The future of ancestral voices

By Todd R. Nelson

“History is the prediction of the present,” Louis Menand writes in a recent New Yorker magazine essay. “Historians explain why things turned out the way they did. Since we already know the outcome, this might seem a simple matter of looking back and connecting the dots. But there is a problem: too many dots. Even the dots have dots. Predicting the present is nearly as hard as predicting the future.”

The big realization was, a few years back, that my children’s generation would be the first whose lives would be constantly documented by video, from birth onward. Lots of familial dots; lots of “presents,” to say nothing of the daily rabid archiving of dots with our society’s new digital devices. This was made poignant to me as I observed my seventh and eighth grade social studies students researching the history of the 1970s for a performance we called “The Voice of the ’70s.” It’s also clear we inhabit a new era of social studies research — every minute of history is being similarly recorded.

I tried to imagine the effect of the onset of photography to social studies, when photos of Civil War generals and battlefields, possibly even Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address, became a reality! Before photography, we had painted interpretations of people and events, and of course, words. We always had Lincoln’s words, but what did his voice sound like? His inflection? Lincoln was the president in the time of my great-great grandfather Spencer Colby, himself a Civil War veteran. There’s a photo of him as a young man, shortly after the war. Dot. Now in social studies class we watch YouTube videos of Ronald Reagan, my children’s first president, as he delivers his first inaugural address. Dot. Here, too, is “live” coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Or the Live Aid concert in London, which inaugurated a new era of rock star social and economic activism. Dot, dot, dot.

For many of my students, it’s their first glimpse of the spoken words, voice and image of a president from the time before their birth. Or the music videos and concert footage of the age they study. For me, it is a re-viewing. I was present the first time around; now I am looking over the shoulder of a new generation during their first encounter with an epoch. Theirs is a discovery experience; mine déjà vu all over again.

What’s it like the first time around? The second? How different do the storied words sound when accompanied by video? How good is my recollection? The video record stands still. It is we — people of a certain age and all ages — who move on, each in a unique way. So there is a refracted image, like a distant mirror effect — though it’s more like a “funhouse” mirror. “Who am I this time around?” I think as I watch the historical record…and who will these students be, 30 years hence, when they look back on the images that originated during their young adulthood, or remember watching in social studies class in seventh grade. Do we have a better grasp of previous eras just because there is an encyclopedic video record?

Billy Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate, called poetry “The history of the human heart. Without poetry,” he said, “we would be deprived of the emotional companionship of our ancestors.” We still must create a sense of the meaning for our age of these ancestral voices, something that is always shifting, being interpreted and reinterpreted. There is an illusion of objectivity in this documentation, when in fact the video image is truly a kind of emotional companionship as much as it is a definition of what happened long ago. Objectivity is subjective! Definitions keep shifting. We are each a distinct palimpsest.

With such an extensive archive of history’s mistakes, and the impossibility of forgetting that, thanks to all those dots with dots, it seems ironic how thoroughly doomed we seem to be to repeat it. The meaning of those defies agreement. We have a higher and higher resolution of the events we come from, but our sense of resolve to learn from our ancestors seems diminished.

We’re only a couple of generations into this new dispensation of the video archive of every human experience vs. the meaning of the encyclopedic record of images and words. The camera never blinks, and we all have cameras now. A tapestry of legacies constantly evolves, now at warp speed data collection knitting with the more deliberate weft of its interpretation. And yet it’s still just a brief history of time — questionable ’70s hairdos and all.

Another poet clinches the personal effect we might all feel. We all share the way Donald Hall remembers the “dots” of his experience, the benchmark moments in a personal history. “I remember Hitler and Stalin invading Poland,” he writes. “I remember sitting in left field to watch the first game of the 1941 World Series. Joe Gordon hit a home run. I remember Pearl Harbor. I remember Guadalcanal. I remember buying War Bonds in school, 10 cents a week. I remember leaving grammar school for the vastness of Hamden High. I remember V-E Day and Hiroshima. I remember meeting Robert Frost. I remember V-J Day and a woman’s naked body. I remember Kennedy’s assassination. With my son, I marched in Washington against the Vietnam War. I remember 9/11.” And we will always remember, since YouTube is busy archiving it all for us. But Hall adds a frisson that speaks to that sense of companionship in ancestral voices: “One day, of course, no one will remember what I remember.” Watching a recording is not the same experience as remembering, with others, the having of an experience. That is companionship, past, present and future. May it ever be thus.

Todd R. Nelson is principal of Brooksville Elementary School.


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