Americans need history without myths and `heritage nostalgia'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT'S a curiously American phenomenon, says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Michael Kammen: While Americans have fallen in love with their history in recent years -- their actual knowledge of that history is ``woeful.'' ``Take a look at what I call the `nostalgia heritage boom,' '' says Prof. Kammen, a Cornell University professor whose recent work on the Constitution in American history (``A Machine That Would Go of Itself'') has drawn him critical acclaim during this bicenntennial era.

``Lately, Americans have been drawn to the idea of heritage. `Heritage' appears in the name of everything now'' -- from banks to insurance companies, building firms, and donuts. ``In Ithaca, we have the `Heritage Hills Condominiums,' '' he says, ``proving that you can sell anything if you put `heritage' in the name.''

Heritage nostalgia freezes history into a ``vague golden time,'' says Kammen, and the tension, paradox, and triumph that are the truth of the past, become lost.

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A perfect metaphor for the problem can be found outside the restored Colonial village of Williamsburg, where an amusement park was recently built. ``You used to get three good days of history there,'' Kammen says, ``Now you rush through Williamsburg in a day, and take your kids to the circus the rest of the time.''

But the problem is not simply commercialism. It's a problem of education and cultural transmission. For years, Kammen has argued that the American revolution has been ``de-revolutionized'' in schools and public discourse. Thomas Paine and his cohorts felt that ``this was a revolution to defend the rights of man,'' Kammen says. Tyranny, oppression, liberty, dignity -- ``these were fighting words . . . living concepts. But their radical essence gets read out of the record.''

This same radicalism is being left out of current efforts to educate about the Constitution, Kammen feels.

He blames public schools, but even more, leading public figures who ``have this utterly mythical vision of what kinds of people the Founding Fathers were.'' At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the founders radically exceeded their intructions. They were only supposed to improve the Articles of Confederation, Kammen says -- but instead, ``concocted a whole new scheme of government.'' Two of the three New York delegates walked out, saying things had gone too far.

``The Convention was the most creative moment in the entire history of American political thought,'' says Kammen, but adds that the nation's founders have been ``used'' to reinforce the status quo: ``If you present the view [to current public leaders] that our Founding Fathers were revolutionaries who defied legitimate authority, [they'd] be appalled,'' he says.

The gap between historical reality and perception is why Kammen studied history. His ``calling,'' he says, is in line with that described by historian Bernard De Voto: ``To read everything there is about this country, and explain the meaning of America.''

That's a larger than life task for someone trained as a colonialist in the 1950s. But rather than spend the rest of his life rehashing specific 17th and 18th century problems, Kammen enlarged his canvas in the mid-1970s, becoming more a general cultural historian. The bicentennial of the ``Declaration of Independence'' left Kammen with a ``growing curiosity about what effect the first half of American history had had on the second'' -- how American traditions and value systems had developed. His distinctive trademark is his extensive use of plays, novels, and iconography as cultural ``windows.''

Today, the professor -- whose charcoal BWM, sophisticated manner, and upbeat fascination for arcane Americana make him seem a bit like a tropical bird in the plainer climes of Ithaca -- plans to spend the next 15 years writing a triology on historical awareness in the American memory from 1870 to the present.

Like most historians, Kammen feels that the cause of history has not been served well by ``the mishmash known as social studies'' in public schools. The assumption of social studies -- that by offering a little sociology, a little psychology, a little history, students would think more openly and freely about the past -- hasn't worked he says. Instead, ``students have no idea of the basic chronology.'' One of Kammen's students, now an academic dean at Cornell, taught a survey course in history several years ago, in which class members were ``amazed'' to discover that in 1942, the Germans, Italians, and Japanese were ``all on the same side'' in a war against the U.S. ``The sheer amount of misinformation in our public schools is staggering,'' he notes.

What concerns Kammen even further, is the benign historical dis-information he feels leaders in both American political parties engage in. ``These are basically decent people who would rarely misrepresent some current fact -- but who, when it comes to history, apparently feel no moral restraint about twisting history to suit their agenda.''

The great need today, says Kammen, is for public leaders who can take an educative role. Eugene Debs in the 1912 presidential campaign is a ``wonderful example,'' he adds -- a man who knew he wouldn't be elected, but who forced the country to think about tough issues. ``I don't see people like that on the horizon today.'' Both political expedience and inability are reasons that our current politicians spew middle-of-the-road ``mush'' they don't even believe, he says.

Abraham Lincoln is Kammen's ideal of the public leader educating the public. ``Lincoln knew his stuff in a way that's quite overwhelming and in a way I've only recently come to terms with,'' he says. Lincoln's speeches discuss the values of 1776, the Constitution, the concept of perpetual union, and give ``serious attention'' to nearly every important issue between 1776 and 1865. ``He was candid, eloquent, historically informed.''

The Lincoln journey from Springfield to Washington, D.C., in February of 1861, says Kammen, ``becomes a whole series of explicit history lessons -- all culminating in his speech at Independence Hall on George Washington's birthday.'' The metaphor ``couldn't be more conscious,'' says Kammen. ``Lincoln gives a history lesson about our political values, our political culture, our political heritage, and what it has meant, and asks, `do you really want to let it all slip through your fingers?' ''

``That's why I think he's our greatest president.''

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