Gordon Wood: History's vital role in America

Roundup: Talking About History

''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....

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