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William Hirst. Reaching Across National Boundaries: The Problem of Memory. A Commentary of James Wer

William Hirst. Reaching Across National Boundaries: The Problem of Memory. A Commentary of James Wertsch’s How Nations Remember: A Narrative Approach

William Hirst, New School for Social Research

Authors Note

The writing of this articles was supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation to the second author, BCS #1827182.


In his recent book, Wertsch explores why people from different nations have different renderings of history and why they hold tenaciously to them. He argues that the Narrative Schematic Templates frame the narratives they tell about historical events and that these templates are deep, by which he means that they are applied automatic, effortless, and without intention. The present commentary reviews his book and asks whether a reliance on the type of processing associated with Narrative Schematic Templates is sufficient to account for “mnemonic stand-offs.” The importance of social identity is explored.

Key words: Narrative, collective memory, history, mnemonic stand-offs, social identity

Reaching Across National Boundaries: The Problem of Memory.

A Commentary of James Wertsch’s How Nations Remember: A Narrative Approach

Although it has always been of central importance to the process of nation building, the way nations remember their past has come to the fore in dramatic ways in the last few years, with people going to the street to insist that prevailing renderings of history need to be modified to embrace both the good and the bad of history. The reason for this longstanding interest – and the current unrest – arises in part with the growing recognition that the way community members remember a nation’s past bear on the way they conceive of their relation to their nation, in particular, their own sense of who they are as citizens of this nation, their sense of what the community stands for, and finally, their understanding of the way the nation acted in the past, acts in the present, and will act in the future. The concern is not with the attitude of an idiosyncratic member of a community, but with the national consensus, that is, a collective understanding of past, present, and future.

What engages Jim Wertsch in his masterful How Nations Remember: A Narrative Approach are the disagreements that arise when considering how to tell a national history. As he trenchantly observes, citizens of different nations have different ways of discussing the same past. To build on an observation of Jerry Bruner (2003), one might think of the history of a nation as “a transparent window on reality, not a cookie cutter imposing a shape on it” (p. 6-7) But, as Wertsch insists (and Bruner did as well) one needs only listen to people from different countries – or people from different subpopulations from the same country – to know that cookie cutters abound. Wertsch begins his book with a discussion he had with a Russian colleague about the bombing of Hiroshima. Like most Americans, Wertsch views it as what was a horrible, but necessary means of rapidly ending the war. His Russian colleague thought that Wertsch was naive or misled. He saw the bomb as a means of sending a warning to Russia that it had a formidable opponent. Each were adamant about their position. Their intransigence suggests that each nation works with different cookie cutters when shaping its history of the bombing of Hiroshima. Wertsch labels these diverse positions as mnemonic standoffs (as opposed to the more aggressive label of memory wars). In How Nations Remember, Wertsch addresses the questions: (1) How is it that there can be such strong disagreements between entire national communities about the past? (2) Why is there such certainty in the belief that the respective renderings are true? (3) Why are the different perspectives held with such tenacity?

Scholars have interrogated each of these questions largely by examining the ways different nations construct their own respective cookie cutters. They examine, for instance, the role power and authority play in shaping a nation’s memory. Wertsch does not want to diminish this effort, but rather expand on it. As many scholars of national memory have insisted, including Maurice Halbwachs, who might be considered the Father of the Study of Collective Memory, it is “individuals as group members who remember” (Halbwachs, 1980, p. 48). Wertsch wants to answer the three questions posed above by considering the individual who remembers. Here is where the narrative approach featured in the title of his book comes into play.

Building on the seminal work of Vygotsky (1986), Wertsch insists that cognition is symbolically mediated. People use cultural tools to scaffold their cognition, give shape to it. For him, narratives loom large in any individual’s cultural tool box. Narratives are, to employ Kenneth Burke’s (1998) penetrating observation, “equipment for living.” As Alasdiar MacIntyre (1984) insisted, “man is in actions and practice, as well as his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal” (p. 216). It is not just our own lives and the lives of others about which we tell stories, it is also nations. These stories become a way to understand a nation’s past, and critically, they provide a framework for understanding the nation’s present and future. As Wertsch observes in the stories citizens of a nation tell, patterns emerge across stories. They tend to follow what he called a narrative schematic template. For Russians, this narrative schematic template might be summarized as “the expulsion of enemy aliens.” It is nonspecific, but has the organized form:

  1. An “initial situation” in which Russia is peaceful and not interfering with others.

  2. “Trouble,” in which a foreign enemy viciously attacks Russia without provocation

  3. Russia comes under existential threat and nearly loses everything

  4. Through heroism and exceptionalism, against all odds, and acting alone, Russia triumphs

These narrative schematic templates provide a framework for telling not just a single event from history, such as in the case of Russia the invasion by Hitler and his eventual expulsion, but a host of events: Napoleon’s attack and expulsion in the War of 1812, Solzhenitsyn’s concerns about the disruptive influence of socialism, communism, and Western Enlightenment on the spiritual traditions of Russia, and Dostoevsky’s similar concerns that Western influences will lead Russia to nihilism and atheism. Their pervasiveness provides not only a frame for interpreting historical events, but, if you like, a way of understanding the Russian character, its identity.

Narrative schematic templates also provide an answer to the three questions Wertsch posed (and listed above), in that, for Wertsch, they are deep, that is, unconsciously held and applied, without conscious reflection, to the specific narratives citizens of a nation build around historical events. They are the elephant on which one rides as one travels through life. To a large extent, for Wertsch, it is the rider who serves the elephant, not vice versa. Riders may believe that they are in control, but they are deluded. Wertsch employs Kahneman’s (2011) distinction between Systems 1 and 2 processing. System 1 operates automatically and quickly, feeling little or no effort or sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it. It is associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration. People largely avoid System 2 processing, because they are cognitive misers, lazy, if you like, preferring the effortless processing of System 1. For Wertsch, the application of narrative schematic templates engages System 1. It is nonreflective, applied often without any awareness -- automatically. People do not know that they are applying these templates and, as a result, they believe they are seeing things “as they are” as opposed as through the lens of the template. It is no wonder, then, given that different nations may have different narrative schematic templates, that strong disagreements about history can arise between citizens of different nations, that citizens of each nation believe that they are in possession of the truth, and that citizens are reluctant to give up on respective renderings of historical events.

This employment of the Systems 1 and 2 distinction to account for how people apply narrative schematic templates when recounting historical events rings true, but, I suspect, only to a certain extent. When Wertsch asked people if they observed an underlying theme to the way they told their nation’s history, people were not very forthcoming. However, when he suggested that a theme did exist, as captured by what he termed narrative schematic templates, and offered a description of the relevant template, they said that this seemed reasonable. When prompted, they recognized a common thread weaving through their general way of understanding their nation’s history. What was initially unconscious become conscious, and, as a result, it became fodder for System 2’s reasoning. And, as Wertsch readily recognized, in so doing, it became susceptible to re-evaluation and even rejection. It created the possibility of being open to alternative renderings. Memory activists and others often strive to create just these conditions for re-evaluation. They hope to break down the resistance people have to alternative renderings by bringing to the fore often neglected or forgotten historical events. And, as the recent demonstrations around monuments to disputed, indeed, disreputable historical figures makes clear, the memory resulting from activists’ actions can become quite forceful, turning monuments from sites of memory to sites of mobilization.

Memory activists are, of course, only one player in what Wertsch terms the National Narrative Project. National Narrative Projects involve a never-ending “narrative quest,” a struggle to reconcile what is with what should be. As such, they differ from Narrative Schematic Templates in that Narrative Schematic Templates concern temporally bounded past events, such as the War of 1812. For Wertsch, a good candidate for an American National Narrative Project is the quest for a “more perfect union,” a phrase that resonates from the US’s birth through the Civil War to today’s civil rights struggles. For Russia, it might be a “spiritual mission,” a quest for the Russian ideal. For China, a revival of the Central Kingdom, after a Century of Humiliation. Although I take Wertsch’s point that National Narrative Projects are quests toward a desired goal and narrative schematic templates are frames through which to interpret past events, I cannot help seeing a connection between them. The two are, at least to me, closely related. It is possible to see a narrative schematic template for the US as one that frames different historical events as struggles for a more perfect union. Similarly, when examining the "Expulsion of Enemy Aliens” template, Wertsch discussed Solzhenitsyn’s concerns about the disruptive influence of socialism, communism, and Western Enlightenment, but he could also include them as emblematic of the Spiritual Mission of the Russian Narrative Project. Narrative schematic templates may serve to frame specific events, but they may, in the end, have their origins in the National Narrative Projects animating a nation.

Wertsch ends his book with suggestions about how to break through the tenacious hold deep-seated narrative schematic templates have on the citizens of a nation, with the hopes of diminishing national conflicts arising from distinctly different national visions. On the surface, his appeals earlier in the book to the distinction between Systems 1 and 2 processing might make the prospect of finding common ground seem relatively straightforward: Engage System 2 and everything will be just fine, or at least easier. After all, historians engage System 2 when they write history. One might turn the average citizens to lay historians by finding a way for the them to similarly turn off System 1 and get System 2 roaring. I suspect it is not so simple. By appealing to Kahneman’s (2011) distinction, Wertsch is masking what for me is the critical reason why Wertsch resisted his Russian colleague’s rendering of the bombing of Hiroshima and his Russian colleague rejected his interpretation. Kahneman’s distinction focuses on the nature of the processing: its automaticity, effortfulness, its conscious awareness. But what is at stake in the different memories Wertsch and his colleague offered is their national identity. They resist each other’s interpretation because to accept it would be damaging to the identity they hold as an American or a Russian.

In his influential work on social identity, Tajfel (2010) averred that the groups people belong to should be sources of pride and self-esteem. Although he did not specifically address the issue of how nations remember and how that impacts social identity, his reasoning would suggest that people need national memories that make them proud of being a citizen of that nation and increases their sense of self-esteem because of their citizenship. Recently, Choi et al. (2021) found that people can readily list national historical events that they are ashamed of, as well as ones about which they feel pride. But it is one thing to know about these events; it is another to incorporate them into a national historical narrative that is both positive and elicits pride and self-esteem. It is little wonder, then, that Wertsch rejected his colleague’s view that the United States bombed Hiroshima, not to save American and Allies life, or even Japanese lives, but merely to send a signal to Russia. Who would feel pride and self-esteem being a member of a nation that killed tens of thousands, if not over a hundred thousand, just to send a signal? One needs to reject the Russian rendering in order to maintain a positive perspective on the nation to which one belongs.

This need for a positive rather than negative narrative places a huge burden on memory activists and others trying to push to the fore national memories that evoke shame rather than pride. Therapists who work under the umbrella of narrative psychology often see their task as helping their client construct a “good” narrative. Everyone has aspects of the past that they are ashamed of or a trauma that haunts them. And although they can readily list them, when pushed to do so, they can also try to find a way to have them play a less prominent role in one’s life story or incorporate them into a narrative that acknowledges them, but also provides a story line that makes one feel good about oneself.

The same holds for national events. It is a challenge to both acknowledge shameful events and incorporate them into one’s narrative, yet still remain proud of one’s country. In recent years, many memory activists have highlighted the painful need to recognize the nation’s complicit, indeed, sometimes enthusiastic acceptance of slavery. Slavery, they insist, must not be pushed to the side of any American narrative, but placed front and center. The difficulty here is not so much acknowledging this shameful past. Choi et al. (2021), for instance, found that slavery loomed large when Americans listed shameful events from their nation’s past. As it is with personal life narratives, the issue is how to construct a narrative that both acknowledges it, is honest about it, but nevertheless allows for a narrative that fits Tajfel’s ideas about pride and self-esteem. I suspect that a recent account of American history that puts slavery front and center, called the 1619 project (Hannah-Jones & Elliot, 2019), has received a great deal of push-back, in part, because it does not provide, for many Americans, a story line that both acknowledges slavery, but allows Americans – in particular, white Americans – to be proud of their history and feel good about themselves as recipients of this history (see, for instance, the interview with American historian James McPherson (Mackaman, 2019). It is, of course, not the job of the editors of the 1619 project to provide such a narrative. The dominant, white American-centered narrative that the 1619 project seeks to undermine deserves thorough critique, in large part because it is a narrative that marginalizes many Americans. But the critique does not offer an alternative that is “good” for everyone. Perhaps there is no such narrative, but when Wertsch discusses National Narrative Projects I see him articulating a quest that might allow one to at least point in a direction of a story with which everyone within a nation can feel comfortable.

And so it should be across nations as well. In recent years, many Memory Studies scholars have noted that memories now travel across national boundaries, that they are transnational, and cosmopolitan. Wertsch acknowledges this trend, but still remains focused on the nation. Perhaps this is because national memories are often all we have. We have yet to arrive at a “good” narrative that people across nations can feel pride in and that enhances their self-esteem. Such a “good” narrative – one that will eliminate the disagreement that Wertsch and his Russian colleague had about Hiroshima – may not be easily forthcoming. Citizens of different nations do not share the same narrative schematic templates, as Wertsch clearly demonstrates, and they do not share the same narrative projects. Although this scenario seems to make the task of finding some form of reconciliation daunting, I share the optimism that serves as a coda to the book. There are ways to overcome the disagreements that form the core of the book. Wertsch offers a few in his final chapter. Hopefully, people will read this book and pay attention to his recommendations.


Burke, K. (1998). Literature as equipment for living. In D.H. Richter, ed., The critical tradition: Classic texts and contemporary trends. Boston: Bedford Books, pp. 593-598. (First published in 1938)

Bruner, J. S. (2003). Making stories: Law, literature, life. Harvard University Press.

Choi, S. Y., Abel, M., Siqi-Liu, A., & Umanath, S. (2021). National Identity Can be Comprised of More Than Pride: Evidence From Collective Memories of Americans and Germans. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 10(1), 117-130.

Halbwachs, M. (1980). The collective memory (F.J. Ditter, Jr. and V.Y Ditter). New York: Harper Colophon Books. [First published in French in 1950.]

Hannah-Jones, N. & Elliott, M. N. (Eds.). (2019). The 1619 project. New York Times.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Doubleday Canada.

MacIntyre, A. (1984). After virtue: A study in moral philosophy. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. (Second edition)

Mackaman, T. (2019). An Interview with Historian James McPherson on the New York Times’ 1619 Project. World, November 14.

Tajfel, H. (Ed.). (2010). Social identity and intergroup relations (Vol. 7). Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1986). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [edited by A. Kozulin]


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