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Collective Occlusion: American Narratives and Silencing of Important Cultural Memories

May 29, 2013 by eslkevin      

By Kevin Stoda

I have taken a lot of time to write on collective memory in film and society over the years.  I have written, for example on the Holocaust and on the presentation of memory in Germany and commemorations and/or memorials in other lands. I have written about memories of WWII on three continents.  Finally, I have written about the Vietnam era and post-Vietnam war education–and memories surround the movie Forrest Gump and the film’s relationship to images used in other films, i.e. its relationship to the reality on the ground of which it represents.

Recently, I came across an older–but trailblazing–article on the topic of USA history and how society teaches it:  “What Can Forrest Gump Tell Us about Students’ Historical Understanding?” It was published in 2001 by Sam Wineburg, Susan Mosborg, and Dan Porat in a journal on social education. Again, in this article, the topic of Forrest Gump, the film, is used to make the case that media may have a stronger influence on the teaching of Vietnam Era history in America than do any classroom experiences of our American students in either our primary or secondary schools these days.  The authors go further, though, and indicating that media is also overwhelming possible family practices in educating our youth about America’s own history.

The authors of the article,  “What Can Forrest Gump Tell Us about Students’ Historical Understanding?” were concerned with how America students are acquiring their American history up through the period of the 9-11 events (which have since transformed further our Vietnam era memories). The article exposes the initial findings of both a social-educational experiment and a set of investigations involving students in their last years of high school.  Moreover, it also involved the students and their parents in extensive interviews and engaged them in written responses on similar historical topics, themes, events, and images. [1]

Note:  As it has been claimed that even more than the Vietnam War, the events of 9-11 have supposedly changed living-American-generations’ filters of history. I would certainly like to see similar new research (as undertaken by Weinburg, et. al) to be undertaken today. I personally find that the Cold War-Era with its own particular narrations have, however, continued to fuel American memory even as the period of Global Terrorism has supposedly overtaken our current new conceptualizations of reality and memory.

The article by Weinburg et. al. begins [2] as follows: HISTORICAL NARRATIVES envelop us everywhere–at home, at church, at the movies; in the buildings we inhabit, the parks we visit, the stamps we lick; in the days we take off from work, the newspapers we read, and the six-o’clock news we receive from Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather. By the time young people reach their eighteenth birthday in our culture, they possess a rich narrative of origins–how the United States came into being, the roots of the race issue that divides American society, something about Pilgrims, colonists, and settlers. In terms of impact and influence, no algebra or French teacher can compete with such famous history teachers as Steven Spielberg or Oliver Stone, whose devoted students number in multiples of millions.

Each of us grows up in a home with a distinct history and a distinct perspective on the meaning of larger historical events. Our parents’ stories shape our historical consciousness, as do the stories of the ethnic, racial, and religious groups that number us as members. We attend churches, dubs, and neighborhood associations that further mold our collective and individual historical selves. We visit museums. We travel to national landmarks in the summer. We camp out in front of the TV and absorb, often unknowingly, an unending barrage of historical images. By the time children have celebrated a decade of Thanksgivings and Martin Luther King Days, they are already seasoned students of American culture and history.

But the notion that all these sources form a coherent whole mocks the complexity of social life. Historical consciousness does not emanate like neat concentric circles from the individual to the family to the nation and to the world. Lessons learned at home contravene those learned at school. What we hear at school conflicts with what we hear at church or synagogue–if not in the pews then certainly in the bathrooms. If we pay attention to the lyrics of rap music or tune our dials to Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern, we confront more disjunctures. To make historical sense, we must navigate the shoals of the competing narratives that vie for our allegiance.[p. 55]”

Collective Occlusion

In writing their piece for a social education journal, Weinburg et. al. have decided to use the wording “collective occlusion” to describe what concerns them the most in the wake of their research on cohort generations [3] of America, their media, and their education in history, specifically Vietnam War Era social education.  The researchers and authors explain that they prefer the term “collective occlusion” to a term, such as “collective amnesia” for several different reasons.

“First, occlusion conveys a sense of blockage; it is not that these memories are erased or forgotten but they are not salient or easily seen.  Second, even when memories are occluded, they are, in historical and archival cultures. Available in books, on the Web, and often taught in specialized university seminars. ‘Amnesia’ misrepresents the complexity of social memory by conveying monolithic, socially uniform processes.  The partiality and opacity of ‘occlusion’ conveys this complexity more fully [p.58].”

Weinburg, et. al. wrote the following concerning the need to have awareness of collective occlusion in our curriculum development in history and social education in America by noting: “When we began this work, we hypothesized that there would be significant points of tension between the history taught in schools and the history available in film, music, and TV in the culture at large.  This may be the case but it is not what we found.  In fact, rather than forming a separate sphere, the school often became the purveyor of the history curriculum offered by popular culture, the place where young people first sat and sampled its wares:  Hollywood movies, made-for-TV documentaries, and the like. [p.57]”

I should add that the researchers spent hundreds of hours observing classrooms at three different high schools in the American Northwest for their research.  This enabled them to observe what kind of interaction the students under  investigation had with teachers in their own “official” history classes.

Based on their home and family discussions (as well as blindly submitted written reports submitted from the two cohort generations in each household), the researchers  wrote, “Similarly, the home” has become “a venue in which parent and child often shared in the joint experience of the past by turning on the VCR [nowadays the CD/DVD or digital memory of mass media sources] and together [have been] witnessing a celluloid version of it.”  Importantly,  the child-generation (or younger of the two cohort generations), i.e. who had had no personal direct experience living in the Vietnam War Era, seem to have absorbed the biases and misleading information of mass-media rather than relying more on what expert witnesses and expert researchers tell them about history on-the-ground in the Vietnam era.

Note: Some of these expert witnesses may have even been the parents of the very high school students under study—hence, there have certainly been some disagreements between or among the generations as to how to interpret images and history. For example, the movie Forrest Gump crept up in 60% of the interviews conducted with parents and their children, i.e. concerning the topic of the Vietnam War era.  In other words, for some of those youth interviewed “the sequences of images and dialogues, invented by director Robert Zemeckis [creator of the film Forrest Gump], was the sharpest and clearest recollection of the entire Vietnam era.[Ibid.]”

One example of occlusionary memory  (or exclusionary memory) presented by Weinburg has been the absences of information in films concerning the massive support for the Vietnam War in the USA throughout the 1960s. From watching movies and some documentaries in recent years, one often has the view that the Vietnam War was proceeding along for a decade or more with only a few supporters. This was, in fact, generally not true. Throughout the Cold War, too many Americans bought into the government’s and CIA’s domino theories about communism.

This occlusion of memory is important because the biggest lesson of the Vietnam War is for individuals and society to not any longer simply follow our leaders (like lemmings over the next cliff).  When they try to lead us off to fight the Great Communist Myth—or the Great Eternal War on Terror Myth we must be more analytical and do our homework on the facts.  American youth have to be more introspective, question our leaders very tough early on, and stand up for what is right early on—and not stop fighting to end war and other global nonsense until all our children are brought home again.

According to Weinburg, et. al., “As late as 1972, the war . . . . having spread to Cambodia and Laos, still commanded overwhelming support in public opinion polls.” This reality reflects the same lacks attitude that people have had in the USA in putting up with 13 years of endless war on terrorism that we are experiencing in 2013.

Weinburg and his fellow researchers noted that despite fact that Americans had allowed themselves to be hoodwinked en-mass for so very long about the Vietnam War’s importance in the greater scheme of things, “Domestic support for the Vietnam War was rarely mentioned in our interviews.”  In short, this important detail has not been made clear to subsequent generations of America, i.e. in post 1975 America.

These sort of discoveries about “occlusion” and American memory led the authors to these conclusions:

(1)   The belief that the “family as educator” is a dominant source for moderating or revising media, textbook and school history lessons is less of a reality than has been perceived. In short, the family’s role as “history educator” is possibly not as important as it was before the age of electronic media.  Instead of mediating the media, families are often transmitting stories to one another that more often replicate Hollywood or the many mainstream documentaries on history, i.e. rather than actually taking time to pass down the real context of the family’s or country’s lived-out  history to younger generations. Weinburg notes, “The family still educates, to be sure, but not in some stylized Norman Rockwell way…: the family mediates the larger cultural narrative provided by Hollywood [p.57].”

(2)   History lessons in school must be reconceptualized to take into account the deficits leading to the occlusion of important historical facts in dominant historical narrations.  This is true whether the history stems from mass media, textbooks, or from the family’s misdirection or occlusion of memory.

(3)   History books and history courses need to make sure that students understand the discrepancies between everyday-knowing and other forms of knowing or knowledge. This will require a lot of hands on research practice, which require a lot of research and discovery time both in and out of the classroom.

(4)   Further improvements on American societal-educational delivery would also include suggestions discussion topics and home along with critical questions for parents to discuss with the next generation, i.e. questions and discussion topics for at home usage which enable students to move to deeper and less superficial notions of America and what facts or impressions it might be more important to internalize about our American memories.

This last point makes it clear that a lot of the point of showing a Hollywood film or a documentary in the classroom should be for the purpose of comparing and contrasting reality from fable. In addition, history that has been occluded from text and film needs to be our primary point when summarizing and discussion film and texts in the classroom. If we are not doing this already in our history and other classes, we teachers must turn from our ways.

Likewise, we parents must take on more seriously the task of teaching critical listening, reading, and watching skills to our children at home when it comes to gaining history from mass-media.  Neglect of this mission at home and in school will lead to things like have happened to American youth after 9-11, i.e. we were sent off to war en-masse in foreign lands—as Forrest Gump might say, “AGAIN, Again.”

Forrest Gump Quotes

NOTES

[1] The research for “What Can Forrest Gump Tell Us about Students’ Historical Understanding?” involved followed “youngsters from three different schools and communities across a year of eleventh grade history instruction and into the twelfth grade.(1) But the school curriculum was just one of the venues in which we located our study. We believed that the home was also a prime venue for teaching us to become historical, for influencing the shape of the narratives we tell about ourselves and our nation. We conceptualized the development of historical understanding not as a series of courses in school but as a complex …[p. 55]”

Wineburg, Sam; Mosborg, Susan; Porat, Dan (2001) “What Can Forrest Gump Tell Us about Students’ Historical Understanding?” Social Education, Vol. 65, No. 1

[2]  I feel free to publish the three paragraph introduction of this article because this portion is now published publicly online at: http://www.questia.com/library/1G1-70870135/what-can-forrest-gump-tell-us-about-students-historical

[3]  Cohort generation refers to the generation here of (a) either the generation of parents of those being studied or (b) the generation of the high school students involved in the study.  The authors compare and contrast their responses to images and memories of the Vietnam era.  These images were discussed both in writing and orally by the two generations under research here.

About eslkevin

I am a peace educator who has taken time to teach and work in countries such as the USA, Germany, Japan, Nicaragua, Mexico, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman over the past 4 decades.
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