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Our American history is disappearing quickly

Development and consumer distractions are causes.

By Silvio Laccetti

The American nation is becoming a hazy abstraction. For first-generation immigrants from across the world as well as the children of fourth-generation American families down the block, it is divorced from a continuous, meaningful past. American history is disappearing from the imagination and the reality of new Americans.

Actually and symbolically, I felt and saw this during my recent journey to Manassas National Battlefield Park in northern Virginia. Within just a few miles of the park headquarters, not one adolescent working in a gas station or convenience store could give me accurate directions to the site. Older folks, however, were much more knowledgeable: Make this left, go to the end, go left on 234, pass the mall, headquarters is about two miles past the mall.

The Manassas Mall. Part of the problem for the new Americans is that the mall blocks their imagination, like a wall that nothing penetrates. I believe almost every adolescent American knows the way to the local mall.

The first and most obvious reason the young can't locate the Manassas battlefield is that their historical consciousness is obliterated by the bombardment of sales celebrations and the mesmerizing array of invented food, games, and gadgets found in any mall in our land. Commercialism and excess are, after all, what America has been all about since before the Great Depression. Lost in this frenzy, especially for the youth, is the ability to cultivate an appetite for history.

The battle of First Manassas - or First Bull Run, as it is called in the North - was unique. Amazingly, this first major land battle of the Civil War, on July 21, 1861, drew a large crowd of spectators from Washington. Many thought it would end the nascent conflict - a one-and-done affair. Not so!

The results and implications of the first battle of Bull Run should be part of everyone's collective memory of what Americans have gone through in order to perfect our union.

A second cause of the disappearance of American history is more literal: the development of historic sites into malls, condos, thoroughfares, and all manner of public works.

The Civil War Preservation Trust is one of many organizations dedicated to saving historic battlefield sites from the mechanical monsters of development. According to spokeswoman Mary Koik, it has saved some 25,000 acres at 100 different sites.

Koik tells some harrowing tales about the elimination of hallowed ground. In the early '90s, there was a plan to build a Disney park near Manassas. Today's threat to the site is the intended construction of a major power line through the park.

A Wal-Mart might be built across from the main entry point of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia. A garbage incinerator with a 350-foot smokestack was proposed for Monocasy National Battlefield in northern Maryland. In Hunterstown, Pa., a power plant covers half the field where Custer made an early stand.

Pennsylvania's Gettysburg National Military Park has been on the Civil War Preservation Trust's list of the top 10 endangered sites for eight of the last nine years. One can take a picture there of cannons appearing to shell a fast-food place across the way. New development creeps to the edges of the new visitor center. A big hotel hovers over the town's public cemetery.

In Richmond, Va., Nashville, Tenn., and Atlanta, historical-preservation problems are especially acute, because these Sun Belt cities have been growing at enormous rates, insatiably gobbling up land.

As America grows and consumes its places and spaces, history disappears from the mind and the national landscape.

Of course, with proper educational and curricular emphasis, American history could still live in the hearts and minds of all those schooled in America. But there is now little time and much to cover as a result of curriculum standards and No Child Left Behind testing.

Still, the creative commitment of classroom history teachers can help carve out a place for history in students' consciousness. At the Stonewall Jackson Shrine in Guinea Station, Va., I had an interesting lesson from Ryan Longfellow, a teacher and seasonal guide at the site. He uses class trips to paint memories from a Virginia landscape filled with historical treasures.

Even without nearby historical sites, the Internet and other resources, such as the wonderful documentaries of Ken Burns, can bring history alive for classes, developing special interests outside the required curriculum and school hours.

Let's revive America's consciousness of itself. For the new generation of schoolchildren, and for those to come, we must resolve to appreciate and understand our common heritage. We must remember our past, or we will lose our future.

In the log book at Manassas, visitors sign in with comments: "beautiful," "wonderful," "c-o-o-l." I signed without comment and left. Then I walked back and wrote across from my name, "Will the new people remember?"