We once had "Founding Fathers." Today we have the neutered "Founders." We once celebrated Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays. Today we celebrate the anonymous "Presidents' Day." We have lost a good deal in this homogenization and dilution of our language. We have lost not only a vital part of our history but also a way of honoring and transmitting that history.
The memory of Abraham Lincoln might have recalled for us his address in 1838 to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Ill. The title of that address, "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions," could not be more timely today. Long before he himself was called upon to preserve and perpetuate our institutions by force of arms, he reminded those young men (he was not much older than they) of the necessity of inspiring future generations with a proper respect, almost a religious respect, for the institutions unique to this country.
"Let reverence for the laws," he said, "be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap. Let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges. Let it be written in primers, spelling books, and in almanacs. Let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in the courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation."
The word "patriotism" -- indeed, the idea of patriotism -- has not been in good repute in recent years. If we have forgotten to teach and preach the virtues of patriotism, as Lincoln would have had us do, it is because we have lost that "reverence for the laws" -- not for any laws but for our laws -- that have distinguished our country, that have made it unique and that have deserved our reverence. And we have lost that reverence because we have forgotten our history -- forgotten it because, in the most literal sense, we have neglected to teach it.
The evidence is indisputable and most disquieting. The recent survey conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress finds that more than four-fifths of the students tested, in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades, are below the proficiency level in the knowledge of American history. According to other studies, 65 percent of American high school seniors do not know the primary subject of the Bill of Rights, and nearly half of people between the ages of 15 and 25 believe that voting is unimportant.
The situation in higher education is no less abysmal. A report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni shows the majority of graduating seniors at America's most elite colleges and universities unable to correctly identify James Madison, Valley Forge or words from the Gettysburg Address. This is not altogether surprising, considering that American history has been dropped from most college core curriculums.
When we have not forgotten our history, we have maligned it. A culture that values irony above all else, that is in the habit of traducing public figures (we even have a name for it -- "the politics of personal destruction"), that cannot credit the very ideas of nobility or honor or heroism, or love of country, finds it all too easy to be irreverent, or, worse, cynical about the past, as about the present. Learning nothing from the past, nothing of value, that is, we flounder in the present without mentors or guides.
At this time, more than ever, when our institutions and traditions are threatened by terrorists and terror-inspired regimes, we have all the more need to recall the message of Lincoln. Let us teach, and preach, and proclaim, and enforce those principles of liberty and law that are our honorable heritage.
The writer is professor emeritus of history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her most recent book is "One Nation, Two Cultures."