From ''American Memory: A Report on the Humanities in the Nation's Public Schools,'' by Lynne V. Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities:
A refusal to remember, according to Nobel Prize poet Czeslaw Milosz, is a primary characteristic of our age. Certainly there is abundant evidence that it is a primary characteristic of our nation. Teachers tell of students who do not know that George Washington led American forces in the Revolutionary War; that there was a World War I; that Spanish, not Latin, is the principal language in Latin America. Nationwide polls show startling gaps in knowledge. In a recent survey done for the Hearst Corporation, 45 percent of those polled thought that Karl Marx's phrase ''from each according to his ability, to each according to his need'' is in the U.S. Constitution.
Cultural memory flourishes or declines for many reasons, but among the most important is what happens in our schools. Long relied upon to transmit knowledge of the past to upcoming generations, our schools today appear to be about a different task. Instead of preserving the past, they more often disregard it, sometimes in the name of ''progress'' -- the idea that today has little to learn from yesterday. But usually the culprit is ''process'' -- the belief that we can teach our children how to think without troubling them to learn anything worth thinking about, the belief that we can teach them how to understand the world in which they live without conveying to them the events and ideas that have brought it into existence. . . .
Dates and names are not all that students should know, but such facts are a beginning, an initial connection to the sweep of human experienc