WHAT? Another historic celebration? Haven't we had enough? In 1976 it was Independence, in 1986 the Statue of Liberty, in 1987 through 1991 the bicentennial of the Constitution, Ratification, the Bill of Rights -- and now, looming in 1992, the quincentennial of Columbus's arrival in the Western Hemisphere?

Why mark these historic anniversaries? First, before and during an anniversary you have the public's attention. Second, because of that attention, money from the private sector, from foundations and from the national endowments is available for research and public programs and dissemination of knowledge about the event. Third, because our "holidays" have become unhinged from their original meaning, historic anniversaries are even more important to us as a time to focus on our civic heritage, and in the case of Columbus, on our world heritage.

Time, for once, is on our side. Upset by White House tardiness in appointing the Constitution bicentennial commission only 18 months before the bicentennial began in 1987, Congress required that the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission appointed within 90 days of passage of the 1984 bill establishing the quincentennial. A commission was appointed in June 1985 under the chairmanship of John N. Goudie and is now at work. With a luxuriousyears remaining to think, arrange, gather funds prepare teachers and galvanize the public museums, foundations, libraries and universities, we have time to to do it properly.

What, then, should a thoughtful, well-planned observance include? Where, exactly does the significance of the occasion lie?

It seems to us that we are first of all observing Columbus as an explorer. He had no plans to discover a new continent; no plans to bring Hispanic culture to the Americas. These were unintended consequences of his voyages. We will muddy the waters if we forget the centerpiece of the event -- Columbus himself, the man, the restless, questing explorer of 1492. Steadfast, patient, knowledgeable, superb seaman and navigator, Columbus also had a messianic faith in himself as one who would help reverse the tide of defeats suffered by Christianity -- most notably its loss of the Holy Land. Columbus did more than "arrive" in the New World. Any observance of his achievement must recognize the heroic quality of his dream.

But if Columbus the visionary must remain at the center of the quincentennial, what practical benefits can we 1992 derive from the observance? We believe it could accomplish several goals. It could help to restore the study of geography, provide a balanced view of native history and heritage,promote the sharing of scholarship throughout the hemisphere, expand ecological knowledge, increase mutual understanding among the nations of the Americas and focus attention on the meaning and ramifications of "discovery."

Geography has long since been removed from the school and college curricula. Research has shown that few students can accurately locate their state on a map of the United States, much less position Spain, Portugal or Genoa. In a recent test, fully 20 percent of the students identified Brazil as the United States on an outline map of the Western Hemisphere!

Of what value is public opinion on questions of policy toward South or Central America when a majority of United States citizens have no idea where countries are located or what their political, social and economic systems are? The quincentennial would be a fine opportunity to restore the teaching of geography and to give people a sense of place on the planet. But we need no manual of names; what we need is to understand at a far deeper level than presently the interaction of man and his environment, the relationships of one people to another, the distribution of flora and fauna. Such studies could give students a deeper understanding of the great immigration of Europeans and Africans to the Americas by emphasizing the historical connections of New Spain, the Caribbean and North America 16th century to the present.

The quincentennial should give the descendants of those who greeted Columbus a chance to be heard. This was not a vacant hemisphere in 1492, waiting for the Europeans to populate it. Yet the textbook picture is almost universally demeaning to the hemisphere's natives. Tribes are misnamed. Linguistic and tribal boundaries are confused. Social arrangements and political systems are misleadingly described.

We must, however, be careful not to promise too much; we cannot reshape events to our present liking nor settle all disagreements. Did the "virgin land" of North America lose its virginity to the Europeans gracefully or was it raped? Was the "noble savage" a true picture or a Europen concoction? Was the "black legend" of Spanish cruelty true everywhere, partially true, or a myth? In any case, we should do everything we can to insure that the natives' points of view of what happened are forcefully stated.

The quincentennial also provides a unique opportunity to improve historical scholarship in the Americas. It should come through a general upgrading of the region's libraries and archives by increasing the size of their collections and by providing new technological devices for information gathering and distribution. If a country cannot afford to improve its own libraries and archives, it should be encouraged to request economic aid for that purpose from the United States or one of the European countries.

As part of the quincentennial, we also should be able to get cartographers, naval historians, geographers, medical historians, zoologists, botanists, climatologists, historians of ideas, historians of technology and scholars in many more disciplines to talk with each other and with the public about Columbus and the consequences of his voyages. Symposia are being planned; they should cross specialties, include younger scholars and be public forums to excite ordinary people who want to know more about the world from which Columbus came and the lands he discovered.

The quincentennial can also make a contribution to the present day ecological knowledge of the Western Hemisphere areas most closely associated with Columbus's voyages by making a careful census of the current flora and fauna. Historians are increasingly aware that the "Columbian Exchange" of animals, plants and even germs between the Old World and the New has in some ways overshadowed the political, military and social effects of the interchange. Base-line knowledge is essential for the management of natural areas to minimize further environmental damage. Such a biological inventory would be an enormous undertaking, but organizational expertise and inventory data are already available from the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute in Panama, which began just such a cenus five years ago on a small plot of undisturbed forest.

Convening representatives of the entire Western Hemisphere to discuss one common event -- the impact of Columbus' voyages -- might be the beginning of a new era for the Americas. The United States' pan-hemispheric efforts have had minimal effects in the past; we have been seen, rightly or wrongly, as a nation willing and able to flex our muscles to the detriment of our weaker neighbors. In 1992, the attention shifts to the advantage of the Caribbean and South American nations.

We cannot promise a great deal: some new ties may be formed, some new avenues explored, some old antagonisms and national prejudices laid to rest. But the quincentennial could also lead the American nations to ponder the disparity in development of the northern and southern hemispheres, its causes and its consequences.

Above all, we should recognize, the man who dared, who tried and who achieved the unexpected. The spirit of Columbus is the spirit of the West -- a spirit that has shaped the world. Explorers discovered places of no commercial value, anthropologists and archaeologists recorded what they could of cultures that had no wealth to add to the countries from which they came. In the spirit of Columbus, man has been willing to face the unforeseen consequences of his exploration and to deal with the unexpected in his discoveries.

Joan Challinor is a research associate at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Wilcomb Washburn is director of the Smithsonian's Office of American Studies.