Lies My Teacher Told Me - James W. Loewen

Chapter 10: Down The Memory Hole: The Disappearance of the Recent Past

"Many African socieities divide humans into three categories: those still alive on the earth, the sasha, and the zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead. They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead. As generalized ancestors, the zamani are not forgotten but revered." (Mbiti qtd. in Loewen 233).

This is the opening paragraph of Chapter 10, and it elucidates an interesting facet of our teaching of history. As explained in the rest of the chapter, much greater emphasis is placed on the zamani, or long-dead, than the sasha, those who have just recently made an impact on our world.

Where were you the day President Kennedy was assassinated?

If you were born after the year 1963, you won't remember because you weren't around yet.

And yet, chances are you know more about President Kennedy than you do about President Lyndon B. Johnson

and the Vietnam War.

This is because we tend to learn more about the distant past than we do about the recent past.

April 3rd, 2011 is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

On this day, there was a media uproar.


"The Kennedys," a new miniseries about the lives of some of the most famous members of the Kenndy Dynasty, was set to premiere on the History Channel. However, due to some of the controversial material contained within, the History Channel decided to withdraw the series from its lineup. Here is the offician trailer."The Kennedys" was picked up by the Reelz channel and the 8 part mini-series eventually aired. But all anyone in the news could talk about is the controversy surrounding the portrayal of the family once deemed the second coming of Camelot. This event in and of itself brings up some interesting questions discussed in the text, namely whether lionizing dead presidents despite their actions is wise. For example, although Kennedy is often revered as the forerunner of the Civil Rights movement, there is little evidence to support this claim. Loewen himself states in Chapter 8 of his book in reference to a march for Civil Rights in Washington D.C., "In reality, Kennedy initially tried to stop the march and sent his vice-president to Norway to keep him away from it because he felt Lyndon Johnson was too pro-civil rights" (228). The controversy surrounding the portrayal of one of our nationThis brings up some very interesting questions related to the last chapter as well:
  • Do we have a duty to revere our presidents despite their actions?
  • Are the actions of the History Channel justified?

Although many of our aging population can still remember the day Kennedy was shot and killed, there are probably very few people still alive today who could actually pencil Kennedy into the "Sasha" column. On April 13th, 1972, the Battle of An Loc, a definitive battle in the Vietnam War, was fought. Loewen comments in his book too about the lack of coverage in the Vietnam War, writing, "The recent past is, after all, the history with the most immediate impact upon our lives today. The notion that history courses should slight the sasha for the distant zamani is perverse" (235).
  • Do you agree with Loewen? Should history classes focus on the recent past more than the distant past? Why?

Finally, one of Loewen's main points is that, unlike the distant past, the recent past can be taught through images and digital media.
Many years from now, our children and grandchildren won't ask us where we were on the day President Kennedy was shot, they will ask us where we were on 9/11/01.

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