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Americans need history without myths and `heritage nostalgia'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 10, 1986

Ithaca, N.Y.

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.

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``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.

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.''