Memorial Day was first called Decoration Day, when the women of Columbus, Miss., decorated the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers, many of whom had been killed at nearby Shiloh Church in the first great blood-letting of our Civil War. Union wives and mothers soon followed the example, to sing of kneeling "Where Our Loves are Sleeping."
For generations, schoolchildren learned as a Memorial Day recitation the lines written by Col. John McCrae, a Canadian doctor, as he took a break at a field hospital beside a cemetery at the Ypres salient in 1915: "In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses row on row,/That mark our place; and in the sky/The larks, still bravely singing, fly/Scarce heard amid the guns below . . . Take up our quarrel with the foe:/To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high./If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields."
Schoolchildren today rarely learn very much about the honored dead who sleep beneath the poppies from any of our wars. Patriotism isn't what it used to be. Neither is the teaching of history. Two senators, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a Republican, and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, a Democrat, are trying to do something about that.
"The American History Achievement Act is one more step toward putting the teaching of American history and civics back into our classrooms," says Sen. Alexander, "so our children grow up learning what it means to be an American."
This legislation is not a panacea, but it's a start. In 2001, the National Assessment of Education found that students score lower in history than in math, science and reading. Three of four fourth-graders can't identify the three branches of the federal government, and only one in 10 eighth-graders can tell you even one of the reasons why the North fought the South.
William Bennett's new book, "America: The Last Best Hope," couldn't be more timely, an attempt to rescue our schoolchildren -- and many of their parents -- from the amnesia for our endlessly fascinating history. Mr. Bennett, who was once chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the secretary of education in the Reagan administration, says he wrote his book for many reasons, but particularly to identify and emphasize the history articulated by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan in their letters and speeches.