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History's vital role in America

''HARDLY A MAN is now alive/ Who remembers that famous day and year," wrote the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, about April 18-19, 1775. Of course, Longfellow in 1860 wrote his popular poem ''Paul Revere's Ride" in order that future generations would never forget the events of that night and day. But no one reads Longfellow anymore.

It is not surprising therefore that the meaning of April 19, 1775, has slipped from our memory. This is unfortunate, for Patriots Day ought not to be just a time for baseball and the running of the Marathon. Americans died on the day we're commemorating, and their deaths set in motion an eight-year war that resulted in the creation of the United States of America.

Not just the people of Massachusetts but all Americans have a stake in the history, in the memory, of what happened in Lexington and Concord. That is why the National Council for History Education, an organization dedicated to promoting history in the schools, is again organizing events in Concord and elsewhere on Patriots Day as part of its ''Make History Strong" campaign. The focus is especially important at a time when the No Child Left Behind Act's focus on reading and math mastery is cutting into class time for history and other subjects.

Every nation has sites of memory that give its people a sense of themselves as a single entity. But we Americans have a special need for these sites. A country like ours, composed of so many immigrants and so many races and ethnicities, has never been able to assume its nationhood as a matter of course. We Americans have had to invent our nationhood. In comparison with the 230-year-old United States, many states in the world today are new, some of them created within the relatively recent past. Yet many of these states are undergirded by people who had a preexisting sense of their ethnicity, blood connections, and nationality. In the case of the United States, the process was reversed: Americans were a state before they were a nation, and much of American history has been an effort to define that nationality.

Without our history, we lose our sense of what holds us together and makes us a single people. McDonald's and Starbucks scattered about the land are not enough to make us a nation. We need our history in order to be a nation, but we also need to know our past in order to know our future.

The best place for our youngsters to acquire knowledge of our history is in school. Yet from all the data gathered, it appears that young people are not learning much about America's past. One recent test of seniors from 55 top liberal arts colleges revealed an appalling ignorance of American history. Eighty-one percent of the students could not identify Valley Forge or the ringing words from Lincoln's ''Gettysburg Address" -- ''Government of the people, by the people, for the people." Only 34 percent could name George Washington as the victorious general at Yorktown.

By contrast, most of the students knew the popular culture only too well. Ninety-nine percent of them could recognize the cartoon characters Beavis and Butt-Head. A society whose best students have such a thin understanding of its past is a society in trouble.

The Bush administration and Congress have been rightly concerned with declines in students' reading and mathematical abilities, and they passed No Child Left Behind as a remedy. But they seemed to have had no awareness of the disastrous consequences of this act for teaching history in the schools. When I mentioned this to a prominent Republican, who is a big fan of history, he asked, ''How so?" ''Well," I replied, ''if you were a superintendent of schools who was going to be judged solely on how well his students did in reading and mathematics, where would you put your energy and money? Certainly not in teaching history." ''We never thought of that," he said.

Congress has tried to offset this with Teaching American History Grants. But these grants are being undermined by the emphasis on reading and mathematics. Just as teachers benefiting from these grants are being trained to teach history in more interesting and effective ways, their classes are being cut back or cut out altogether. If we hope to have a society aware of its past, we need a much more balanced approach to the curriculums of our schools. Above all, we need to recognize how essential a thorough grounding in the history of our nation is for our citizenry.

Gordon S. Wood is the Alvo O. Way university professor and professor of history at Brown University.

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