Years ago, a baby sitter peered into my bookcase and asked me to recommend something to read. She was a bright young woman, an honors graduate of an excellent high school, majoring in something like government at Georgetown University. "This is a good one," I said, holding the biography of Huey Long by T. Harry Williams. She looked puzzled. "Who's Huey Long?" she asked about America's most famous demagogue. His 1935 assassination in Louisiana was a historic moment, but ignorance has buried him deep.
With the permission of the baby sitter, I decided on a little quiz. "Who was George C. Marshall?" I asked. She did not know. "How about Douglas MacArthur and Joe McCarthy?" They both had something to do with communism, she said hesitantly. The charitable impulse toward grade inflation took over. I told her she was half right.
I would like to say that I was surprised by her ignorance, but I wasn't. Marshall (one-time secretary of state and architect of the Marshall Plan), MacArthur (one of our more famous generals) and McCarthy (the Red-baiting senator for whom an era was named) are certainly historical figures. But the history they figured in was, at the time of the baby sitter's visit, rather recent -- a kind of twilight zone between history and current events. The newspapers no longer wrote about them, but history books had not yet gotten around to including them. They all existed in something I call near-history.
If there is such a thing as near-history, then as a kid I was something of a near-historian. I liked all of history, but I was especially interested in what had just happened. In my day, near-history was the Cold War, the Korean war and even World War II. The first two had happened too recently to be included in the textbooks (or my school had decided to stick with the ones it had). As for World War II, it was in the text, but at the back. Given the usual number of snow days, those pages were never reached. In my classes, history ceased at the Great Depression.
All this was frustrating to me. My parents often talked of the Depression. It influenced their thinking and the way they voted. My uncles had fought in World War II, and I wanted to know more about their war. The older brothers of my friends had gone to fight in Korea, but my textbooks said nothing about that "police action." Instead, in class, we giggled about the Non-Intercourse Act and memorized the date of the Monroe Doctrine -- 1823, as I recall.
My search was really for context: What had preceded the news that was in the newspapers I was reading? This was not the yearning of a history buff for whom all facts are of equal importance. It seems to me impossible to make a judgment about what's happening now if you know nothing about what preceded it -- if yesterday is a blank. Not knowing about the Non-Intercourse Act is one thing; not knowing about the civil rights era is quite another.
Recently, for instance, I was at Harvard to hear a major foreign-policy address by Sen. Joseph Biden. The Delaware Democrat (and presidential candidate) was introduced by the dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Graham Allison. Allison mentioned that Biden had opposed "forced busing." I looked around. Not a student stirred. A decade ago, that was an explosive statement. George Wallace, among others, opposed busing. The civil rights establishment favored it. But at Harvard that day, opposition to busing seemed just another braid on Biden's political uniform: senator, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, presidential candidate and opponent of forced busing.
Several weeks earlier, I had had dinner with student leaders at a once- segregated college. I asked about race relations on campus and was told there weren't any. Blacks and whites had little to do with one another. Fraternities and sororities were nearly totally segregated -- by choice, it was emphasized. All my dinner partners were white, and while all of them rued the situation on campus, none thought they were obliged to do anything about it. By law, their school was racially integrated, and that was all that mattered. What had gone before -- legal segregation, then attempts to end it, then attempts to recruit blacks -- seemed to mean nothing to them. Their world was created the day they stepped on campus.
An 18-year-old has the same vote that a 50-year-old has, and there's nothing wrong with that. But, ironically, the 18-year-old's ignorance is greatest about the events of his own lifetime, what happened when he was 6 or 10 or even 15. The Vietnam war provides a context and explanation for the Iran-contra affair -- both the never-again mentality of Ollie North and the determination of Congress to share in the making of foreign policy. Yet the reasons for these two somewhat contradictory postures are lost on new voters who know nothing about the near-history of their own times, who, ignorant of its antecedents, see the Iran-contra affair as sui generis.
As for myself, I feel that I've been playing catch-up ever since school, trying to find out not what happened in the past, which is history, or today, which is news, but yesterday. The semester would end, the text would be returned, and we would be dismissed, either for the summer or for life, not knowing what we needed to know most. The neglect of near-history reverses the very process of aging. It is not the old who lack short-term memory, it's the young. ::