Weekly Standard, May 29, 2011.
American identity, character, and civic life are shaped by many things, but decisive among them are our national memories—of our long history, our triumphs and tragedies, our national aspirations and achievements. Crucial to the national memory are the words our forebears wrote, to show us who we are and what we might yet become. Robust citizenship is impossible without national attachment. National attachment is thin at best without national memory. And national memory depends on story, speech, and song.
Human memory is precarious and requires steady safekeeping. As Samuel Johnson sagely observed, “Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.” We take things for granted. We are distracted. We allow important matters to slip from consciousness. These tendencies are exacerbated in the American republic, with its emphasis on innovation, progress, and the freedom each person has to make himself anew. Americans can enjoy our blessings of liberty, equal rights, enterprise, and religious freedom without consciously appreciating the deeds and stories of those who have made these blessings possible and who have handed them down to us. It goes without saying how collective memory is imperiled today, in an age defined by instant messaging and other enthusiasms for the ephemeral.