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Memory and History
Introduction Learning Activities Materials Bookmarks Standards
Learning Activities
Defining the Terms, Setting the Stage
Possessing and Re-Possessing Life Stories
What Happens When a People's Way of Life is Stripped Away?
What Memories to Carry Forward?
The Schwab Family of Libau (Liepaja), Latvia, ca. 1908. (YIVO Institute for Jewish Research)
Learning Activity 1: Defining the Terms, Setting the Stage

Introductory Activity:
1. Explain to students that they will be learning about how history is written. Divide the class into groups of no more than four students and ask each group to select a scribe (a person responsible for taking notes) and a reporter (a person responsible for reporting the work of the group to the rest of the class).

2. Tell each group that they will be working together to come up with working definitions for some important terms in order to begin their exploration of the topic. Give each group the handout Memory and History (PDF) which asks them to do the following:

  • Define the terms "memory" and "history" and record the definitions.
  • Discuss the relationship between the two terms.
  • Write down at least three statements about the relationship between the two terms. For example: "History is recorded so that people will retain a memory of events that take place."
    (Note: Students should be prepared to back up their statements with examples.)
Once each group has finished, tape the completed handouts to the wall in front of the class.

Regroup and ask each group's reporter to go to their posted handouts and present their group's statements to the class. Ask students what similarities and differences they see among the various groups' ideas. Extend the students' thinking by asking questions such as:
  • Are there examples you can think of in which different historical records of the same event reflect differing perspectives on what occurred? How and why does this happen?
  • How do we determine which version of "history" is factual or true? Does it matter? Why or why not?
Narrative, Memory, Identity
1. Explain to students that over the next several class sessions they will be looking at the role that individuals and their memories play in the recording and study of history. Students will examine such questions as:
  • What is the difference between history and memory?
  • How might history and memory reflect and reinforce each other?
  • What happens to individuals and cultures when their memories fade?
  • Why are rituals important in the role of memory and history?
  • How are our individual and cultural identities shaped by our memories?
  • How can memory, and history, reflect a wish to remember or a wish to forget?
2. Pass out copies of the excerpt from Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (PDF).  Explain to the class that this is a brief passage from an essay by a professor of clinical neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Tell students that the text they're reading concerns a patient who is unable to remember anything for more than a few seconds. Ask a student to read aloud and have the class follow along.

If we wish to know about a man, we ask "what is his story - his real, inmost story?" - for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us - through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives - we are each of us unique.

To be ourselves we must have ourselves - possess, if need be re-possess, our life stories. We must "recollect" ourselves; recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.

© 1985 by Oliver Sacks. Reprinted with permission of The Wylie Agency, Inc.

3. After students have read the passage, ask them to write a one-page response to the following question: What is the role of memory according to Oliver Sacks? Ask them to turn this assignment in at the beginning of the next class session.

Continue to Learning Activity 2
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