By Umberto Eco
It’s a truism that young people lack general historical knowledge. But in my experience, for many young people the past has flattened out into one big undifferentiated nebula. That is why, in an open letter published in the Italian magazine L’Espresso, I recently advised my teenage grandson to exercise his memory by learning a long poem by heart.
I fear that today’s younger generations risk losing the power of both individual and collective memory. Surveys have revealed the types of misconceptions that persist among ostensibly educated young people: I’ve read, for instance, that many Italian university students believe that Aldo Moro was the leader of the militant organization the Red Brigades, when in fact he was Italy’s prime minister and the Red Brigades were responsible for his death in 1978.
I wrote the letter to my grandson in December, around the time that a certain video went viral on YouTube. It was from an episode of “L’Eredità,” an Italian TV quiz show that seems to choose contestants on the basis of good looks and natural likability, along with a modicum of general knowledge.
(Presumably, this is to avoid filling the broadcast with beautiful but clueless people racking their brains just to answer multiple-choice questions like: Was Giuseppe Garibaldi a cyclist, an explorer, a military leader or the inventor of hot water?)
In one episode, the host, Carlo Conti, asked contestants to identify the year that Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany. The four answer choices were: 1933, 1948, 1964 or 1979. The four contestants who had an opportunity to respond were: Ilaria, a rather pretty young woman; Matteo, a well-built man of about 30, with a shaved head and a chain around his neck; Tiziana, an attractive young woman who also appeared to be about 30; and a young woman named Caterina, who wore glasses and had the air of a know-it-all.
It should be universally known that Hitler died at the end of the Second World War, so obviously the answer could only be 1933 – the other dates are too late. But Ilaria guessed 1948, Matteo 1964 and Tiziana 1979. By the time it was Caterina’s turn, she was obliged to choose 1933, but she affected uncertainty as she did it, either out of irony or amazement.
Conti also asked the contestants what year former Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini met with Ezra Pound; again, the choices were 1933, 1948, 1964 or 1979. Now, nobody is obliged to know who Ezra Pound was (for the record, he was an American poet and critic), and if it hadn’t been a multiple-choice quiz, I couldn’t have named the exact year.
But given that Mussolini was assassinated in 1945, the only possible answer was 1933. (I confess that I was astonished to learn the extent to which the dictator kept up-to-date with American poetry.) Dear Ilaria, begging indulgence with her sweet little smile, guessed 1964.
Conti couldn’t hide his amazement, and neither could many of the people who watched and commented on the video on YouTube. But this moment was indicative of a larger problem: The four contestants, who were all roughly between the ages of 20 and 30, and whom we may presume to be fairly representative of their age group, saw the four dates as part of a generic past that took place before they were born. Who’s to say that they wouldn’t have fallen into the same trap even if one of the answer choices had been 1492?
Our era isn’t the first to experience such a homogenization of the past. Consider, for instance, “The Marriage of the Virgin,” which Raphael completed in 1504: The painting features people dressed in Renaissance-era garb, even though the scene it depicts obviously took place long before the Renaissance.
Nowadays, it is much more difficult to justify such blurring of the lines, given how much historical information is widely available on the Internet, in films and on television. Is it possible that our four contestants couldn’t differentiate between the period in which Hitler came on the scene and the one in which man first landed on the moon? Can it be that, to some (or even many) of today’s youth, the concept of history is now one-dimensional?
I am still holding out hope, because I learned of this YouTube video from my 13-year-old grandson and his schoolmates, who grinned and snickered as they told me about it. Perhaps some young people are learning the value of memory after all.
(Umberto Eco is author of the international best-sellers “Baudolino,” “The Name of the Rose,” and “Foucault’s Pendulum,” among others.)
Originally published in l’Espresso Magazine, translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen.
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