The Last Best Hope

Posted: May 29, 2006 5:05 AM

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.

 On the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, he intended to tell an audience in Dallas that "we in this country are the watchmen on the walls of freedom." He might have been speaking to us today. In Ronald Reagan's farewell address, he spoke of the resurgence of pride in America: "This national feeling is good, but it won't count for much, and it won't last unless it's grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge."

 We hear the longing for lost pride, for the knowledge of why we love our country, an appreciation for our language and for the melting pot that forged our nation, an understanding of what it means to be an American. Multiculturalism, as emphasized in our schools and colleges, highlights only how we're different, not how we become as one. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is one of the most difficult national anthems to sing, but singing it in Spanish (or Urdu or Bulgarian or Swahili) won't make it easier.

 America's history is rowdy, unruly and uneven. Our experiment in democracy was begun when men owned slaves and women couldn't vote or do very much of anything without the permission of fathers or husbands. But we were endowed with a government that enabled and encouraged course correction. Freedom of speech enables us to criticize, to expose flaws to the sunlight. Our fights have always been ferocious, but we've always made up and moved on.

 The Bennett book reflects the words of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the senator from New York who used the poetry of the English language with insight and precision: "Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy?" he asked. "Not one bit. Find me a better one. . . . Do I think ours is, on balance, incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes, I do. Have we done obscene things? Yes, we have. How did our people learn about them? They learned about them . . . in the newspapers."

 We learned, in short, from our history. It's a history we can't afford to lose, or discount or neglect. We owe it to ourselves, to our children and to "loves who lie sleeping," in Flanders and all those other fields where poppies blow.