Position: Retired Lawyer
I remain an enthusiastic cheerleader for American Studies even after the passage of these many years (in my case, more than 40!) In my day (1967-1971), American Studies tended to attract students who were intellectually curious and politically active, though, I must admit, not always boasting the college’s best GPA’s! Dr. Glen Thomas had developed a program that featured four core courses and otherwise lots of course flexibility. As a consequence, students tended to concentrate their studies in one of three directions: social and intellectual history, political science and economics, and the arts, all of course with an American or comparative focus. Many American Studies majors were active in student government or the student newspaper, and their subsequent careers not infrequently tended toward law, journalism, and public service.
Part of my continuing enthusiasm for the major stems from my own culturally and educationally deficient background. I grew up in a small town in the coal fields of the southwestern Virginia mountains, and by the time I made it to college I was intellectually starved. After the first two years of mainly required courses, it was heaven to be able to sample courses from so many academic disciplines without being locked into a specific field of study. After college I became a newspaper reporter and then went to law school, after which I practiced law for about 30 years before retiring. The academic variety and exposure to different methodologies for research and analysis permitted by the American Studies major served me very well in my post-college life. Even now, I often feel gratitude for the eye-opening intellectual stimulation and challenge the program allowed me to experience.
Of course I realize there are other points of view about interdisciplinary majors. I still chuckle about an experience I had at Mary Wash when, during registration, I applied for permission to enroll in a senior-level seminar in Colonial American History. I wanted to learn more about the forces that led to the shaping of our Constitution. The course was limited to senior history majors and others “only by permission of the professor.” So I dutifully showed up at the professor’s desk and respectfully sought permission, to which he replied, “Who are you? Not a history major, or I would know you.” When I then identified myself as an American Studies major, he snorted, “Oh, a dilettante!” But after “interviewing” me, he let me in the class, and I loved it, and he and I developed a wonderful relationship with both banter and probing questions about the period.