History is memory
History is not what we think it is. I don’t mean that the actual events are not what we have been taught, in many cases we know that to be true. I don’t mean the obvious assessment that the meaning of history is created by the victorious. What I mean, is that the role of history in our thinking and in our future is not what it seems at first glance.
History is memory. It is our memory. It is a shared memory of our past and that memory includes the triumph and pain of our shared endeavor. History is a way for our society to understand both our greatest accomplishments and our deepest failures. Through an understanding of history we can try to reproduce the one and not the other.
Most of you have heard a quote or some paraphrase of, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” but the actual quote is from a Spanish philosopher named George Santayana. In a book in 1905 called “The Life of Reason,” he said. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Those who cannot remember are condemned. That’s a very important choice of wording. “Remember” indicates the emotional and experiential experience of memory and condemnation assumes our guilt. For if we distill history to names and dates, to dry analysis and forget the pain, the suffering, the loss and the exuberance. . . we are guilty and as such deserve the condemnation of repeating our mistakes.
As we look around our country today and see the division in our nation and some of the emerging movements we must know that this is not coincidental. It is not coincidence that the generation that fought against fascism in Europe and dealt with the Holocaust, with dictatorship, and with military conflict to prevent some of these same beliefs we see emerging globally, is dying. Their collective memory is not being passed on in an impactful way. We are failing to remember and we risk the condemnation of repeating tragedies of our past.
But, let’s go even further back in our history of division and conflict as a nation and talk about a piece of history that everyone educated in American history is familiar with, the Gettysburg Address.
Many of you probably learned it, memorized it, repeated it as children. Back then, you might not have known what all the words meant. You might not have understood the context. You probably didn’t have a great deal of empathy for the people who were hearing those words or the situation that led to that moment, but you know of the address.
If you learned the names and the dates and the times, and you have some idea of the contextual narrative flow of those historical events, you have some understanding, like I do, of the Gettysburg Address.
So what? What’s broken? What’s wrong with that, with just knowing the facts and the dates and the names?
We teach history in our classrooms today in a way to get people to fill in a bubble circle on a standardized test. That is not necessarily the fault of the instructor any more than it’s the fault of the parents. It is the fault of the regulators, or it might just be the reality of trying to create a western, standardized modern system of education that really has to do with the factory preparation needed for an industrial revolution in the 20th century.
We needed to teach everyone to be able to function in basic rote memorization and reasoning skills so that they could move from one stage to another in a factory system. Our education system has not caught up with the reality of the world that we live in. And in adapting for the factory, we abandoned our memory. We lost the true power of our history.
I think we can all agree that at least that aspect of history education is broken. Really, if we’re trying to maintain the historical memory of our greatest triumphs and our horrible shames, as a people, as a species, that is also broken. Because knowing dates and names does not equate to remembering the past.
What if it could be different, though? What if we could take all of our children and share with them the collective memory of what our history is, and what it means. What if they could empathize and understand at a human level what those historical citizens and fellow humans went through, so that when they recognize those same patterns appearing in our society they would not be condemned to repeat the past?
Some of you may be thinking, “Well, how do we do that? Time travel?” and my answer is, “Yes, sort of.” It’s not physically transporting students through time, but doing the next best thing recreating the reality of history for the brain of the student.
It is not expecting a modern technology facilitated student to fabricate empathy out of whole cloth, while reading names and dates from a textbook, but instead dropping the student into an immersive narrative, an immersive virtual reality experience, where they can understand history at the contextual granular level, where it can have impact on them. Where history becomes their individual experience and thus their individual and thus our collective memory.
That lack of empathy and understanding is a critical flaw in the way we teach history. Understanding the names and dates of the massacre at Wounded Knee, or of the D Day Invasion, or of the Battle of Gettysburg, does not reach you at the same level as empathizing and understanding at the human level the victims of those massacres, the context of what happened in those battles, why we as a people took those actions or arrived at those outcomes, the decisions we made, the hatred we had, our errors and mistakes, as well as our courage and fortitude.
As generations of students fail to remember those things, we fail to remember what made this country great. We fail to remember what it is to be an American. We fail, over time, to remember how to continue the legacy gifted to us by our founders and by every pioneer, indigenous leader, soldier, inventor, statesman and average citizen in our past.
Virtual reality can change this. It can transport people. Your brain can not tell the difference between actual reality and virtual reality. In fact, repeated research at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab has proven that the brain interprets virtual reality to be the exact same thing as the reality we experience every day. As such, we can use VR to create empathy. If we can transport your mind and put you in the shoes of a farmer fleeing ahead of Sherman’s March to the Sea, it will fundamentally alter your understanding of that moment in history, that action, the Civil War and our legacy as Americans.
The Stanford Lab has proven that by putting you in a virtual reality simulation of the shoes of the other person, to experience their world, you do not come to the table as hardline your negotiation, and you treat the other person with greater respect, more dignity, and you feel more connected, because you understand what they are going through.
What’s more, the immersive narrative of VR history education impacts the brain in powerful ways. As a story teller, I have come to understand that there are three levels of narrative There is the main form of narrative where I tell you what happened and why. I give you all of the pieces. “The king died. The queen died of grief.” That’s a story. Events with cause and effect make the most rudimentary of stories.
But there’s another layer deeper that is very successful. If you’re a television viewer, you’ve probably seen it. You’ve watched “Lost,” or “Game of Thrones,” or maybe you’ve watched the new “West World” on HBO. These are self assembled narratives.
You build the story. The story teller gives you the framework and the inputs, and some of the outcomes. Then, you construct the cause and effect. Sometimes you’re right, and sometimes you’re wrong. New elements unlock different narrative paths, but your brain is very engaged because it has to build the story and find the patterns ( something human brains love to do and have evolved to be good at).
Deeper one level still is participatory narrative, where you impact the outcome. That’s somewhat difficult to do in history education. After all, outside of alternate history entertainment, we can’t have you changing the outcome of history.
But the vast majority of participants in history were not affecting the outcome. They were witnesses to what took place. With virtual reality, we can make you an immersive witness in the events that take place.
If we can make you an immersive witness, and we can give you context, so that you can self assemble the narrative, and then we can give you the inputs in the scene, and you can build the narrative, in your own mind, it becomes incredibly powerful. History cease to be at best “ a story” and becomes your story. Your story is what becomes your memory. You remember what happens to you. If history happens to you, you remember history. This memory creates the ability to assemble the potential narratives in the future when you run into a similar situation, when you see similar things developing. By remembering, we are not condemned to repeat.
Virtual reality is a psycho active technology. It alters human behavior permanently. That’s why we use it for training. We use it to train people in high stress situations. We use it to train surgeons, security personnel, and firefighters. We also use it to train muscle memory, in trade skills like welding.
We also use it to treat PTSD. Right now, today, we’re treating soldiers with PTSD using virtual reality, because it permanently rewires parts of the brain.
There are some challenges to being able to build virtual reality history education, but those challenges are not only something we can overcome, but many of them are self eliminating over time.
The first one is the computer science capability. Until recently, it took a great deal of computer science capability to create these virtual reality rendering video experiences, and to display them. But now, you could do it with a smart phone and a headset that costs less than two dollars retail.
A Google Cardboard and smart phone that’s left over from last year is sufficient to give you a basic and very solid virtual reality experience, so that computer science problem is solving itself.
The next challenge is story telling. Most of you who think about film or television might understand that there are things like jump cuts and panoramic views, wide angles, and close ups, intercutting between different characters in interviews. All of that ceases to exist in virtual reality, because no longer does the director control what the audience sees.
Instead, the audience becomes the camera. The audience member can look at whatever they want. In this case, we actually have a historical model to go from. We can take elements of how to guide attention and how to increase narrative participation from the stage, from theater.
Before film, there was at least a 180 degree immersive story telling experience. Throughout our history, there have been up to a 360 degree story telling experiences around fires and in halls. There were discussions stories, and play acting, and participatory narrative that took place, and those models of storytelling can be applied.
The other challenge of VR history education is that there are some physiological and psychological difficulties we must consider. Physiologically, we still have some trouble with eye fatigue and with some of the experiences that the brain goes through when trying to mesh this screen based reality with what it’s used to, a three dimensional reality.
This is improving with higher resolution screens, wider fields of view, more customized headsets and something called foveal rendering, where we render the part of the picture that you’re looking at by tracking your eye.
Once that takes place, we can leave the rest of the scene largely blurry and unrendered, which is better for both the computational capability of the device rendering and for the viewer, because it behaves more like three dimensional reality. When you look at me, I’m in focus, and the rest of the room is somewhat blurry. We can now create VR rendering that mimics that behavior of your eye.
We also have to deal with the psychological realities of virtual reality. We simply can’t drop high school students into D Day on Omaha Beach, and expect them to not be scarred and traumatized. History is violent, and some of the most important events in history are horrific events to participate in first hand.
So, we may have to still engage in a removed, safer, third party contextual and critical discussion of those events, but we can place you in the shoes of a group of soldiers on the ship the night before, a group of officers discussing how many people may die, or may be injured in one strategy versus another.
We can allow you to experience a discussion of a civilian population, the fears of a group of Jewish or Romanian refugees trying to hide from Nazis, those empathetic experiences can be created as context for the discussion of the outcome.
Technology is rapidly developing and this results in a massive drop in cost as well. We can use some things like video game engines and scanning technology to create relatively inexpensively high quality, high production value story-telling, immersive story telling.
We could build a Gettysburg Address experience that lasts four or five minutes for around 50 or 60 thousand dollars, and have it be largely indistinguishable from the quality of production and animation that you would see in the average Hollywood movie.
What would that look like? How would it change things?
I want you to, for a moment, transport yourself with me. Instead of using virtual reality, I want to tell you what that would be like.
Imagine standing in a crowd of 9,000 people on the field of Gettysburg, and behind you is the rustle of a whole line of mounted soldiers, cavalry men. The whinny and nicker of horses create an intense sense of security and almost pressure as a wall of horses stand behind you.
Off in the middle distance, as you look around the field, you see the flotsam and jetsam of battle that is still there, four months later. There are wagon wheels and broken splinters of rifles, pieces of fabric, and canteens scattered about. This was a battlefield just a short time ago.
You’ve been standing there for two or three hours, when a Glee Club finishes a solemn funeral song, the final notes hang in the cold air of November. Then President of the United States stands up, stretching his tall frame with and walks to the lectern.
Standing in front of him, in the very front row, are a whole line of soldiers, some of them missing arms and legs, many with heads bandaged, holding a banner that says, “First Army of the Potomac Invalid Division.” These are men who were casualties from the battle four months earlier on this very ground. Lincoln’s voice is somewhat high pitched. As Lincoln begins to speak, from what is essentially a hand written piece of paper, he doesn’t gesticulate. Lincoln didn’t talk with his hands. He solemnly stares out at the crowd, and the men who are injured, and speaks about the greatness of what our country can be, the promise of what it holds, the fact that no lecture, song, speech, or prayer can make the ground we are standing on any more hallowed, any more precious and sacred than it has already been made.
It has already been consecrated by the blood, suffering, and sacrifice of the men who fought here, and that those men and the suffering citizens standing here share a goal That this nation, founded in liberty, shall never perish from the Earth. Imagine that line hanging in the air, the audience unsure if it is the end, a quiet moment with those words.
If you can imagine the context of that, of standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow Americans who are grieving for their loss, horrified by the sacrifice, stoic with the resolve of reconciling a union and ensuring the promise of our country moves forward, then you can understand why the Gettysburg Address, that moment, is history must be in our collective memory. You understand why we must remember.
-By Tony Ford and Matt Wolf
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