In this Christmas season, many of us will sing "Joy to the World" without knowing that it is a hymn written by the English preacher Isaac Watts, and several days later, we will follow it up with "Auld Lang Syne," an old Scottish song that was rewritten by the poet Robert Burns. Not only are these songs part of the standard repertoire of American life, they are also part of our legacy from the British Isles.
In 1910, when Robert Frost taught at a high school in rural New Hampshire, he expected his students to memorize poems by William Wordsworth, Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Rudyard Kipling. Today it is hard to imagine a high school teacher assigning a similar program.
For most of the 20th century, in schools across America, Frost's assignment would not have been considered at all unusual. Indeed, most parents and high school teachers believed that the literary masterpieces of the English tradition were essential elements in a decent education, a shared legacy that every educated person was expected to know.
Nowadays few high school and also not many college students have read Wordsworth, Browning, Tennyson, or Kipling. Even the best-educated students are unlikely to have encountered such great prose writers as Samuel Johnson and Thomas Carlyle, whose works were once considered the birthright of anyone who spoke the English language. These are precious resources of language and spirit that we have neglected to preserve for future generations.
This month, Oxford University Press is publishing our anthology of the greatest poems, essays, songs, and speeches of Great Britain, which we titled "The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to Know." We deliberately chose a provocative subtitle because it is time, we think, to resist the growing impoverishment of our common cultural memory.
In the visual arts, there is still deep respect for the masterpieces of the past. People flock to the great art museums, enriching their lives by viewing the works of Botticelli, El Greco, or Picasso. That same sense of appreciation for the giants has been almost lost in literature. Educators today strive for "relevance," so that most of what students read reflects their own lives or our visually driven pop culture. Literary theorists in our universities deride the idea of a literary canon and have consigned the great works of earlier centuries to the ash heap of history.
But to ignore the tradition that shaped our democratic and freewheeling culture is the height of ignorance. By doing so, the educational establishment has relinquished its responsibility not only to preserve a major part of our cultural heritage, but also to teach students to appreciate great literature.
The English literary tradition itself is far from ideologically monolothic. It is, in fact, a series of arguments: between radicals and conservatives, between science and religion, between the romantic and the classical. It is not necessary to take sides in order to appreciate the power and beauty of the words. Thus a reader of our book can turn from David George's stirring celebration of World War I to the searing antiwar poems of Wilfred Owen, written on the Western Front.
These poems, speeches, and essays argue with each other and influence other works across generations. They refer to each other, in praise or disparagement, with the assumption that readers shared a common cultural vocabulary. D.H. Lawrence, in the selection that we chose, quotes from the King James Bible: "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand for ever." Lawrence insists to the contrary that "the grass withereth, but comes up all the greener for that reason, after the rains … It is grass that renews its youth like the eagle, not any Word." The weight of the tradition gives his metaphor its power. If we are not familiar with the famous phrases from the Book of Isaiah, we are hardly able to appreciate what he is saying.
"The English Reader" starts with Queen Elizabeth and ends with Winston Churchill. In his famous speech to the House of Commons in June 1940, Churchill quoted the 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell on the death of King Charles I. "For all of us," said Churchill," at this time, whatever our sphere, our station, our occupation or our duties, it will be a help to remember the famous lines: ‘He nothing common did or mean, Upon that memorable scene.'" Churchill drew upon a poetic reference in order to emphasize that World War II represented the fight of civilization against barbarism. He inspired the British to fight by reminding them of the grandeur of their history and their literature.
Americans have inherited more from Britain than just our common language. Whatever our race, religion, or birthplace, we continue to celebrate and enjoy such ideals as individualism, liberty, justice, tolerance, equality, and freedom of thought and speech.
The terrorists who attacked America on September 11 despised the tolerance and individualism of our free society. They represent forces in the world that are eager to destroy our civilization and its beliefs. How can we defend our culture if we forget its greatest achievements?
Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Ravitch are editors of "The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to Know."