It’s already an old joke that the good old days of nostalgia are long gone: that once upon a time it was honorable to look back longingly at the past, but no longer. There’s truth in it; in education discussion I often hear people fault others for harking back to a golden age that never was. Bad, bad, they say; we must stay grounded in facts. Mr. Gradgrind (from Dickens’ Hard Times) works his way into many an argument.
It is dangerous, of course, to paint the past as golden, but there are reasons why we yearn for the past sometimes. We shouldn’t be so quick to push such yearning away. For me, the fall is usually a time of yearning. I find room and urge to take walks, watch the leaves leap and sweep over the sidewalk, and assemble past autumns in my mind. Details work their way in as well: a ribbon on the ground, a cat surveying the neighborhood, or the color of a coat.
As a teacher, I return to the classroom and see the students a little older and taller, excited to tackle books that I first read in high school, and I remember my own teachers and the way they spoke. The beginning of the school year comes with reminiscence. There’s a ceremonial feeling to it, even amidst the confusion of rooms and schedules; when you address each class for the first time, you remember layers of first days.
I remember a high school assembly at the start of my ninth-grade year. The teachers were seated on the stage. One of them, I knew, had gone through a divorce; I wrote in my diary (which I no longer have) that I saw a look of pathos on her face. In retrospect, I doubt it was pathos (I discovered later that she had irrepressible wit), but the word “pathos” was part of that day for me.
Part of the point of education is to learn to select what is good, to bring it into one’s life, and to pass it on; this requires knowledge, discernment, and feeling. Memory helps us make such selections. Those works that come back to us many times over the years, or that suddenly open up on the second or third reading, have a little more to them, in our minds, than the ones we read and forget. With the memory comes a bit of longing. I think back on the Southern Literature course I took in high school, and the advanced verse writing seminar in college; I have often wished to return to those rooms, and have carried a hint of them into my teaching.
By this I don’t mean that people should rely on their memories for guidance. What I hold dear from my high school years may not have been quite as I remember it, nor is it necessarily good for every student. Still, I carry something of the spirit of it, and must do so; it is precisely through holding my past that I can play with it in the present, even transform it.
Andrew Delbanco understands this well. His extraordinarily thoughtful book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (2012) looks back to earlier eras not to portray them as perfect, but to capture their meaning and wisdom. His book resists alarmism and paeans to good old days, but still looks back with nostalgia—wise, temperate nostalgia. I wouldn’t do his book justice with a short quotation here; I hope to write more about it another time.
The literary works that make their way into our memory, the ones that follow us around, contain this treasuring and pondering of the past. What would Job’s lamentations be without this treasuring and pondering? What would Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” be without it? How can a student or a teacher approach this literature without understanding what it means to think back, sometimes with sadness or rage, sometimes with wistfulness or wit? Why the cultural pressure to regard the past with a cold eye and move on?
Many young people understand the importance of looking back and yearning. They need adults who understand it too and who can help them make sense of the past. They need to find that promising terrain between sentimentality and dismissiveness. Through literature, they learn to store language in memory; through history, they learn to guard against memory’s distortions.
The point is not to live in the past, but rather to hold it, turn it, contemplate it, change one’s mind about it, reconsider it again, forgive it, and sometimes, when necessary, leave it behind.