Magazine article Tikkun

Who's Afraid of American Studies?

Magazine article Tikkun

Who's Afraid of American Studies?

Article excerpt

Who's Afraid of American Studies? The Futures of American Studies, edited by Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman. Duke University Press, 2002.

An ominous trend of attacking academic freedoms has escalated in ways most would have considered unthinkable only a few years ago. Consider the following:

* In 2002, a conservative group brought a lawsuit against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) when freshmen were assigned a book about the Koran. And after UNC adopted Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America as assigned reading for its incoming freshman class in 2003, conservative pundits and politicians roundly assailed the choice as unpatriotic.

* In late 2003, the House of Representatives passed the International Studies in Higher Education Act, H.R. 3077. If passed in the Senate, H.R. 3077 will establish a national advisory panel to "monitor" how international studies are taught on university campuses. It takes special interest in Middle East studies programs, and might also review funding decisions for grant proposals.

* In November 2003, students and faculty at Drake College in Des Moines, Iowa, gathered for an anti-war forum called "Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home! " Afterwards, four organizers of the forum received subpoenas issued by a federal grand jury. The subpoenas demanded that the organizers turn over all records from the forum. (After the news hit the national media, the subpoenas were withdrawn.)

* In late 2003, the Ford Foundation revised the rules for its grant application procedure after neo-conservative groups (like the American Jewish Committee) accused Ford of funding a Palestinian organization with alleged sympathies with terrorism. Now several leading universities-including Harvard, Yale and Princeton-have protested that the new guidelines inhibit academic free speech.

* In March 2004, an "Academic Bill of Rights" swept through the Georgia State Senate. This bill permits Republican legislators to keep close tabs on how state university professors teach. Citing data that Democrats far outnumber Republicans on faculties nationwide, supporters of the bill suggest that it may require universities to correct this ideological imbalance in the name of "diversity." A similar bill has been proposed in Colorado.

With these examples in mind, it is a matter of no small importance that the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has steadfastly and courageously opposed attempts to abridge academic free expression. Similarly, it is also significant that the American Studies Association (ASA), whose five thousand members come from numerous programs and departments (e.g., history, literature, anthropology, sociology, popular culture, ethnic studies, folklore), has hosted plenary sessions at its annual meeting devoted to the emergencies currently facing American universities and U.S. society. It is surely no coincidence that these sessions are packed to capacity.

In her presidential address at the ASA annual meeting in the fall of 2003, University of Pennsylvania professor Amy Kaplan opened with a dedication to the memory of her late friend, Palestinian-rights activist and Columbia University professor Edward Said. She continued: "I write with a sense of urgency and bewilderment-urgency because I believe that our work must speak to the current crisis as the United States occupies Iraq and marshals violent force around the world and the government increases its authoritarian incursions against civil liberties, the rights of immigrants, and the provisions for basic human need." Yet Kaplan also noted self-critically that the analytical method so often employed by American studies scholars-" a method of exposure," as she named it-may have been rendered "irrelevant" by a Republican administration whose "lies and acts of violence appear hidden on the surface." Kaplan added that U.S. leaders no longer find it necessary to speak behind closed doors about their imperial ambitions. …

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