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273 10 Constructing American Studies Culture, Identity, and the Expansion of the Humanities Leila Zenderland Among the countless international conferences held in the decade following World War II was a UNESCO meeting organized to discuss Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. Article 27 states: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” Invited to Paris in 1954 to consider the educational implications of this article were representatives from twelve countries. Among them was the American educator John Everett, president of Hollins College, whose account of his experiences was published in American Quarterly , the journal of the recently founded American Studies Association.1 According to Everett, this conference proved frustrating. Attendees could not agree on what “the right freely to participate” in cultural life meant, for they disagreed on the connotations of the words “free” and “participate.” Far more problematic were the different meanings associated with the crucial word “culture,” for Europeans, Everett told his readers, largely rejected the broad “sociological definition” he associated with this term. “It is not for them the ‘complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society,’” he reported.2 Instead, his European counterparts espoused a different understanding , which he summarized: “There is a small group of creators—the term ‘creative minority’ kept recurring like a base theme throughout the meeting—who do all of the active producing in any given period of time. It is from this group that the rest of the world receives ‘masterpieces’ at periodic intervals. The next lower rung on the ladder is the ‘appreciative minority’ who are trained in history , endowed with vision, and possessed of a sufficiently disciplined taste to understand and appreciate the true creators. Below these two lies the general population which finds it difficult to see even the moving shadows let alone the bright sun of the good, the true and the beautiful.” Leila Zenderland 274 To Everett these differences had profound pedagogical implications. It was a concern for culture as a “complex whole,” he argued, that had increasingly led Americans to embrace general education, a type of university curriculum with “no counterpart in Europe.” Of course, Everett did acknowledge what he called “the indigenous American concept of culture.” “Most American citizens find ‘culture’ to be an obnoxious word designating activities . . . primarily for women and which should never be allowed to dilute the manly strength of our red-blooded American boys,” he conceded. “But at the same time that we sound like such Philistines,” he quickly added, Americans were pouring billions of dollars into “schools, colleges, museums, libraries, symphonies, adult education programs, and book publishing.” Still, Everett reported, Europeans invariably asked the same question: “Where are the American masterpieces?” “And here a good many Americans tend to hang their heads and feel ashamed,” he admitted, for all the “great names” in art, music, philosophy, law, and science were European. Yet Everett was clearly proud of American cultural success. “A culture should not be judged by its assumed or real masterpieces,” he concluded, but by the “opportunities it affords people to rise above the necessary business of getting and spending.” Americans saw culture as “accessible to everyone and not something for an assumed elite,” he insisted. Most crucial was the commitment to a pluralistic society, for it was “only in such a pluralism that the American emphasis upon the ‘complex whole’ is even remotely possible.”3 Everett’s 1954 article, with its familiar stereotypes pitting European cultural elitists against American cultural pluralists (as well as culture-loving females against action-oriented males), is intriguing for what it suggests about its intended audience: those involved in the emerging academic field then calling itself “American civilization” or “American studies.” Begun in the 1930s but vastly expanded in the postwar decade, this interdisciplinary educational enterprise had declared the study of “American culture” to be its central intellectual endeavor. Yet just what such an endeavor included and how it was to be structured as part of an academic curriculum still remained open questions. In exploring how this field was constructed, particularly in the postwar period, and how it was later “deconstructed” in the decades that followed, we find that three key issues repeatedly emerge. Each of these issues is suggested in the 1954 conversation between...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780801889424
Related ISBN
9780801883903
MARC Record
OCLC
213306082
Pages
432
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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