Monday, January 7, 2013

When Do We Forget?

Eric Schultz

We were sitting round this past Thanksgiving and I asked our assembled crew what day November 22 was, besides Thanksgiving.  Everyone looked stumped.  So I added, “49 years ago?”  One of our 55+ did the math and announced that it was the anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.  She remembered the day vividly.

In fact, it was a day that we would never forget.  One, it appears, we are now rapidly forgetting.

Intrigued, I checked data from the US Census Bureau and did some arithmetic, making the assumption that someone would have to have been about 5-years-old at the time (or 54-years-old now) to have a “resonant” living memory of the Kennedy assassination. In big, round numbers, then, the 54+ age demographic represents about 25% of the United States’ 2012 population. 

So, at least one reason we fail to remember the Kennedy assassination is that only 25% of us have any real memory of it.

I did the same rounded historical math for the sinking of the Titanic, Pearl Harbor, the first moon walk, the Challenger Disaster and 9/11, just to pick a few of our more vivid cultural memories.  I discovered the percentage of the American population with “resonant living memory” in 2012 would be as follows (again, in big, round numbers): 

Titanic (95 years or older): There are 70 thousand centenarians, so under 1% of the U.S. population remembers. 

• Pearl Harbor (76 years or older): About 7 to 8% of the population remembers. (My dear departed father would have been 79 years old this year, and when he heard on the radio about Pearl Harbor he hid under his bed—6,000 miles from Hawaii.) 

• Moon walk (48 years or older): About 33% of the population remembers. 

• Challenger Disaster (31 year and older): About 45% of the population remembers. 

• 9/11 (16 and older): About 75% of the population remembers.

A Ford advertisement
Of course, there are many, many complications to this arithmetic.  I know, for example, that sometimes two and three year olds can have vivid memories of current events.  Also, the issue of how the event was captured, and how accessible it is on today’s media (like YouTube) is also important.  (Every 20-year-old knows, for example, that Leonardo DiCaprio died on the Titanic.)

And then, of course, there’s the issue of passion.  I was watching a New York Giants game a few weeks ago and noticed, painted in the end zone, the team had written “New York Football Giants.”  That must be, I assume, to avoid confusion for the diehard New York baseball Giants fans who are still bemoaning the move of the team to San Francisco in 1958.

We also know more and more about how memories aremade. At least one scientist believes that the very act of remembering something can change the memory itself.  Just two years after 9/11, for instance, a study showed that 73 percent of 569 college students believed they saw the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11, when we know that footage did not air until the following day.

I know those of you who teach a new crop of freshman each year need to rely on the Benoit College Mindset List to remember what you cannot forget your class never knew (so to speak).

And then, of course, we have Hollywood filmmakers, documentarians, authors and historians working on our collective memory.  John Adams had a nice resurgence in awareness, if not likeability, after David McCullough’s biography was published in 2002 and the HBO multi-part film based on the same aired.  Abraham Lincoln is, as our marketeers say, always “top-of-mind,” though now he’s going to look like Daniel Day Lewis for a generation of Americans.

Perhaps more than anything, the question of “memorability” keys off whether the person or event is still relevant today.  Does it have legs?  That’s the past we really like to hold closely in the present and take with us into the future.

Malcolm Gladwell had the audacity not long ago to say that Steve Jobs will be forgotten.  If you, like me, spend time in office suites and boardrooms, you’ll know that Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs is a phenomenon. Executives who claim never to read a book brag about reading Steve Jobs.  We will never forget him, or so we think.

Ironically, I’ve just finished reading My Life atGeneral Motors by Alfred Pritchard Sloan. It was, like Steve Jobs, an immediate bestseller when it appeared in 1963 (the hardcover selling 50 thousand copies), a kind of business bible for several generations of executives.  Alfred Sloan (perhaps known best today for Sloan-Kettering and the MIT business school) was quite likely the most famous CEO of the 20th century, running General Motors from a disorganized 12% market share vs. Henry Ford’s Model T in 1920 to a 52% market share and world dominance by 1956.  Sloan was the most talented executive in arguably the most transformative industry of the 20th century, the industry that gave us suburbs, the interstate highway system, and romance by the dashboard light.  

Having said that, I’d wager I could survey a room of 100 executives of all ages and find perhaps 25% who knew Sloan’s name and 5% who really knew anything about him.  Alfred Sloan’s greatest sin, in retrospect, is that he built a Fortune 500 organization through committees and “company men,” and it’s hard to find anyone in business today who wants to be on a committee, much less build anything big, when the road to instant riches is 2 years, 5 software coders, lots of pizza and a killer app long.

Many executives would, however, know Henry Ford and his invention of the assembly line, which is, of course, a lie their teachers taught them and the flipside to not remembering real history.

Someday, when we get tired of apps and tablets, the Baby Boomers fade, and we’re all wearing designer Google Goggles, we’ll see Steve Jobs fade as well.  It’s hard to believe that now, of course, when he’s on his way to canonization.   

On December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, I was at lunch with some friends and asked, “Does anybody know what day it is?”  One wag leaned in and said, “Everyone knows December 7 is Larry Bird’s birthday.”  Most people around the table laughed except our youngest companion, who asked, “Who is Larry Bird?”  

So, it happens.  Historical memory is about time.  It’s about YouTube and Holllywood and what’s hot at  It’s about historical literacy.  And, it’s decidedly about relevance: how well does a memory travel.  The one lesson it teaches us again and again, however, is that when it comes to the person or thing we’ll never forget, never say never.


Lisa Clark Diller said...

Thank God we forget some things--we have so much to remember. But, a tiny bit of what you seem to be saying is also that perhaps historians get to decide what people remember by influencing what names/events are included in textbooks. I'm thinking of your mention of Henry Ford here...

We get to provide a little bit of the perspective when people say "we'll never forget this" or "remember such and such!" as a slogan for justifying things like passing reactionary laws or targeting certain groups as enemies. We get to know that most of these things won't be remembered unless we include them in the texts or continue to write good books about them. And that should give us some pause.

So many people think "forgetting" is a tragedy. I'm not sure it is....

hcr said...

I read somewhere once that people only have the perspective of time for things they remember from their own life. So if it happened before they were born, it is equally remote. JFK's assassination and Caesar's are equidistant from the perspective of a student today. Or so the argument went. I'm not sure how much I agree with that, but it did make me rethink how to teach things I remember but my students don't.