Tuesday, December 07, 2004

"Diversity and the Transformation of American Studies”
Linda Kerber

Kerber’s 1988 speech as American Studies Association President in the main doesn’t tell me anything that Gene Wise or any others didn’t already say: American Studies went along just fine as a myth-and-symbol discipline for a while until its scholars began to understand the importance of diversity; then things changed.

Nevetheless, in making her case, Kerber adds some very interesting supporting points that I didn’t see others add. For one, when Kerber describes the way American Studies began as a discipline, she explains that to say “American Civilization” was to take a defensive posture against “Anglophiles and Francophiles in the academy.” I knew that American Studies, and particularly the literature, wasn’t considered a worthy area of study, but I didn’t know that to term it “Civilization” had a specific connotation. Kerber adds that not only is American Studies interdisciplinary in the present day, but it also was in the 1940s and 50s, when it was among the first programs that “surrendered to undergraduates substantial power for innovation in the planning of a personal academic career.” That’s a fairly significant point. So, she says, it was “the exciting place to be in the 1950s.”

In discussing the historical span of the discipline, Kerber explains the importance of the myth and symbol theorists. She argues that “long before deconstructionists destabilized our understanding of what makes up a text and insisted on the instability of narratives” they used a similar style of criticism; they “struggled to decode the processes by which social meaning is constructed” as well as “to widen the definition of what constitutes a text.”

Kerber ends by arguing against some detractor of diversity, including Allan Bloom. In “The Closing of the American Mind,” Bloom “blamed feminists and black scholar-activities for destabilizing the academy in the last generation.” He specifically calls feminism “the latest enemy of the vitality of classic texts,” ignoring (Kerber reminds us) strong feminist messages in works of the classics, like The Bacchae. She goes on to suggest that scholars like Bloom and Bennett might better “settle down actually to read the classics” they’re so critical of because “they may be surprised at what they find.” What a wonderful challenge! I love an elegant barely couched slam.

Anyway, Kerber’s article was interesting, but not an earth-shaking read.

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