What Can Forrest Gump Tell Us about Students’ Historical Understanding?

Sam Wineburg, Susan Mosborg, and Dan Porat

Historical narratives envelop us everywhere—at home, at church, at the movies; in the buildings we inhabit, the parks we visit, the stamps we lick; in the days we take off from work, the newspapers we read, and the six-o’clock news we receive from Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather. By the time young people reach their eighteenth birthday in our culture, they possess a rich narrative of origins—how the United States came into being, the roots of the race issue that divides American society, something about Pilgrims, colonists, and settlers. In terms of impact and influence, no algebra or French teacher can compete with such famous history teachers as Steven Spielberg or Oliver Stone, whose devoted students number in multiples of millions.

Each of us grows up in a home with a distinct history and a distinct perspective on the meaning of larger historical events. Our parents’ stories shape our historical consciousness, as do the stories of the ethnic, racial, and religious groups that number us as members. We attend churches, clubs, and neighborhood associations that further mold our collective and individual historical selves. We visit museums. We travel to national landmarks in the summer. We camp out in front of the TV and absorb, often unknowingly, an unending barrage of historical images. By the time children have celebrated a decade of Thanksgivings and Martin Luther King Days, they are already seasoned students of American culture and history.

But the notion that all these sources form a coherent whole mocks the complexity of social life. Historical consciousness does not emanate like neat concentric circles from the individual to the family to the nation and to the world. Lessons learned at home contravene those learned at school. What we hear at school conflicts with what we hear at church or synagogue—if not in the pews then certainly in the bathrooms. If we pay attention to the lyrics of rap music or tune our dials to Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern, we confront more disjunctures. To make historical sense, we must navigate the shoals of the competing narratives that vie for our allegiance.


Our Research

We followed youngsters from three different schools and communities across a year of eleventh grade history instruction and into the twelfth grade.1 But the school curriculum was just one of the venues in which we located our study. We believed that the home was also a prime venue for teaching us to become historical, for influencing the shape of the narratives we tell about ourselves and our nation. We conceptualized the development of historical understanding not as a series of courses in school but as a complex interplay between home, school, community, and the historicizing forces of popular culture. We were suspicious of the simplistic accounts of both young people’s disengagement from the past, on one hand, and their abject ignorance of it on the other. We believed that historical knowledge, to use Michael Schudson’s apt phrase, “seeps into the cultural pores” even if such knowledge is not “readily retrievable by seventeen-year-olds answering a quiz.”2

The three schools we identified were in the Pacific Northwest: an inner-city high school, a college preparatory
academy, and a Christian high school. From each school we selected five parent/child dyads. When we began, all students were about to enter eleventh grade and were enrolled in the state-mandated U.S. history course. In the first year of data collection, we engaged each parent and each child in extensive oral history interviews, querying them about the history of their own lives, their families and their communities, as well eliciting from them personal narratives about the key events and turning points in American history. During the academic year that followed, we engaged in over a hundred hours of classroom observations across the three schools, and enlisted students in six more formal interviews, ranging from an interview on Vietnam to interviews that asked students to interpret the comments their teachers made on their history papers and tests. Here is a brief glimpse of the Vietnam interview.


The Vietnam Interview

In studying Vietnam, we wanted to examine a historical event that was experienced by parents in their own lifetimes but had already become “history” for their children—the difference, if you will, between lived memory and learned memory. We were faced with many dilemmas in examining this issue because the last thing we wanted to do was create a setting that seemed test-like when our primary goal was to get one generation to talk to the other about an issue of historical significance. To reduce the pressure and to try to create a somewhat natural setting, we decided to focus on pictures.3

We built our interview around a series of five iconic pictures.4 The pictures included the Life magazine picture of a nine-year-old Kim Phuc running naked after a napalm bomb attack; an ambiguous picture in which a GI, holding two Vietnamese children under his arm, appears to be fleeing a battlefield; construction workers at a pro-war rally in front of Manhattan’s City Hall in May 1970; a flower child placing a daisy into the gun barrel of an MP at the “March on the Pentagon” in October 1967; and a Vietnam vet, chalk in hand, tracing the name of a fallen comrade at the Vietnam War Memorial. The interview took the form of free-response: parents and children first wrote down their reactions to the pictures (without revealing their responses to each other) and then shared these responses with us in discussion.


Some Findings

Collective Memory

Within our sample, there were parents and students who disagreed deeply over the meaning of the Vietnam war, from those who marked Vietnam as the beginning of “The Fal#148;—the descent into crime, disorder, and drug use of modern America—to others, such as Ellen Oshansky, who in telling her son how she “marched on Washington” wistfully sighed, “Back then, we had a purpose.” Yet hawk or dove, Republican or Democrat, Christian or agnostic, black or white, participants spoke in a single voice when it came to the question of what America “did” to the returning vet. Today’s Vietnam vet was collectively viewed not as a perpetrator in Vietnam, but as a victim of it. Despite the geographic region in which our research took place, no participant recalled anything remotely resembling the following characterization of a homecoming from a Time article at the time: “Flags waved, ticker tape showered down on the troops, and pretty girls pressed red roses into the men’s hands” (“Joy in Seattle; Troops Withdrawn from Vietnam,” July 18, 1969, p. 5).

Participants sometimes drew a distinction between their own personal behavior (e.g., hosting parties for friends and relatives who returned from Vietnam) and what they claimed to have seen on television (i.e., hippies assembling to taunt returning vets). Indeed, participants seemed to share a common narrative: vets were vilified, spat on, derided; attacked in the press; and unsupported at home. But this is an image at considerable odds with the historical record. The literature—from sociologists such as Jerry Lembcke,5 to the journalist Bob Greene,6 to communication research on newspaper reports of “homecomings”7–suggests there is little basis to this one-sided collective image other than its crystallization in the media. It is precisely this gap, between the narratives commonly held, and the more variegated stories among professionals, that helps us to flesh out some of the differences between notions of “collective” memory and what might be called “historica#148; or “archiva#148; memory.


Collective Occlusion

We cannot speak of collective memory without speaking of its converse. Terms such as “collective amnesia” or “collective forgetting” are misleading because archival cultures such as ours do not, properly speaking, forget. In fact, we specialize in the preservation of narratives—ordering, cataloging, binding, and now digitizing the evidence on which they are based. But these narratives are often known only by the specialized memory keepers of modern society, such as historians, museologists, and professional archivists. “Collective occlusion” refers to those stories, accounts, and narratives that, while available in individuals’ lived memory and archived in historical memory, become largely blocked from view in the historical present. The term speaks to that which is no longer “common knowledge.” It is a construct that asks us to think about the stories, images, and cultural codes that become blocked as memories are transmitted from one generation to the next, and are at risk of being lost in the everyday processes of how societies remember.8

Collective occlusion helps us talk about the history that does not seep into our cultural pores simply by participating in modern culture. To illustrate, consider the story of domestic support for Vietnam. As late as 1972, the war, having dragged on for nearly a decade and having spread to Cambodia and Laos, still commanded overwhelming support in public opinion polls.9 As a way to probe everyday historical memory for the war, we used a picture from a 1970 rally by hardhat workers who jammed Manhattan’s City Hall hoisting banners and placards with slogans like “WE HARD HAT MEN ARE BUILDING AMERICA NOT DESTROYING IT: GOD BLESS AMERICA,” and “THIS COUNTRY ISN’T PERFECT BUT IT’S THE BEST ON THE FACE OF THIS EARTH.” Eleven of twelve American-born parents, whether supportive of the war or against, quickly discerned the picture as a pro-war rally.

We heard something different as we listened to students’ interpretations. Rather than viewing the picture as a pro-war rally, these young people (despite what seemed to us clear and incontrovertible signals in the photograph) viewed the image not as a rally in support of the war but as a protest against it. In fact, the first time we heard this interpretation we questioned the youngster to make sure we were hearing right:

Andrea: I put that this was a protest against the war.

Interviewer: (startled) Against?

Andrea: Against, yes, and it looks like it might have been a certain group. All these people, they look like they’re construction people or something like that, with their hats on, and it looks like lots of different ethnicities in here. It says, “We hard hat men,” so obviously they’re doing something with their hands or something like that, obviously these people felt like the war was destroying their jobs, their homes, destroying the country as a whole.

In total, eight of fifteen youths could not “read” the cultural codes embedded in the picture to make sense of it. These were intelligent, industrious high schoolers who had studied Vietnam in school, could identify the Gulf of Tonkin, Dien Bien Phu, and had even written reports on similarities between the American and Vietnamese Declarations of Independence. In a curious twist of historical revision, Vietnam had become a war waged without supporters. The theme of domestic support for the war had dropped out of the current Vietnam narrative for these young people. It had become part of a history that had failed to navigate the memory gap separating one generation from the next.


Cultural Curriculum

When we began this work, we hypothesized that there would be significant points of tension between the history taught in schools and the history available in film, music, and TV in the culture at large. This may be the case, but it is not what we found. In fact, rather than forming a separate sphere, the school often became the purveyor of the history curriculum offered by popular culture, the place where young people first sat and sampled its wares: Hollywood movies, made-for-TV documentaries, and the like. Similarly, the home became a venue in which parent and child often shared in the joint experience of the past by turning on the VCR and together witnessing a celluloid version of it.

The most striking instance of this trend was with John Delenay, a bright sixteen-year-old with a penchant for drama. In reflecting on Vietnam vets, John noted that he “always heard” them referred to as “baby killers.” But when we questioned John, he responded by quoting from a video his family owned and had together watched repeatedly: “I think Forrest Gump had a lot to say, you could learn a lot from it, attitudes. But you watch the Vietnam parts, and the guy says to Forrest, one of the hippies looks at Forrest Gump in his military uniform, and he goes, ‘Who’s the baby killer?’” This sequence of images and dialogue, invented by the director Robert Zemeckis, was the sharpest and clearest recollection John had of the entire Vietnam era.

John was not alone. Without prompting, Forrest Gump spontaneously made its way into nine of our fifteen parent/child interviews on Vietnam. In terms of a shared text between parent and child, its influence was peerless. There was no other cultural product—book, TV program, documentary—that compared in effect. The collective experience of video was the meeting place of parent, child, and teacher.

These findings about John and others give a new twist to the notion of the “family as educator,” particularly as it pertains to history. The family still educates, to be sure, but not in some stylized,
Norman Rockwell way. Here, it is not family stories that are transmitted from generation to generation. Rather, the family serves as the context for a new kind of history lesson: the family mediates the larger cultural narrative provided by Hollywood.10



We are still trying to understand the larger patterns in the data we have collected. For now, we believe our findings speak to a different way of conceptualizing the history taught in schools. Current textbooks and curricula make no mention of everyday notions of historical knowing. By investigating the history students bring with them to school, we can consider anew the role of the classroom. What might be taught, what might be emphasized, and what might the school do to articulate with (rather than merely duplicate) the home and the surrounding culture?11



1. This work was supported by the Spencer Foundation, whom we thank. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors.

2. Michael Schudson, Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 64.

3. Douglas Harper, “Visual Sociology: Expanding Sociological Vision,” American Sociologist 18, no. 1 (Spring 1981): 54-70.

4. We also used a cartoon and a short two-minute presentation of a song. In the cartoon from 1968, the Angel of Death, standing against a background of tombstones, asks Uncle Sam, “What should I put down as the reason for dying?” The song we played was “Woodstock,” by Joni Mitchell and performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. (“Who are they?” wondered nearly half of the teens.)

5. Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: New York University Press, 1998).

6. Bob Greene, Homecoming: When the Soldiers Returned from Vietnam (New York: Putnam, 1989).

7. Thomas D. Beamish, Harvey Molotch, and Richard Flacks, “Who Supports the Troops,” Journal of Social Problems 42, no. 3 (August 1995): 344-57.

8. We prefer the term “occlusion” to the more widely used “amnesia” for several reasons. First, occlusion conveys a sense of blockage; it is not that these memories are erased or forgotten but that they are not salient or easily seen. Second, even when memories are occluded, they are, in historical and archival cultures, available in books, on the Web, and often taught in specialized university seminars. “Amnesia” misrepresents the complexity of social memory by conveying monolithic, socially uniform processes. The partiality and opacity of “occlusion” conveys this complexity more fully.

9. Domestic support for the Vietnam War was rarely mentioned in our interviews. However, a Harris poll in 1966 noted that 73 percent of Americans said they were “deeply concerned” about the war and 61 percent said they were “personally involved.” See Fred Turner, Echoes of Combat: the Vietnam War in American Memory (New York: Anchor Books, 1996), 127.

10. For elaboration, see the chapter “Making Historical Sense,” in Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg, eds., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 306-325. See also Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001).

11. Our study is one of a number of projects aimed at understanding history in school and out. See also Peter Seixas, “Mapping the Terrain of Historical Significance,” Social Education 61, no. 1 (January 1997): 22-27; James V. Wertsch, “Is It Possible to Teach Beliefs, as Well as Knowledge about History?,” in Stearns et al., 38-50; Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik, “‘It Wasn’t a Good Part of History’: National Identity and Students’ Explanations of Historical Significance,” Teachers College Record 99, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 478-513; and Terrie Epstein, “Adolescents’ Perspectives on Racial Diversity in U.S. History: Case Studies from an Urban Classroom,” American Educational Research Journal 37, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 185-214.


Sam Wineburg is professor of cognitive studies in education and adjunct professor in the Department of History at the University of Washington. Susan Mosborg is a doctoral student in the College of Education at the University of Washington. Dan Porat is assistant professor in the School of Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.