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American Studies professor says his field sees ‘racism, sexism, and imperialism’ in everything

Not all scholars are happy about the loony-leftward drift of their academic fields.

Charles Kupfer, associate professor of American studies at Pennsylvania State University-Harrisburg, laments that his field “now serves chiefly as validation system for academicians who know their findings in advance: racism, sexism, and imperialism.”

Writing for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, Kupfer recounts a time when American studies was not “a regular source for ‘What wacky stuff are they up to on campus?’ articles and blogs”:

American Studies used to revel in wide-open exploration of the nation and cultures that constitute its subject. …

Pioneers like Vernon Parrington, who won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for his book Main Currents in American Thought, and Perry Miller, who sought the wellspring of American identity in Puritan New England, drove the thematic, interdisciplinary approach that was the initial American Studies hallmark.

The first doctorate in “American Civilization” went to Harvard’s Henry Nash Smith in 1940. His dissertation became Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950), which merrily relied upon dime novels to locate a mistaken but powerful belief among settlers that North America was empty, supine, and fertile, awaiting their ploughs.

Smith’s approach—often summed up as “Symbol and Myth”—gave rise to the field’s early reputation as “history with novels.”

That changed in the 1960s, when the field started “opening up to sources and scholars hitherto left out”:

Women scholars asked why female-authored texts were so sparse on syllabi; African-American scholars reminded everyone of the centrality of the black experience, including but not limited to slavery, to the entire American enterprise. …

But this was also the time when deconstructionism, having washed up on American shores in the late 1960s, went mainstream. That led to questioning of the field’s name and mission. “American” sounded nationalistic. American Studies power-brokers tried to convince themselves that the United States was disintegrating on the wrong side of history. But since world events didn’t unfold that way, they decided they could at least use their field for the purpose of perpetual indictment.

Now for the “last generation,” the field is becoming grossly politicized “in a misbegotten effort to remain relevant,” Kupfer says:

The result today is an academic sub-specialty wedded to a tightly-corseted belief that the United States represents the locus of sin (racism, sexism, colonialism, and the like) in the modern world, and that any study of America should restrict itself to call-outs and condemnations. …

Increasingly, the field is hostile to scholars who don’t want to use it just to berate American traditions and signal their imagined virtue.

Kupfer is now trying to rein in his discipline’s wayward drift via litigation: He’s a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the American Studies Association for its 2013 vote to boycott Israeli academic institutions, which claims the vote violated its mission and voids its tax exemption.

Read his piece.

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