I challenge any recent graduate with an American Studies major to explain what the NorthWest Ordinance of 1787 was about or to explain what the Kansas-Nebraska of 1854 really did and its influence on the Civil War, or to give a lucid description of the common ground upon which The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick stand, and why Huckleberry Finn is considered one of the most important books in American Literature.
Sometime in the 1960s many universities began offering a major in American Studies. What is offered today is far different than when I was in college. Its how liberals ruined American studies because they don’t much like America.
In my day American Studies was mostly about American history and American literature from the Puritans to the beatnik generation of Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. I was at the University of Colorado from 1970-1974, majored in mathematics but also took every course in the American Studies major. It was a great learning experience. Partial differential equations in the morning and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism in the afternoon.
The study of American political and literary history together is what the sixties generation might have called “mind expanding.” Well, they might have been thinking of LSD when they said that, but I’d be thinking of Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience and the contemptible and despised poll tax. The Scottish Enlightenment in America and its influence on America’s founding fathers, or the long struggle over slavery in America from the ratification of the Constitution through the Civil War and the Jim Crow era that followed. Those and many many other historical events and written contributions to America should be included in anyone’s understanding of “mind expanding” discipline.
The so-called “movements” in literature, e.g., Romanticism, rationalism, transcendentalism, naturalism, realism, etc. both affect and are affected by the political landscape at any given time. Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter tells a story set in 17th-century Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, during the years 1642 to 1649. The novel was written in 1850. It’s not clear that Hawthorne was firmly in the Transcendentalist movement which sees all that is good, true and beautiful in nature. The story in The Scarlet Letter is that Hester Prynne and her bastard child Pearl are shunned by their society, Arthur Dimmesdale the pale and physically delicate Puritan minister has fathered an illegitimate child, and the cuckolded husband Roger Chillingworth comes out as the most malevolent character in the book for his self-absorbed and monstrous quest for revenge.
Hawthorne’s creation of Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter (1850) clearly influenced Herman Melville’s development of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (1851). Both men were consumed with revenge and hatred against their perceived nemesis, Arthur Dimmesdale and a white whale, respectively, for the misfortune that befell them.
Hawthorne was fairly well connected with Emerson, Thoreau and other Transcendentalists in Concord. In fact, the Old Manse in Concord was home to Ralph Waldo Emerson from 1834 to 1835 and to Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne from 1842-1845. While Hawthorne rhapsodized about the Concord River, calling it “the river of peace and quietness,” he clearly did not feel the need to form a personal bond with nature itself, as did the Transcendentalists. Hawthorne was more interested in the vagaries of human nature.
As far as I can tell, very little of this sort of knowledge and insight in taught in American Studies programs today. It’s Identity politics that seems to permeate everything. Gender studies, LGBT studies, black studies, queer theory, women’s studies and other twinky liberal and brainless pursuits reign supreme on almost every college campus today. None of this qualifies anyone for any kind of employment other that as a professor of such things. There are not near enough of those slots for all who want them. The knowledge, if any, from this curriculum is worthless. It better prepares one for endless arguments over trivial things than for gaining a clear sense of the world we live in.
Abstract algebra, advanced calculus and topology have pretty much left my brain now. I still could probably pick up a book and with some effort and a couple of weeks get it back. I still have my extensive notes from those days but now an epsilon delta proof is way beyond my ken. I try to read my notes and it’s hard to believe I actually wrote them.
This all doesn’t matter very much. The important thing is that the hard wiring in my brain was changed for the better by my having made the struggle with those things back then. I’m grateful I got to go to college before the liberals ruined the whole experience. I feel sorry for the millennials who couldn’t get a real education and have been condemned to go through life believing a profusion of inconceivable nonsense pounded into their heads by leftist professors. I feel sorry for the students today who will never have the learning experiences I had, such as a political science class taught by an African American professor who imparted important knowledge to us about American politics and culture without ever revealing a scintilla of his own personal political leanings. Whatever they were they most certainly were not radical.