still, at the age of 88, here he was off a little bit too. And 47 years after the transactions of independence, Jefferson said that Adams should remember some things, and exactly did not seem altogether surprising.
Memory, he said, was unreliable. Now, at the time Jefferson was himself 80, but he said he wasn't depending on memory. He had written notes on Congress's proceedings, taken by myself at the moment on the spot, and reduced to a final form on the conclusion. He also had the original rough draft of the Declaration, an extraordinarily valuable text now at the Library of Congress. They chose the draft as Jefferson first presented it to other members of the drafting committee, and all subsequent changes.
In fact, Jefferson was so confident that he had the sources on the history that interested people that he kept getting inquiries from people. And he wrote back. Even if he needed to go through his documents, he wrote some 1,200 letters in 1820 by his own account. Now, think of the labor of this-- handwritten letters, many of which dealt with historical events. He felt great responsibility for getting the record straight.
But, in fact, he was relying on memory much more than he understood. But I want to focus just on this one event of how Jefferson-- the account he gave of the drafting of the Declaration. "The drafting committee asked Jefferson alone to prepare the Declaration," he said. "I consented. I drew it. Before I reported it to the committee, I communicated it separately to Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams." "And," he reminded Madison, "you have seen the original paper now in my hands with the corrections of Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams interlined in their own handwritings. Their alterations were two or three only, and merely verbal. I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the committee, and from then unaltered to Congress."
Well, fortunately, he gave contrary evidence himself in a letter that I discovered. I can't say it was very hard. It was printed in a couple versions, but nobody had used it. A letter he wrote to Franklin. And note, they were sending the draft to Franklin, who had gout, to look at it and send it back. He never attended the drafting committee or was a member of the drafting committee.
And basically he said, I've just shown this to the committee. They asked me to change a sentiment or two. I have done it. I hope you can look at it and get it back to me the next morning. I have to show it to the committee again. The committee wasn't a rubber stamp, as he thought 50 years later. It was active, and also, I think I understand why he thought he was exclusively responsible-- honestly thought, almost 50 years afterwards-- the original rough draft is a very complicated document to interpret.
He looked at it, and he saw not only the draft, but all the changes, with the exception of a few that were clearly by Adams or Franklin, were in his handwriting. I presume he then assumed that he was responsible for them. What he forgot was that some of them had been mandated by the committee. And there are other reasons. I mean, that's one of many pieces of evidence that indicate that although Jefferson was obviously the primary writer of the Declaration, many hands fed into its composition, that he wasn't exclusively responsible for it.
In fact, it's very curious that he was so anxious to emphasize that he had been, as he put on his tomb, author of the Declaration of Independence. You know that he put three things on his tomb-- author of the Declaration of Independence, father of the University of Virginia, and author of the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty. It's surprising, because at the time the document was an enormous humiliation to him.
Congress took up the draft that the committee presented and slashed it to bits. They it, they took out a quarter to a third of the text, they changed phrases, they threw out the parts that Jefferson was most proud of, they changed the whole last paragraph-- although, the final version is on the Jefferson Memorial, and Jefferson gets the glory for it. He didn't even write most of what's on the Jefferson Memorial.
But he was so humiliated by what Congress did to his work that he sent several copies of the committee draft to friends to see how Congress had mucked it up. And now, near the end of his life, he goes back to this. It's the first thing that he emphasizes. What we don't understand is how much, I think, by the 1820s, Jefferson feared for his place in history. He had no idea he was going to become, take a deep breath, Thomas Jefferson, you know, the most adored member of the founding generation.
He looked over his life, there was reason to be fearful. Now, we might say he could say governor of Virginia, American minister to France, first Secretary of State, vice president of the United States, and president. Maybe that'd be enough. To us, that's kind of an honor. He mentioned none of his administrative career. Because, in fact, he had great reservations about it.
His governorship of Virginia was a disaster. He left the capital of Virginia with the British on his heels and was later accused of cowardice. Nothing much happened when he was in France. His Secretary of State was-- he didn't do anything. He finally left because Hamilton was running the state of foreign affairs. He didn't do anything as vice president, particularly. He went home.
His presidency began gloriously and ended in disaster, with the midst of the shambles of the embargo. He couldn't wait to get home to the quiet pleasures of science, as he put it. And none of that-- even though we think of things like the Louisiana Purchase. He couldn't put on his gravestone, because that was a wonderful thing. My god, he doubled the size of the United States. He did it despite the fact that it contradicted his constitutional principles. Nothing in the Constitution said you could buy that much of the continent.
And here I think he really worried about his place in history. And I think this is relevant to the way we use these memories that are committed on paper so long after the time. For one thing, they have errors. That's true. But I think they're best not treated as statements full of falsehoods. I like to think of them, actually, as expressing complex truths.
They tell us something about the distant past, but they also tell us a tremendous amount about the time in which those memories are recorded, and about the personal circumstances of the individual who is offering this testimony. They are very rich sources. And that's the way I tried to use them.
But we go back to the fact that these early versions had been absorbed without an awful lot of reflection. I mean, historians have used Jefferson's account of the drafting as if it was perfectly unproblematical. But try contesting notions that have been so deeply ingrained in our national myth. When I published American Scripture, people looked at it as an attack on Thomas Jefferson, which it wasn't. I was accused of saying he was a liar.
Well, he wasn't consistent. But--
--I never called him a liar. The other great thing was I actually had the chutzpah to say that not everybody thought the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence was the most important part of the document at all times in our past, that in the founding generations they actually prefer the last paragraph, which declares independence. I mean, this was my not too surprising argument, I guess, that the point of the Declaration of Independence was to declare independence, and that the second paragraph came to the fore later. And I looked at the historical context in which this happened.
Forget it. There are people that read that paragraph and say, that's really so beautiful. It must have been beautiful at all times. To say people had other-- you just couldn't get through to that. In fact, there was a point where I looked at some of the reviews, and reviews are often very sensitive. I was just talking to other members of the panel.
But those that were negative, I started to realize I could distance myself from them. They weren't really about me or about my book. They were documents of the way Americans had received their historical tradition, and how resistant they were to any questioning of the myths that they had received.
And I suppose of the book tour I had, there was a sense that that lingers in my mind, some woman in Philadelphia said to me, don't we need these myths? And maybe we do, and I suppose historians are always going to be against them in some way. We question them. We go back, we try to compare the documents to get a more accurate version of what really happened. And it doesn't always lend itself to mythologizing.
So we are always in some sense going to be antagonistic. But, you know, I ultimately came to the conclusion that truth was more tonic than myth, that, in fact, if you look at the drafting of the Declaration, you understood the extent to which so many different people had contributed to its creation. Not just one great man, but large numbers. Those who produced the drafts-- well, hey, George Mason wrote a Virginia Declaration of Rights that, in fact, Jefferson had used in drafting the second paragraph. Members of the committee who outlined the document before it appointed a draftsman, the changes the committee suggest, the editings of Congress, and then subsequent generations of Americans who reinterpreted the document so that it served their needs.
This was really Adams's message, that the creators of this document were the American people. And in some ways I thought that was more politically useful an idea, certainly, in a country where the greater part of the qualified adults don't see fit to vote. The example of a mobilized people could be extraordinarily healthy. But that was very hard to sell.
I mean, we'll hold to the myths, and be very interesting to see if the new display in National Archives still has an altar. Keep your eyes open.
WILLIAMS: Thank you, Pauline. I know a lot of us were thinking about the historical record in the age of word processing. And it does change things. I now have the pleasure of introducing Dame Gillian Beer, our visitor from England. And I have to say, after this discussion of American democracy, our fascination with titles endures. And you should also note that she is King Edward VII, professor of English literature. And as Jillian remarked offhandedly yesterday, it's sometimes hard to be Edward VII.
But I want you to know that the full title of her dame title is Dame Commander of the British Empire, awarded in 1998 as part of the Queen's birthday honors list for-- and this is the best part-- for services to English literature. And that's an important phrase. The idea of serving English literature, I think, is something that resonates with any of us in the humanities. It also, though, reminds us that what Dame Gillian has done is to broaden significantly the definition of English literature.
Her 1983 book, Darwin's Plots, which is subtitled Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and 19th Century Fiction is that redefinition. She took Darwin as a writer, as a writer who told stories, who had a structure, who had a style, and at the same time took people we usually think of as writers, like Eliot and Hardy, and saw how they were drawing upon Darwin, or using Darwin, if you will, to tell their stories. This intertwining of natural history and human history is one of the defining characteristics of our age, of the modern age, the postmodern age. I think both.
And Dame Gillian Beer is really a pioneer for doing this analysis that shows us how this has worked in our culture. I want to add a few notes to the notes about her in the program. She is a trustee of the British Museum. You should also know she's been a Booker Prize judge and chair of the panel. This is power.
And has served as vice president--
WILLIAMS: --and has served as vice president of the British Academy. But most notably, I think, in the context here, she has participated fully in the life of her university. Our-- well, I don't want to call it sister university, Cambridge, but maybe cousin. I'm looking at Larry Bacow to see if I have the right words. And she has held a succession of offices within Cambridge dating back to the 1970s, including one in the 1980s with the absolutely delicious title of vice mistress of Girton College.
Oh, these titles are just great.
Now, somewhat in a more pedestrian way, she is president of Claire Hall, which is a graduate college at Cambridge. And she tells me it was begun in the 1960s as a sort of counter-cultural, new style college. And I will just note in passing, how many educational experiments, including ones at MIT, were started in the later '60s and have lasted. And somebody should write a book about the educational results of the '60s. But that's for another day.
Anyway, from what she tells me, it sounds delightful and quite contrary to our expectations of a Cambridge college that there's no high table, she eats with the students, three quarters of the students are from overseas, and there's a daycare center right on campus, so kids are always running around. So Dame you may be, but you're very much at home here, and we welcome you.
BEER: Yes, when I was given this title, I asked my friends whether I could be called the Dame of British empiricism, because it seemed to me rather preferable to the form of the Dame commander of the British empire. But I was assured that was not quite possible.
Titles are very odd things. And one of the things I want to look at this morning is the ways in which our, if you like, mythological understanding of Charles Darwin has ignored, perhaps needed to ignore, some aspects of his work, and to ask whether those same aspects of his work that have gone underground, may be more disturbing to us, even than some of the things that we think we know frightened the Victorians.
I think we're all used to the idea that evolutionary theory threatened consciousness in the Victorian period, and, of course, has continued to be threatening to a good many people since, because it emphasized human kinship with other life forms, what Ruskin called the filthy heraldries which record the relation of the human to the ascidian and the crocodile."
We're used, too, to reading natural selection as a theory of competition. Even in Herbert Spencer's phrase as "the survival of the fittest." And these are our simplifications of Darwin, whose writing also offers a thoroughly ecological extent. "Let it be borne in mind," he says, "how infinitely complex and close fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life." One couldn't have a more ecological statement than that.
Nevertheless, it's clear that for Darwin there were a number of contrary energies at work in his theory, which could never quite accommodate themselves to each other. And I want this morning to explore particularly that voiding of human memory from the explanatory system that he was working out. It seems to me that this might be a subtler and longer provocation yet than all those other provocations, and certainly one that has resounded throughout the last 150 years.
In the writing, variously, of Proust and of Freud, the attempt is made to reach a total recuperation of the individual's memory traces. And for Freud, at least, in civilization and its discontents, and Moses and monotheism, those traces, he felt, drew on the assumed long buried histories of early humankind and the pre-human. The problem of how to make a history without invoking human eyewitness seems to have troubled Darwin and to have provoked a recoil in his later writing.
Issues of organization, habit, awareness, and memory fascinate him from the start of his career to its ending. "I like this question," he puts to himself in 1837. "Can insects live with no more consciousness than our intestines have?" It's a typically provocative question from the young Darwin to himself, raising as it does not only the question of insect intelligence, but the question of intestinal consciousness.
His preoccupation with these issues of habit, awareness, and memory surely must be the more acute, because his most famous work, The Origin of Species in 1859, seeks to make a history that both outgoes and foregoes human memory as a shaping presence. That is, his here writing history that goes before and does without human memory, a world with no human memory in it-- not yours, not mine, not theirs. Indeed, a world perhaps without any memory in it at all, inhabited by instinctual creatures, possibly without what we would call consciousness.
At the time that Darwin started to write, and when he was on the voyage of the Beagle, the whole issue of Natural History and whether it could encompass the human was a very fraught topic. Ethnography and anthropology were just discovering themselves. And the assumption was that if the human could enter natural history, it would be the human of the tribes most distant from the writer and his kin.
So there was already a sort of badinage around the question of, is the human part of a more general history? But he's wanting also to describe something further, two further things. He is wanting to describe processes arrayed across enormous intervals of time, processes that will leave shallow and fragmented records of what he calls the mutations of life, life before, beyond, oblivious of the human.
And for his argument to prevail, he's got to emphasize the absence of the human from the most of the history of the Earth, and also the difficulty that the human imagination has in encompassing the vast evidences of the past, and the sickness of the present. He writes, "We continually forget how large the world is. We forget that groups of species may elsewhere have long existed. We do not make due allowance for the enormous intervals of time which have probably elapsed between our consecutive formations. Longer, perhaps, in most cases, than the time required for the accumulation of each formation."
Darwin here proposes our forgetting. We continually forget how large the world is, as if we had previously known the largeness of the world, the enormous intervals of time. But, of course, at the same time he's making it clear that we know these only as constructed argument, as interpreted mementos. And that is the nub of his own particular drive of argument.
He says, "We falsely infer because certain genera or families have not been found beneath a certain stage, that they did not exist before that stage." Reasoning, it seems, produces a form of meta memory that may be deeply unreliable, because starved of the beyond human, a human materials that are needed for true inquiry, materials that are always already lost forever. Human memory has not inhabited these vast tracts of former times, nor-- and this is crucial-- nor can human memory help or hinder the processes of natural selection.
Within The Origin, Darwin has to elaborate a history apparently void of consciousness, and certainly void of the power to change the future of the natural world by any acts of remembering. And, of course, this is important to him, because he is insisting on the distance between what he's describing and what Lamarck a little earlier had described-- the possibility, as Lamarck saw it, of inheriting acquired characteristics, learning within the lifespan of the creature, the life form, in such a way that those acquired characteristics are then passed on to the next generation.
There are times when Darwin vacillates on that question. But in the main, the drive of what he is arguing is that natural selection is "the [? accumination ?] of numerous successive slight modifications," I quote there. I think it's no wonder then that at the same time he is fascinated by the science of choice making among plants and simpler organisms.
Darwin's career after the publication of The Origin shows him engaging with issues of conscious or semi-conscious selection-- sexual selection, the motions of climbing plants, the expression of the emotions in man and the animals, and in his last work, the formation of vegetable mold through the action of worms and observations on their habits. He tells the history of the world now through these lowly inhabitants. The mental powers and the consciousness of worms become the focus of his attention, though his topic is the formation of vegetable mold through their action.
He says at one point, "As I was led to keep in my study during many months worms in pots filled with earth, I became interested in them, and wished to learn how far they acted consciously, and how much mental power they displayed." As usual, he empathizes with his subjects. He engages them in his domestic life. He observes them with a kind of courtesy, in a manner both delicate and zealous.
And at the start, he has this desire somewhere between intellect and affection. I became interested in them. Worms, he discovers, are sensitive to vibrations. But-- and we can imagine the experiments that led to this formulation-- they're indifferent to shrill whistles, to profound bassoons, or to shouts, as long as care is taken that the breath does not strike them. But if you put them on the piano--
--one worm dashed into its burrow on a very high note being struck only once, and the other worm, when C in the treble clef was struck.
These simple creatures, as he says, poorly provided his sense organs, yet seem, to the observing Darwin to be capable of discrimination. Choice, and thus, perhaps, even of memory. He writes, it is far more surprising that they should apparently exhibit some degree of intelligence instead of a mere blind, instinctive impulse in their manner of plugging up the mouths of their burrows. They act in nearly the same way as would a man.
There's an area of uncertainty, you see, here, that has to do with both consciousness and memory. The two, of course, are not the same. But nevertheless, without consciousness, it is, I think, reasonable to assume that there cannot be memory.
He is fascinated also by instinct, what he had earlier called knowledge without experience, a very good summary, way of putting instinct, I think, knowledge without experience. And in The Origin, he is always struggling with this question of consciousness, memory, instinct, a kind of triangle of possibility. For instance, in his discussion of bees as "alarmingly perfect architects, perfect for a purpose, a single purpose," as he puts it, "economizing wax."
For bees, no surplus knowledge can be active, and no memory surfaces in these generations of activity. He writes, "The bees, of course, no more knowing that they swept their spheres at one particular distance from each other than they know what are the several angles of the hexagonal prisms and of the basal rhombic plates." He deliberately introduces a discourse from geometry to suggest the infinite distance between the activity of the bees and the fact that the bees don't have the language. They can not describe their own activity, but they've come to have the actions.
And that process of coming to have is Darwin's narrative scene on The Origin of Species by means of natural selection. It's a process not under the control memory in any organism, perhaps not even dormant within it, and certainly not held in trust by any human society. How, then, to write the history of forms and beings without memory? How to write history without, or in the useful Scottish word, out with, memory.
The effort he puts into it is enormous. And it's accomplished in part by evoking the present largeness of the world, its manifold physical variety, its disciplinary variousness. It's accomplished also by emphasizing lack and absence, the impossibility of the single forward interpretative act. "Unknown causes," he writes. "Unknown laws of growth." These are made to be as much a part of the argument as the emphasis on instances and on close connections between phenomena. And, of course, remember, Darwin is writing before Mendel, before the establishment of genetic laws.
All true classification is genealogical. That's his strong claim. Everything will be shown to have a kind of heraldic or narrative connection. But he continues that sentence by emphasizing that the researchers are unconscious. He says, "The community of descent is the hidden bond which naturalists have been unconsciously seeking." And it goes on. The process of inquiry, it seems, is accorded authenticity here by him by its likeness to the process uncovered.
It's a very curious rhetorical device. So natural selection is discovered by the unconscious processes of rumination of researchers. It's a long drawn out, unconscious set of happenings. It is extraordinary, I think, that he achieved so much that was vigorous and available in writing what might appear on the face of it, therefore, to be a very dry kind of history.
His setting aside of memory as not only a sustaining, but as a functional process in evolutionary history, jars against such a long tradition of sacred values. Augustine, for instance, delighting in the multiplicity of memory as a token of the worth of mankind and of individual identity. I'll read you what he writes. This is in The Confessions.
"What then am I, oh, my God? Of what nature am I? A life various, and manifold, and exceedingly vast. Behold, in the numberless holes and caves, in the innumerable fields, and dens, and caverns of my memory, full without measure of numberless kinds of things, present there either through images, as all bodies are, or present in things themselves, as are our thoughts, or by some notion or observation, as our emotions are, which the memory retains, even though the mind feels them no longer, as long as whatever is in the memory is also in the mind. Through all these I run and fly to and fro. I penetrate into them on this side and that, as far as I can. And yet there is nowhere any end."
That wonderful sense of freedom, endlessness, intricacy that Augustine evokes, I think, is something that Darwin would deeply sympathize with. That complexity, that endlessness, because Darwin actually writes in one of his notebooks, "Superiority of memory does not depend on its length. Many animals, as horses, have very long and good memories, but in its multiplicity and the comparison of ideas."
A good many people have commented, and indeed, I've written extensively elsewhere on the uneasy assimilation of the human to other forms of animal life in Darwin's refusal in The Origin anywhere to comment, specifically, on mankind, but just to set them among the higher animals. He saw this as a diplomatic move, as one that meant that he wasn't would have to confront religious groups.
But, of course, it is profoundly disturbing, because no longer is the human selected out and made particular. Instead we are part of the rampage of ordinary fruitful life form. And I think it's worth noticing that his diminishment of memory as capacity and as interpretative tool is running through that refusal to select out the human. And I think it does come, and as I've suggested, in a rather hidden and laconic way to cause anguish and creative resistance.
I haven't time this morning to expand on the ways in which it seems to me that Freud in particular works with and against this renunciation of human memory in Darwin, and makes out of it a recuperative system in which health can only be assured by rediscovering the grounded bases of human behavior and human understanding, human self identity, through going back in that ontogeny phylogeny metaphor, which likens the single life span to the lifespan of the species. Darwin's writing, I think it's worth observing, and the organization and the plenitude of his writing, is very like some of the satisfactions that Augustine has evoked-- a sense of the amplitude, the variety, the admiration, the numberlessness of the past and the present world.
Darwin suggests, it seems to me, a form of memory for a world that no human being has ever lived in. And he does it by a lateral largesse of example, exclamation, intricate description, and familial ordering. I'm not suggesting that this rhetoric is extrinsic to his argument. But it does in some ways pull against it. And it certainly serves to [? salve ?] the loss of memory as a controlling and activating medium, a loss that is nevertheless crucial to what he is telling us.
Darwin affirmed at every stage of his argument and examples the linked concepts of diversification and selection. His metaphors of the tree and the great family in The Origin went some way to articulate his emphasis on unlikeness, transformation, continuity, and kinship, though they don't really fall flat together. They haven't got a complete explanatory fit.
But there's one thing he does not face head on about his theories. And this, again, seems to me to be connected with the idea of memory and narrative, memory and history. That is, the loss of future plan. What he does over and over again is, as it were, to prophesy knowledge of the past, but to refuse to tell anything about what may come. For instance, "When we better know the many means of migration, then by the light which geology now throws and will continue to throw on former changes of climate and of the level of the land, we shall surely be enabled to trace in an admirable manner the former migrations of the inhabitants of the whole world."
You notice those shifty tenses there-- when, then, surely. "Understanding is going to allow something which will track former changes." Nowhere will he allows us glimpses of future forms. And rightly so, of course, because it is fundamental to his argument that they are unforeseeable, produced out of too many variables to be plotted in advance.
So although Darwin himself gives some considerable emphasis to the language of progress and improvement, generating an onward and upward motion in much of his storytelling, these tales are constantly under the pressure of other darker stories of rapine, degradation, and loss. I quote him, "Nothing is easier than to admit in words the truth is the universal struggle for life, or more difficult-- at least I have found it so-- than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind. We behold the face of nature bright with gladness. We often see super-abundance of food. We do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing around us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life."
Gladness and destruction, life making and destroying itself, the individual swamped and yet demanded as a medium for mutation, the human everywhere and nowhere, in his argument. Memory, fundamentally, functionally powerless, thwarted, yet stirring in so many creatures, it seems to him, beyond the human, and, of course, essential to the historian's activity. Darwin's troubling perceptions were controverted immediately within his own life span by Samuel Butler, the true progenitor, one may say, of memes in unconscious memory.
Butler also tartly observed that Darwin seemed to have forgotten his own predecessors', including his own grandfather's ideas, and had failed to acknowledge their contribution to his work-- a neat if nasty turn on this theme of the loss of memory.
The will to revive memory as a functional part, not simply of an individual's narrative, but as intrinsic to evolutionary history, is seen in a great many other writers, both of his time and later. But it very often becomes an act of mourning. And I want to end just by reading a poem of Thomas Hardy's, because Hardy in his fiction and his poetry sets the single human lifespan among the multiple scales of existence present in any moment-- the ephemerons, the fossils, the buildings past and gone, the leveled landscape of great antiquity, the grass of the day.
Always at the center in Hardy is the figure of the human, that figure which does not simply pass from youth to age and doff the past. Because through memory, Hardy conjures, various different ages survive in the person, and not only retrospectively, but in the moment. He ends one great poem, a very simple one, where he looks into the glass and sees his wasted frame. How he still feels the throbbings of noon tide.
Or this poem called "In a Museum." Here he sits alongside Darwin's work the theories of Maxwell and Helmholtz. The infinitely distant in time can be juxtaposed then in the immediate. Hardy himself was fascinated by Einstein, what he called his bending ocean of temporality. And this poem takes that up as a kind of comfort, very short. Mold, by the way, is both kinds of both.
"In a Museum"-- "Here's the mold of a musical bird long passed from light which over the Earth before man came was winging. There's a contralto voice I heard last night that lodges in me still with its sweet singing. Such a dream is time, that the coo of this ancient bird has perished not. But is blent, or will be blending mid amid visionless wilds of space with the voice that I heard in the full-fugued song of the universe unending."
That idea of the full fugued universe unending, of everything being still in action in the transformations of energy. But rather than end on that hopeful note, which after all goes against the second law of thermodynamics--
--I would just like to remind you that one could also interpret this question of memory for Darwin biographically. Darwin lost his mother when he was eight years old. And he was mortified by an appalling double loss, which was, he said, that he had almost no memory of her whatsoever, save for one scene when she was dying. His great enterprise in The Origin, so haunting, searching for the one primordial form, the great family of life forms, going beyond individuality, yet needing the individual as the freight of change.
All these kinships the plumbing of irretrievable lost histories could well, I think, be read as a form of reparation and mourning. At the same time, it also makes life and accepts extinction. In his argument, almost all past species have vanished, most without trace or the merest fragments of record. And our species almost certainly will do so too.
How Darwin would have rejoiced at the discovery of DNA with its demonstration of profound genetic continuities and individualities. What, without sentimentality, the poet Sharon Olds at the end of her 1993 grueling and powerful sequence of poems, The Father, can call not human love in the recurrence of feature and the track of descent, but matters love. Thank you.
WILLIAMS: Thank you so much. Now it's my pleasure to introduce John W. Dower, who will be our last speaker this morning. Last spring when I was still sitting on Academic Council, it almost became a sort of weekly routine that Phillip Khoury would come in and announce that John Dower's book had just won another prize. [CHUCKLES]
And it was this prize this week, and this prize the next week, and there were four or five in a row. And each week he'd come in and it'd be another prize. And finally at the end it was the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction for Embracing Defeat. I would suggest that as your homework assignment, which you will thoroughly enjoy, that you read Embracing Defeat, together with American Scripture as two books about democracy, and the establishment of democracy, what democracy is as a lived experience as opposed to a thing, a word, a concept.
And, of course, it involves remembering and forgetting. And in the case of Japan after World War II, democracy involved forgetting many other ideas about Japan, a whole framework of concepts about Japan, based on Imperial Japan. I read somewhere that the original title, or one of the titles John was thinking of for the book is Reinventing Japan. That book was preceded back in 1986 by the book War Without Mercy, subtitled Race and Power in the Pacific War, because John felt that he needed to understand as best he could the wartime experience before writing about the post-war experience.
War Without Mercy explores the nature of racism on both sides in the Pacific War in World War II. And for John Dower, democracy and racism are two great themes, or if you will, two great questions for our times. His desire to understand them as real experiences and not just things, that is to understand them as they are lived emotionally, even viscerally, has led him to widen the range of materials that he uses in his historical work.
It's as if he tried to write a history of MIT, the school even, say, history of student life based on Undergraduate Association documents, or even if I will say a history of MIT based on Academic Council minutes. You're missing a lot. And so John has gotten into arranged materials like cartoons, and songs, and slang expressions to try to get closer to the real thick, personal, and collective experience.
This, of course, I think has also to do with an abiding interest of John's in art, and photography, and design, and film. He worked for four years in Japan for an English language book editor in the early '60s doing work mainly and in design and art related books. And now I'm going backwards in time. He had dropped out of graduate school to go and live in Japan for this four year period. And his fascination with Japan began earlier when he went there as a summer adventure as a student, I guess, at Amherst at that time.
So that was when he first went to Japan, met his wife there, as well as met Japan. So I think it's getting back to the sort of this convergence of the alumni and the youth. We here at MIT have the privilege of working with students who are at the stage of their lives were they're thinking about doing something for the summer, or taking some trip, or having some adventure. And it's our privilege to be able to encourage them. And who knows what will happen 30, 40 years later. John, thank you.
DOWER: Well, thank you very much. When Pauline spoke about attending a reunion of people in the Marshall Plan, it reminded me of a visit I made several months ago to Washington and Lee University to give a talk. And they put me up in a very beautiful building. I spent the night sleeping under Robert E. Lee's portrait, and surrounded by the atmosphere of the history of the South.
And I had breakfast the next morning with an MIT alumnus who had been in combat in the Pacific War and had wanted to get together with me. And he was fascinating. He told me stories I had never heard or known about the nature of the Pacific War. He told me a great deal about how his views were shaped by Robert E. Lee's sense of chivalry. And then he leaned across the breakfast table and he said to me, if you weren't there, you shouldn't be writing about it.
So I said, well, there goes the Civil War.
But it is presumptuous in many ways for us to do these things, to try to reconstruct the past us as historians. But I still think we have to do it. And I wanted to touch on aspects of war and memory of the most sensitive sort that many of you can relate to, and I'm sure will relate to, and that is war, memories of war, and the intersection of war and memory, and how this public memory, and how this has shaped the way we think.
And I want to begin with you in the Infinite Corridor. I just want to go back with you to the Infinite Corridor where, of course, you have two very striking memorials-- the first to the MIT students who died in World War I. And perhaps when you're passing through again you might pause and read it. The inscription on the wall reads, "In memory of the brave men of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who gave their lives in the Great War," anno Domini, and then the Roman numerals for 1914 to 1918.
Under that is a little quotation, "Only victory remains and a fame forever secure." It's very poignant to look at that now. It's very poignant to see this. Because, of course, victory didn't remain. They had their momentary victory. World War I was the war to end all wars, as they called it at the time. And it, of course, led us into the cataclysm of the mid 19th century.
And so you see a sense of the hope of the times. Their victory was very ephemeral. A fame forever secure. And that seems very, very ironic to us now also, because I think if we look at those names, they're not famous. What we look at is a sense of grievous waste that somehow we say, why did this happen?
And so we go back and we look at this in a different way. And, of course, as we go back now and look at World War I, the terms we use are pity, the terms we use are horror. Because we see this as the beginning of a new age of accelerated technological slaughter. And as we go back to wrestle with these things, from our perspective of time, we get into controversial areas.
So if you go down now to the Smithsonian Institution, in the Air and Space Museum there will be an exhibit on World War I and air power. And it's not a positive exhibition. It's the notion that there was here great heroism in the war, but it was also the beginning of a new age of military combat and weaponry that led us into the great carnage of the 20th century that we experienced. And then you turn from the World War I inscription, and on the other wall is the inscription for the MIT students and who died in World War II and their names under it.
And that reads simply, "In memory of those who gave their lives, 1941 to 1945." And it's very interesting. I know nothing about the history of these inscriptions. There's no brave man as there was in the first inscription, there's no Great War, which of course was the name of World War I, the war to end all wars. And there's no sanguine optimistic quotation there.
And I think when you look at this, you have a different sense of poignancy, because, of course, this is World War II, so those people could be sitting here in the audience today. They could be with us today. So immediately, we say, what would they have done? And when we will look at an inscription like that which moves us, I think many things begin to happen to us. Many things are evoked in us.
One is the sense that this was a just war. And this was a good war. And these were heroic deaths. And we can identify with their sacrifice very clearly with the defeat of fascism, the defeat of Nazism, the defeat of Japanese aggression and militarism. And so we have a real sense of the good war in very real ways, which is not a concept that we are able to use very much with wars anymore.
And then, I think, because we're in MIT, and because we think in these ways, we think about the legacies of the war. We move from this simple inscription to the legacies of World War II, because it did change our lives in ways we are still coming to grips with. This is the emergence of the post-war national security state.
It's the emergence of something we hadn't seen before, and which governs our lives, which is the military industrial university complex-- not just military industrial, but the way in which we have come together. It's the emergence of a world of international organizations. And you can pursue this in many, many ways as we go back to look not simply at the war experience itself, but what it gave to us.
But if you think of today, the year 2000, one of the very interesting things happening today is how many things are coming out now about World War II that we didn't know that have been coming out over the years? And no matter where you look, these issues of World War II are very profound issues with us today. And they shape the way we think about the war, and they shape our ideologies, and they shape our politics today.
And there's no way you can turn if-- of course, we have the whole debates on the Holocaust in memory and practice. If any of you saw The New York Times today, there's a remarkable article on the reconsideration of resistance to Nazism Nazi Germany today. It's going on in Germany, because of the great debates over how much you should acknowledge after World War II people who were communists who had resisted Hitler, and organized resistance, and how many of these people were suppressed in memory in West Germany and elevated in memory in East Germany, and how we can speak about them more clearly now.
Why? Because we know more. We have the records of Stasi and East German records. We have the Soviet archives are now more open. So we have perspectives on these things. We now talk about Swiss neutrality and the Swiss banks. Why didn't we talk about that earlier? We talk about some of the myths of the French resistance or the other side being the collaboration of the French and others in the Holocaust, and many other countries collaborated in the Holocaust.
And all of these things are coming up now. We certainly have always known how heroic the Soviet Union was in the war, and they took-- as many Americans forget-- the heaviest losses by far in World War II. China was close, perhaps. But enormous losses. But we now are doing more scholarship on the atrocities of the Soviet armies on both the eastern front, and against Hitler, and then later against the Japanese.
And when you turn to the area I work on concerning Japan, we've just learned over the years enormous number of Japanese atrocities and terrible things that we didn't know about-- we didn't talk about before. Some people knew. The responsibility of the emperor of Japan-- we decided we wished to keep him emperor, and so we said, we won't investigate this. And this was decided without any serious investigation.
The terrible activities, very scientific, of Japan's unit 731, which was the unit that conducted lethal experiments. It's the closest thing to a Holocaust-- planned lethal experiments on prisoners of war, and [INAUDIBLE], and areas of Manchuria, and killed about 3,000 people. The comfort women is a huge issue now and extraordinarily volatile, women who were forced to provide sexual services to the Japanese.
And today as a historian, the calls I get from the media and from lawyers now concern slave labor of American POWs by Japanese companies. These are the calls I got today. Why are they coming out now? It's over a half century later. And why are they coming out now, when America occupied Japan from 1945 to 1952? It wasn't a sovereign country.
We could demand any information we wanted. We could pursue prosecutions. And it came out because a lot of the cover up was American and Japanese. So we get into Cold War considerations. Why were things buried? They were buried for political reasons. They come up now. And so history was distorted in various ways.
Well, if I look at the World War II Memorial in the Infinite Corridor, I left out one legacy, of course, and that is the nuclear legacy with which the war ends. And then my mind, and I think all our minds, go to another memorial, another list of names, another kind of memory, and of course, we go to Hiroshima, and the types of commemorations and how the war is remembered in Japan. They built their peace museum in Hiroshima in 1995.
And they have been keeping records of the names of the victims of the bombs. Now, this is a very difficult area, very controversial. How many people were killed, and so on. But this is fraught with-- it's taken us years to work out, and we don't have it clear. And now it's become very politicized. The Japanese initially made memorials and talked about the Japanese dead from Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and the nuclear bombs.
And it was only after enormous struggle that you could get into consciousness the fact that there were thousands and thousands of Koreans killed in those bombs. And their names, and they were not memorialized, because it was seen as a Japanese thing. So finally you now have memorials to the Koreans. And now something very different is happening in Japan, which is bizarre and complicated, and I can't go into it.
But if you were a survivor of Hiroshima, you would be called a hibakusha, a person who suffered the bombing. And as time passed, those people get benefits in Japan-- health benefits, special investigations, and so on. So it used to be a stigma to be a hibakusha, but now it has certain concrete benefits. So people get a card to say they are a hibakusha and it is something desirable. So many people wish to have the cards.
Whenever they die in Japan, now, they are inscribed in the records in Hiroshima. And Nagasaki is deceased, Hibakusha is deceased, so suddenly we're having huge numbers of deaths of people who are dying from ordinary illnesses, old people. And so the numbers are becoming very complex. And once again, history, and memory, and the way these things are used are becoming very complex.
But then, of course, when we move into a place like Hiroshima and memory, we get into great questions which excite people very, very powerfully of was this right, was it wrong, was it a war crime? And you get into very complex debates. Just to give you an example, a very famous distinguished influential Japanese conservative, very conservative man, who was the head of the equivalent of the AMA, American Medical Association, Japanese Medical Association, had a man named [? Takemi ?] who had been a nuclear physicist during the war, was very highly placed in court circles, and in scientific circles, then went on to become a doctor. He's a very conservative man.
Wrote an article years later saying, in his view, Hiroshima was necessary. They were too stubborn. They wouldn't have surrendered. But Nagasaki was a war crime, because they didn't wait.
So the issues are out there. They're very complex. They're much more complex than simple issues. Now, in Japan what happens when you take something like Hiroshima and Nagasaki and this historical event as memory, it doesn't lead so much to anti-Americanism, but what it has led to is this profound sense of the real horrors of war. And so you emerge out of this with the notion, no more Hiroshimas.
And you have a sense that Japan must be a leader in anti-nuclearism. So whereas the war led us on one side to an arms race, and the sense of deterrence, and all sorts of complex theories, here you have the same thing being used to say this should be stopped. This should be suppressed. No more Hiroshimas becomes then a use of history that goes from Japan to the entire world.
What does this do politically in the country? Well, whereas the man I talked to at Washington and Lee is talking about his combat and these atrocious Japanese he was fighting, the Japanese looking and Hiroshima becomes a way almost of erasing everything that occurred before Hiroshima, so you forget what Japan did, and you talk about how Japan was victimized. And it's a very strong image of victimization.
But if you take the concept of victimization, it moves in various directions. One is to say that we will never do this again. So it feeds the anti-militaristic anti-war sentiment. The other is you forget how you victimized others. You forget how you were victimizer. And the same people, person, community, can be both victim and victimizer.
And so these get very, very complicated. And we begin to see these complex uses of history. Now, then if you move from this, what you have is the issue of remembering and forgetting. It's like historical photographs. You have these historical photographs of famous people in the past-- Thomas Jefferson or whomever-- and that's who they become. We sort of-- they're ingrained. And there's always George Washington. He's always facing in the same direction.
And we don't see them younger. We don't see them in different circumstances. And this is similar with what we remember. Because what we remember involves what we don't choose to bring to the surface. So we're into remembering and forgetting. And we talk a lot about this with Japan. And a couple of years ago, a number of years ago, I was asked to talk about war memory in Japan. And it was in Washington DC.
I went down, and in the evening before the talk, for the first time I went to see another war memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial. I had not seen it before. And, of course, this then triggers a whole new way of thinking about things. Because who cannot be moved? And what, incidentally, we're doing in these walls is bringing the abstract discussions of war and these issues down to the human level. Suddenly we realize what we're doing.
Who cannot be moved by the wall? And so I look at the wall, and I'm profoundly moved, as everyone is. You move very, very slowly. You zero in on a certain name, for some reason. And then I step back, and I say, but it's also a figurative wall. Because there were millions of other dead people. There's no Asians. There's no others.
This is the perfect example of victim consciousness. And it's the natural response. But it also blinds us, or it blocks off seeing something else. And it also has very profound political implications. Because, of course, America doesn't want to commit itself to any war now where we will lose American fighting men. That is a use of this history.
So we're moving in many, many different directions. We have here now no more Vietnams, which may mean many things to different people, but it certainly means something to policymakers as well. And so history is being used, again, to remember, to forget, to remember very selectively.
It was the Vietnam War, to get personal, I had dropped out of school for quite a while and came back in 1965 to be a graduate student in Japanese literature. I was not doing history. And it was the Vietnam War that, in fact, had a profound impact on my own way of looking, because I was working on Japan. I had lived in Japan.
And 1965, it's 20 years after the war. And you look at Vietnam, and you say the planes are coming from Japan. Japan is our ally in this war. 20 years later, after this horrendous war in the Pacific, these are our allies. The bases are there. We're now fighting another Asian country.
But this is the second time, because it already had started in the Korean War in 1950. Five years after that earlier war we were using Japan as our ally. Five years after the two World War II, China was now our enemy who had been our ally. How do these things happen? And I felt at this point that a humanist historian, a social scientist perhaps should try to understand these things.
This was the way to get at it. So I went into it. Now, it is true the man in Virginia is absolutely correct. It is presumptuous of me to say what his experience is like. But I can go back, I think, we can, and say, we can look here. We have new questions to ask. We have new documents. We have new materials, just as Pauline finds. Materials, secret documents, things that have become declassified later, new perspectives, new comparative approaches.
Now, I could move on with you through many, many other memorials and ways of talking about this, because we're taking a very similar thing, but we're now moving in different directions of Holocaust commemorations, huge struggles. Who will be included in the Holocaust Museum? Who will not? Not simple issues.
We can go to places like Pittsburgh where President Reagan made his notorious visit. How was history being used at this occasion where he visited the cemetery with Nazi graves, as well as their victims? And something we could go on very much is what's going on in China, the People's Republic of China? The great issue now, and enormously complex, Rape of Nanjing.
Now, if you go to the Rape of Nanjing memorial in China, there's two things to keep in mind. It wasn't built until the 1980s. For decades, Chinese didn't talk about Nanjing. It wasn't part of their consciousness. They had so much on their minds. It was a very complex thing. That was a very late memorial.
Why did it come up when it did? But when you walk to the memorial-- we don't know a lot, but there was a Rape of Nanjing. There was a horrendous Japanese atrocity. One of the things we have no idea of is the real scale of it all, the numbers. And so if you are a denier, like a Japanese equivalent of a Holocaust denier, you go at someone's numbers and say they can't possibly be true. You always have to be careful with numbers, because they're always inflated in the victim consciousness rhetoric. And then others can come in and attack the numbers where the substance may be correct.
If you go to the memorial in Nanjing, the first thing you see as you're approaching it carved into the wall is the numbers in Arabic numbers, 300,000. It's literally carved in stone. And I once asked a Japanese scholar who was associated with it, could we do work with I would say where they got the numbers? Because this was so controversial.
He says, we know it. That's beyond question. Refused to say where it's come. Well, it's become a number that's now inflated. Others say 400. The Japanese go in and say, the right wing, and say, that can't be true. And they kept debating on these numbers. But Nanjing has become part of politics now. It's a very complex part of politics.
It's a kaleidoscope. And I could go on and look around. I don't want to do that. I want to just tell you about one final way of thinking about the war. I haven't seen this. It's the Okinawa War Memorial. World War II ended with the terrible battle of Okinawa in which the Japanese army basically was wiped out, about 100,000 people.
About a third of Okinawa died. About 100,000 to 150,000 civilians in Okinawa died. Americans took enormous casualties. The Japanese military, the high command, and the emperor of Japan, whom we later said had no responsibility, wanted that battle as a warning to the Americans not to invade Japan, that they would have to cut a deal. We'll show them how hard we can fight.
So they basically-- the Japanese sacrificed a quarter million people. And they were killing their own people, soldiers were killing civilians. It's a horrendous image of war. The former governor of Okinawa, a man named Ota, was 15 years old at the time of the battle and was one of the young boys drafted into the war. And his dream was to take something like Vietnam War Memorial, where you remembered what war was, but to make it for every participant in the war.
And he's done it. And I haven't been there. But there is a memorial now in Okinawa, which has the names of the Japanese dead, has the names of the Okinawa dead, has the names of the American dead, has the names of Koreans who may have been fighting, and everyone who could possibly find. And I look at that, or I think about it, or I thought about it from here, and it's very possible that some of the names on the wall in the Infinite Corridor are out there too, because there must have been MIT people who died there.
But we're in a different world now. I think he's using this as a very strong peace statement. He's using this as an anti-emperor statement, anti the Japan that has turned Okinawa into a military base for the Americans statement. So, once again, we see the intersection of history and memory in profound ways.
The memorial doesn't tell us how this came about or what to do. But that, I think, is the responsibility we have as social scientists, and humanists, and historians to try to figure it out. I'm not sure we can, but that's why I disagreed with the man in Virginia that was something we shouldn't be doing.
WILLIAMS: I think you could have heard a pin drop for the last 20 minutes. But I want to add that the event we're celebrating here is not unconnected to what John has been talking about. In the words of my friend, Tom Hughes, the war really messed up the minds of engineers and scientists. It convinced them that the education of engineers and scientists had to be broad, because look at the effect that they had in civilization at large, in the war at large.
And at MIT, I'm convinced that it led to the decision to review MIT's education, and in 1950, to broaden it with the establishment of this school. You know, it's almost 11:30, and I almost hate to open up for discussion, because I think we could have a full hour at least.
BEER: We've still got time.
MAIER: Do it.
BEER: At least two questions, come on.
WILLIAMS: But was that a mandate to cram in as much as we can in five minutes?
BEER: Yes, yes.
AUDIENCE: I have to say that this was really a stunning session. And I can't wait to ask [INAUDIBLE] Gillian's [INAUDIBLE] question first make a comment. I was sitting here, my mind a buzz with the thoughts of Darwin. All I have in it, and that's the thing I resent, as I listened to you is--
AUDIENCE: Mic. Mic.
AUDIENCE: Is a cliche about Darwin, a few things like survival of the fittest. But when you discuss memory, immediately to my mind comes the fact of what's so prominent here at MIT now, the neurosciences, and everything that's happening recently. And I ask myself, is there any molecular biologist or neuroscientist who has zoned in on, as you have on his work, and related to his ideas of memory. And that's my question.
But I go on to say is, I was searching my mind. Somebody must have written that book, or done that work, or began it. And all I could think of was Dawkins book on the selfish gene.
BEER: Very different.
AUDIENCE: And the gene's search for immortality. That's the cliche I take away from that. But basically, it's made a lot of difference to me in the thinking of a gene's search for survival and the fact that at least in a simplistic way, as he explained it, that we're the host. And as others have throughout history, and that their attention is to survive. And we all have some green algae in us, and so forth. But the question is, has anybody done that?
Steve, please, yeah. There is an interesting connection among these things, because human memory is in itself a Darwinian adaptation. And some of its limitations are because it wasn't designed as a VCR just to record things as they happened, but in the service of probably a lot of needs, including the need to look good, and to look consistent, and to burnish your own image, and so on.
The only person that I know has tried that with Darwin himself is Robert Wright in The Moral Animal, where every other chapter is a biography of Darwin from the point of view of the evolutionary analysis of personality and memory, trying to show how some of Darwin's decisions and, I think, how some of Darwin's memories may have been shaped by the human urge to burnish your image post hoc, make yourself look good after the events have happened.
BEER: And I think there is, obviously, enormous space for more thinking about these other aspects of Darwinian inheritance. For example, I mean, in primatology, one of the things he did was he recorded the first year of one of his children's lives in great detail in a diary. And what I was wanting today was really to bring back to our memories the extraordinary creativity, the way in which this was not a man who had one idea and thought he could solve human history with it, but somebody who is always ranging off in different directions.
But I can't answer the precise question, because I don't know of any books that does quite what you are asking. Perhaps I'll try.
AUDIENCE: I've heard many panels in my academic life, but I've never heard a better speech.
AUDIENCE: One question I have-- I guess, it's more for Pauline than the others, but they all might deal with it-- was Pauline's use of the word myth. Now, one meaning of the word myth that we all use is equivalent to untruth. But there's another meaning of myth, which is very important in history, where myth is a kind of figurative or metaphoric creation, not a literal one. And the myth of the Declaration of Independence, to me, is an extremely important part of our history.
And when Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address called Jefferson's statement about equality the proposition on which this nation was founded, that is empirically untrue, but mythically very important. And I'd like to believe that it's a truth we're still trying to realize. Would you comment on that?
MAIER: Oh, I agree. It's part of the reinterpretation of the document by subsequent generations. That that came to incarnate the meaning of equality in the revolution is in some ways bizarre, since there's so many other more specific expressions, and then its original meaning was so limited. It really in the Declaration refers to the state of nature, that nobody is subject to another person before a government is created, and that all legitimate authority comes from consent.
Our equality means so much more than that. And an established nation has so many more expressions. That that statement came to incarnate all those other ideas is in some ways remarkable. And it happened over time.
AUDIENCE: But isn't it a kind of truth [INAUDIBLE]
MAIER: It becomes a truth as people embrace it and make it a statement of our national identity. I think you're absolutely correct. But it's a creation over time, not at one minute in time. And what is so interesting about Lincoln's writings on the topic is that he simply said Jefferson meant it to be that in the beginning. And that's where error and this sort of organizing iconographic myth coexist.
We have the tendency to want to dis-aggregate those to explain it. And what I discover, there's tremendous hostility toward anyone who tries to do that, even if-- don't we need these myths? Don't we want to believe this is what was always meant, that the founders had in their minds what we see in the document? Is it so problematic to say that it wasn't all there at the beginning, that it was put there over time? It seems to be for many people.
AUDIENCE: I agree. But it's also a value to have the myth. That's a part of the historical truth.
MAIER: Well, that's right. It's the woman in Philadelphia. Don't we need these myths? And I have to confess, I've been reflecting on that ever since. [CHUCKLES]
WILLIAMS: Gentleman in the blue suit. Yes, yes. Sarah, the mic--
AUDIENCE: It's just coming.
WILLIAMS: It's coming down the other side.
AUDIENCE: I don't have a question. I have a comment. A member of the class of '54, so I entered MIT in 1950 when this program originated. And I really want to thank the founders very much, because over the years I think that it expanded my horizon, and maybe more importantly, my curiosity, and deeply enriched my life. So thank you very much.
WILLIAMS: Thank you. Thank you.
AUDIENCE: My question is also triggered by Darwin. But really it's directed to the entire panel. And Darwin didn't really write down his treatise on The Origin of Species until several decades after he finished his voyage.
AUDIENCE: As I recall, it was at least 30, or perhaps even 40 years.
AUDIENCE: And in that period of time, of course, his facts as reported remain the same.
AUDIENCE: All right. At least he had the original facts that he recorded. He may have added to them and supplemented. But his analysis of those facts probably changed very, very greatly by his later experiences, and readings, and interactions with others during his life. So I do have a question.
MAIER: Yeah, OK, go ahead.
AUDIENCE: That's just the premise. The problem I have is this. We assume that historians, say, coming later in time, viewing facts earlier, can reinterpret those facts without the biases of the people of contemporary times. But the historians of later times themselves come with their own--
MAIER: Indeed, absolutely.
AUDIENCE: --cultural perceptions from society. So isn't the historian really in the situation-- and I don't want to evoke bad images of Hilary Putnam's lecture yesterday-- but there was the real kernel of truth in Godel's theorem, namely, we have a system in which we can state propositions, but we can't be certain that we can prove those propositions all to be true or all to be false. In other words, is the historian writing history today any closer to the truth than the historian writing history 50 years ago was when they were writing it contemporaneously? And can the historian ever escape the dilemma?
BEER: I think I'll turn to the historians.
MAIER: One's tempted to start with another great unanswerable question, what is truth? I think historians are very uncomfortable with the whole idea of the truth. I mean, the pervasive ideas that history is constructed, that is, it's put together in response to the needs of a given time. I'm not altogether comfortable with that.
I think that although historians are uncomfortable with truth, they certainly believe in accuracy. And they certainly understand the existence of error. It's sort of like having a devil without a god.
Sort of, does one imply the other? And in some ways, I think we are capable of putting together histories that are fuller, because, as John said, we have more documents. We get more documents. One of my colleagues, Gordon Wood at Brown says, we know more about events than those who lived through them, because we have a broader perspective.
An individual has one perspective. We can gather many more. It's a different kind of a truth. There can be a greater accuracy to the stories we tell, but that these are enduring and determinative forever, I don't think any of us have this. I once wrote in The New York Times, I remember, in a review, that history is a battle against anachronism. And I think it's the anachronisms in our sources, the anachronisms in ourselves.
I hadn't meant to make a profound statement, but I do remember having somebody echoed this to me as I walked through the hall the next [INAUDIBLE] history is a war against anachronism. But I think we try always to distill those out. We're never entirely successful. But I think the war is meaningful.
WILLIAMS: John, do you want to--
DOWER: Well, you're right that very distinguished British historian [INAUDIBLE] said study this historian before you study what he writes. But it's a reasonable question. You ask questions out of your own time, and you ask different questions of the past. Now, this is very healthy, that we ask those different kinds of questions of the past.
I think the history that we're doing now is richer and more diversified than the history in the past. For example, when I was a graduate student in the '60s and '70s, we were still in a stage where history was very much histories of elites. It was very formal. You studied the official documents. You worked with elites. You worked with certain types of published materials.
What we do now is we want to know all the things of the past. We want to know popular culture, women were basically excluded, women's history, feminist history, has given us all new areas to look at. We look at popular cultures. We look at a whole series of questions that we never thought of asking before.
And at the same time, this leads us to treating different materials as texts. So the very concept of what is a text has changed. A text used to be a formal written document, and usually a very official type of document. I remember when I was a young teacher, so we're talking only in the early '70s, I had a student who did a very imaginative study of the socialization of the male elites in Japan. He went into the course room curriculum, spread their yearbooks, found out who are these people who were becoming the leaders of Japan?
And I got a call from someone saying, do you really regard this as serious? These materials he's just reading that pops up. Well, I regard it as we now recognize that these popular materials are interesting. You didn't write histories based on bestsellers. You wrote histories based on great books, but what were the general people reading?
I think that quantitative historians have given new sense of using data to check assertions that other people have. It doesn't mean that there weren't great historians in the past. And then just the type of materials we now have access to. In the United States we have access to a lot of materials. On the other hand, which we didn't get into, we also are closed off from very basic materials, like the CIA records or other top level materials that we can't get at.
In Japan, there are all sorts of materials we can't get at. But on the other hand, the KGB, and the Stasi have opened their files. So we are seeing things. So I do think that you read the books that are being written now, and then some of the great books of the past. But there are things now that do, indeed, encourage us to say it's a moving target.
The questions we ask, you have to be sensitive that you're asking certain questions. Why do you ask this question? But I think that if you're sensitive, there has been great progress. The materials coming out now are fascinating in ways that we didn't have in the past. They're just about things we didn't talk about in the past, and they're interesting to us.
MAIER: Because the questions also come out of contemporary preoccupations, which raises, again, the whole problem of anachronism, is if your interest in given areas, coming out of contemporary politics almost predicts what you're likely to find. And I have to say, I confessed I experienced a rather gross example of this. I am consulting at a new series. It's going to be on Franklin, Benjamin Franklin, a new television series.
And I had a letter from the producer that said that the funders had hoped that we could emphasize Franklin as a champion of diversity.
And this is a guy that ate having Germans come to Pennsylvania. And he whole demographic theory was based on a concept that you didn't need to have anybody but Englishmen, because if they moved into a space they just multiplied until they filled it. So why did you want these swarthy skinned peoples like Germans and Swedes?
I mean, it's a very interesting perspective. Because you understand the different ways race was perceived at different times. But, hey, a champion of diversity, I just don't think we can give you in Benjamin Franklin.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] many women. Very diversified [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: Well, Roz Williams mentioned the Italian futurists who flourished around 1900. And they were artists, and they were architects. And they wished to destroy Venice, because Venice was [? congeal ?] memory and carried values in its architecture and its physical manifestations. And now I go to John Dower and ask him a question. I don't know whether-- you probably did realize it, but I noted how often you mentioned physical objects.
You referred to the carvings on the wall, and then you referred to monuments, and also to tombstones. And I want to ask you, how seriously do you take physical objects as a congealed memory and as expressions of history that constantly remind us of the past? Was this accidental, all the mentioning of the physical? Or was this because we're at MIT, which is an Institute of Technology?
DOWER: Well, I was using physical objects simply because it's such a complicated topic. I thought I could move easily with that as really a small way in which to talk about this. I do think that we make certain objects iconic. And we look at them-- whether it's the Declaration of Independence or the [INAUDIBLE], we put it up there, and then we make this a symbol of certain things.
So I think in the broader sense, much of the way in which public memory is structured is in physical forms. And this is one of the great debates now, is what do you have in your museums? What do you have in your exhibitions? And this is a very, very controversial area, but it also has a very wide open area. If you take my kind of physical objects, this is very important.
The museum at Hiroshima is very important. And you understand I think you can, indeed, move to these larger issues through a very discrete object. And how these are interpreted, how they are displayed, how they are presented, is very, very important. At the time of the 1995, under great controversy over the Enola Gay emerged, and how this would be displayed in Washington. I was very struck by the different uses of objects.
The Americans were using the Enola Gay as a symbol of American power and the end of a horrendous war. And you had this gigantic, monstrous, impressive airplane. The Japanese icon that was put against that was the lunch box office of a young girl who had disappeared in the bomb. All they ever found was the lunch box with carbonated rice in it.
And this is the icon in Japan. When they brought this icon to the exhibit in Washington, people were very upset, because they said the lunchbox is more powerful than the super fortress. And this has thrown things out of balance. And I do think that the way in which these physical objects like the walls with names on them are just stunning. Because we have much of the work we've done as social scientists, and that has been very broad, mega deaths, and grand numbers, to suddenly come back to the name, the actual name of the person, and the order in which we knew they died, or something like that, is an extraordinary way of bringing us back to reality.
But it isn't that you have to hook it to this. But it's so very vivid to work from the graphic image to the idea, or from the concrete story or image to the grand theory, rather than from theory down to that. And I think that's very potent. But there were so many other myths. And we could have talked about the myth of the frontier, the myth of so many other American myths. But the concrete objects is extraordinary in bringing these things alive.
BEER: Perhaps I could make that same point about texts. That is, writing, which immediately takes you inside the mind of another person who may be very distant from you in history or in time, but where you can watch in the silences between sentences, in the queue of syntax, the difficulties often, and the achievements of a mind at work, an individual mind at work.
And I think that was something that Pauline touched on in the idea of revision, so that literary historians, which is more of what I am, and other historians, are working with made objects and with text objects. And each of these kinds of inscription gives us access to very specific knowledge, as well as to general theory.
WILLIAMS: I'm going to take one more question. There was a lady who had her hand up. And I regret having to cut off the conversation. But if I don't, I think it will short change the second afternoon session. And so I apologize. Please?
AUDIENCE: I was very happy to discover that George Washington didn't chop down the cherry tree, because I never believed it anyway.
And the question I have is, what is happening in the new discoveries about history, in terms of filtering down to children? They are given so much via the media in this country. What is filtering down to them, and how are their books, are their teachers, being brought up to date?
DOWER: I really can't answer that in any direct way, because I don't go into those schools. But one of the most gratifying things to do in the kind of history we do is to be invited to talk to the seminars of secondary school teachers. And they're terrific. I never can understand how they can carry that teaching schedule.
I get exhausted with one class every other day or something. And I think they're very heroic. They're really heroic. But there are many things-- I did a summer seminar in Boulder. People came in for several weeks working on postwar Japan, and I kicked it off. And they brought in lots of academics. And it's very practically oriented.
How is our work of interest to you, and how can you present this to your students in the classroom? I'm doing one in New York in a couple of weeks where it's an audience-- and Pauline has done the same audience at the Morgan Library-- hundreds of New York secondary school teachers in the social sciences are brought in to talk to people to say, how can your work be brought in accessible ways to our students? And I admire this very much. Because they're really trying to keep abreast of a broad range of things.
But our task is then to say, what can you use to bring it to them? And that's when you get into very concrete things. You pass on children's books from Japan at a certain time. Or you pass on graphic materials. And how can you bring them in to appreciate these complex things we do with? I think there's really very serious attempts on the part of many secondary schools to bring this in.
Our task is that much of our discipline has moved into jargon that is so highly technical and inaccessible that we're really talking to a small group, many of us. And the challenge is to get the academic to try to speak to this broader audience.
MAIER: I remember speaking to a superintendent of education, whatever his title was, in New Jersey. And I said, I don't think historians have been very helpful to you. And he said, no, they're not. [CHUCKLES] And he was trying to put together a program for the schools in his state that was heavily based on primary documents, which are wonderful teaching vehicles. And it really an uphill road.
I, like John, love working with students, with teachers. Because they're so dedicated. They're so thirsty. They're so intelligent. And you just have a sense that your work or what you say will trickle down into their classrooms. And it's immensely gratifying.
But I sense that the people we see are just an extraordinarily small, elite group of the great troupes of school teachers. What I read about the materials that are used in particularly primary schools is most discouraging, that they are now written largely from a political point of view, that different groups who are involved say what they want to have said, and that that's how the history is written. This is based mainly on a long story that was in the New York Review of Books by a historian at Columbia who had reviewed a series of textbooks, and actually spoke with me about this.
I think there is a movement away from this. There is an effort to develop better materials for use in the schools. How far it's going to go, I don't know. Of course, the other problem is that they don't really teach history in the schools. You know, the social sciences have kind of taken over, so the kids sit around, and as one of my students once said, chew the rag about the problems of democracy, having no idea what it is or where it came from, having no grounding for their discussions.
And it's a great loss. I think history, properly taught, sells very well. Because it's about stories. Kids like stories. That's how human beings make sense of their experiences, through stories. And some us tell stories. [CHUCKLES]
WILLIAMS: Thank you so much. Please join me in thanking this panel.