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This turn of events appalled most professional historians, who found themselves isolated and largely ignored. But it may well be that our profession was wrong to ignore the great emotional and psychological stakes involved. There is a vast difference between a monograph and a museum exhibit, after all. We, too, must learn from history. First, we must acknowledge not just the reality, but also the legitimacy of collective memory. The emotional bonds of memory cannot be broken by rational and balanced inquiry.
Nor should they be. The “mystic chords of memory,” as Abraham Lincoln recognized, have a deep and genuine claim to our hearts. They shape our sense of who we are and where we need to go as a people. The task of historians is to assist in what Lincoln, in that same inaugural address, declared to be the duty of all Americans: “to think calmly and well” about the subjects that have so deeply polarized our nation.
It often appears that the one place we can “think well” is in the quiet halls of the academy. But these halls are quiet because few laymen ever visit them, and even fewer care what takes place in them. As a result, historians must broaden the conversation beyond our classrooms to extend to our communities. If we fail, we will concede the past to those content to invoke memory alone. And then, we will better understand Yerushalmi’s warning that our choice “is not whether or not to have a past, but rather — what kind of past shall one have.”
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and is the author of “Albert Camus: Elements of a Life” (Cornell University Press, 2010).