One of the misconceptions about the American Studies major rests in the foolishness of thinking about majors as explicit vocational training. As biology is to doctor, there is no clear career analogue for American studies (and even in medicine, the popularity of Mount Sinai’s Humanities and Medicine program illustrates the importance of a liberal arts background in all fields). But the AmStud major has myriad applications, often benefiting professional goals in oblique ways. The fallacy of the stigma that trails cultural studies — and the source of the American studies major’s “gut major” reputation — is the spurious notion that by studying a nation from the ground up we will somehow lose sight of the decision-makers — and the decisions — on top. A literature major might get a better sense of Regency England by reading Jane Austen than a political science major analyzing UK policy, and the same can be said for an AmStud major who watches Spike Lee films to understand the policies of urban redlining and the failed War on Drugs. The best cultural study is rooted in history but is not encumbered by the parochial approach of its academy.
Plus, just because one studies biology, one is not guaranteed success as a doctor. George W. Bush ’68 is a product of Yale’s History Department, and he has still managed to repeat it, despite the old adage.
The history of Yale’s curriculum is a fascinating study, one that has had far-reaching implications on our nation’s business, politics, medicine, arts and a host of other disciplines. There is no longer a requirement to study the great western canon, but the Directed Studies program still thrives in its niche. There is no longer a theology requirement, yet both Latin and religious studies persist.
There is — and must be — a constant tension in Yale’s curriculum: a school of traditionalists holding onto the classical subjects and pluralizing “syllabus” with an “i,” a subversive collective keeping our arts “liberal” by adding “studies” to anything they can think of, and an ever-evolving contingent of self-righteous pragmatists (you currently find them in your Chinese classes) aiming to solve this week’s Newsweek cover story.
The last group should be lauded for overtly taking up the challenge Tom Friedman issued in “The World Is Flat,” but for all the increase in international studies since Sept. 11, many students from John Gaddis’ retinue will eschew their IS degrees and accept offers to go into private wealth management at Morgan Stanley; many of the classical scholars will soon be video blogging for alternative weeklies, and pretty much all of us will at least attend the next McKinsey info session.
I came to Yale three years ago pretty certain that I would pursue American studies. For an American with an active mind, American studies is a fascinating, 24/7 immersion that does not need to take place in the classroom. Having devised my own concentration of urban studies, I take many of my classes with architecture students. I take another chunk with history majors and several more with film studies students. If done properly, I’ll be able to synthesize all of it into an extremely rich senior essay – something that our department offers but unfortunately does not require. American Studies is an incredible major when done right; the fact that it is too often done wrong (sometimes by lazy students, sometimes by lazy professors resorting to talking points from the New York Times editorial page) may be what besmirches its reputation. To see it done right — and with all the relevance of Con Law — I invite all to visit Jean-Christophe Agnew’s ForMAC lecture Tuesday and Thursday mornings this fall.
Bottom line — I live with political science majors, history majors and a pre-med student who all try to emasculate my AmStud program. I tell them: You’re either an American studies major, or you’re with the terrorists.
Alex Goldberger is a senior American studies major in Trumbull College.