Our Founding Fathers and subsequent leaders were surely clear on this point. President John F. Kennedy: "History is the means by which a nation establishes its sense of identity and purpose." Or President Harry Truman: "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know." Or President Ronald Reagan: "Let's start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual."
In a survey of teenagers conducted by Colonial Williamsburg, one in 10 teens didn't know that George Washington was the first president of the United States. And the most recent NAEP report card, issued in 2010, finds that only 12 percent of high school seniors are at or above "proficient" in historical knowledge and understanding, with 55 percent "below basic."
The situation in our colleges and universities is even more dire.
In a survey of public and private colleges in George Washington's home state - Virginia - only two universities (James Madison and Regent) require a survey of American history or government of their graduates.
And the problem is nationwide. Of more than 1,000 colleges and universities the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reviewed across the country, www.whatwilltheylearn.com, not a single leading university expects its students to take a survey of American history. Overall, 80 percent of our colleges don't require students to take even a single foundational course in American history or government.
These findings might be tolerable, of course, if students were otherwise knowledgeable. But they are not. The Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut found that even amongst highly selective colleges, seniors could not identify the "Father of the Constitution," the Battle of the Bulge, or the general at Yorktown. In contrast, nearly 100 percent could identify rapper Snoop Dogg and knew the cartoon characters Beavis and Butthead.
But let's be clear. This is not just about memorizing facts. This is about the obligation of Americans to be informed citizens - knowledgeable about their history and heritage - since our system demands it.
On this subject, there is no one better to quote than General George Washington: "A primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing than communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?"
To live day to day, without a solid connection to our government and our history leaves us poorly prepared to face America's many challenges, and constitutes a tragic slap in the face of the men and women who formed America, and defended her since.
It's time our educational institutions got their priorities straight.
Unlike other countries, as historian Gordon Wood has oft noted, Americans are not tied together by race, religion or ethnicity. We are bound together by ideas and a shared memory - a bond that, in this day of bickering and dissent, we need more than ever.
George Washington was no mere president, to be jumbled with Millard Fillmore and Chester A. Arthur. He is the standard bearer, the precedent setter. He is, to use the words of historian James Flexner, the "indispensable man."
By marking George Washington's birthday on its real day, Congress can underscore the importance of knowing our real history. It can rightfully single out our first president for his courage, leadership and character. This real-time birthday celebration can remind all Americans to keep our history alive by treating national holidays, not as shopping days, but as opportunities for civic education and celebration.
Neal, vice regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies Historical Society and president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a higher ed nonprofit dedicated to academic excellence.