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'Oh Say Does That Star Spangled Banner Yet Wave?'
June 1, 2001

On Memorial Day, while others laid wreaths, Aerosmith's Steven Tyler laid waste to our national anthem. At the Indianapolis 500, the flag-festooned rocker opened The Star Spangled Banner with a harmonica solo and ended not with a rousing "home of the brave," but an improvised "home of the Indianapolis 500." Veterans protested, wire services buzzed, and both Tyler and the president of the Indy Speedway apologized.

His antics are inexcusable and the onlookers were right to object. But if apologies for patriotic negligence are in order, an aging rock star is not public enemy number one.

Last year, a survey of top seniors at 55 leading American universities found that 98% could identify rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, but only 34% knew that George Washington commanded the American troops at Yorktown (37% fingered Ulysses S. Grant). A mere 23% named James Madison as the Father of the Constitution, 40% failed to identify the half-century during which we fought the Civil War, and 70% had no clue what Reconstruction was. This historical haze should come as no surprise. Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Stanford all dropped American history from their core requirements long ago. In fact, only 22% of our top schools require any history class at all.

In 1788, Noah Webster wrote, "Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country….. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country; he should lisp the praise of liberty, and of those illustrious heroes and statesmen who have wrought a revolution in her favor." Today, rather than rehearsing history, our educators revise it. Instead of lisping the praise of liberty, students are schooled in national self-loathing. Our old heroes have gone the way of Lenin's statue in Red Square, their exploits left to the dustbin of history.

If the acuity of national memory is a measure of civic health, then America is sick and sicker still because ours is not a culture forged of the usual bonds. We are a country wrapped around an idea, and if America is to endure, remembrance is not luxury, but a national necessity. From classrooms to living rooms the story must be told lest we become a people without a past and prove more forgetful than a former heroin addict rasping an unfamiliar song.

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