Is Cornell in America?

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Public schools used to assign “What my country means to me” as an essay topic. One wonders what one would get from such an exercise if it were given to Cornell undergrads who got a chance to take the full panoply of courses available there under the heading, American Studies.

Here is a sampling:

  • Space Cowboys: The 60s Hero
  • Race, Gender and the Internet
  • Popular Culture in the United States, 1900-1945
  • Popular Culture in the United States, 1950 to the present
  • The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692
  • Black History topics through film
  • The Road Trip in American History and Culture
  • The U. S.-Mexico Border: History, Culture, Representation
  • Introduction to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies
  • Cultures of the Cold War
  • Culture and Politics of the 1960s
  • Environmental History: The United States and Beyond
  • Racial and Ethnic Politics in the U. S.
  • America’s Multicultural Origins to 1754
  • Inequality and American Democracy
  • Discovering Hip-Hop: Research and the Cornell Hip-Hop Collection

The list features two courses on the U. S. Constitution—American Constitutional Development and Constitutional Politics: The U. S. Supreme Court.  There is a course, cross-listed with the History Department comparing the presidencies of Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln. This course enables students to examine, among other things, “the uses of American political rhetoric in the speeches and texts of two acknowledged masters of the genre.”

Steve Hayward of the University of Colorado at Boulder, himself a pretty eminent historian (e.g., two volumes on President Reagan), offered a rather different comparison when the current chief executive elected to skip the anniversary of the Gettysburg address this year:

“While Obama has compared himself to Lincoln and FDR, and wasn’t bashful about assuming the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, perhaps he knows that nothing he can say would measure up to Lincoln’s extraordinary 272-word achievement.  For one thing, it is impossible for Obama to be succinct about anything.  His natural tendency to turn every occasion into a meditation about himself would vindicate—this time—the editorial reaction applied to Lincoln’s short panegyric at the time.  (The Gettysburg Patriot and Union in 1863 said that a ‘veil of oblivion shall be dropped over’ Lincoln’s ‘silly remarks.’  The paper’s successor, the Patriot News, formally retracted that infamous editorial this week.)

“Most everyone knows the story: Edward Everett, the most renowned orator of the age, gave a two-hour speech before Lincoln.  In many respects Everett is the prototype of today’s ‘public intellectual.’  He had been a professor and president of Harvard, and was one of the first Americans to earn a Ph.D. in Europe.  No one remembers today much of anything Everett ever said.  Obama is fast becoming the Edward Everett of our time, but adorned with the presidential seal, which means we have to listen to him even after he’s become a bore.  Truly the world would little note nor long remember whatever Obama might try to say at Gettysburg.”


Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
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