What's Meant By "Studies" in Academia?
And what are they "studying?"
Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.
It was a quiet phenomenon at first; so quiet no one knew it was happening. Brandeis University started a Black/African Studies program, with classes examining the diaspora of Africans at the hands of slavers, their subsequent influence on where they landed, and, importantly, the diseases and culture that they brought with them.
In 1969, San Francisco State started an African Studies Department.
In the beginning, there were just courses in women’s studies at Cornell and San Diego State. They came out of the feminist movement, studying the changes in society since certain landmarks in history passed: the introduction of birth control pills, the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, and other polemics by women that are said to have begun the second-wave of feminism in the United States.
San Diego State started a Women’s Studies Department in 1969.
The term “studies” until then was fairly benign… then the term gained a darker connotation. Initially, “studies” scholars were part anthropologist, part historian, part social scientist in about equal measure. The material they were dealing with was recent, and “current history” is a volatile subject.
In Britain, historians consider everything since the Norman Conquest in 1066 to be “current events.”
This isn’t to be glib, but objective. The sources mellow with time, the passions of the moment having passed. I contend we can only write objective history of any event after the last participant is dead.
Studies scholars were working with a lot of first-hand accounts of living participants.
In 1969, in fact, there were scholars interviewing the children of the last slaves; the last verifiable person born into slavery in the US passed away in 1943. They were also interviewing the last of the suffragettes who campaigned for votes for women; it’s hard to say exactly who the last of them was or when she passed. Anecdotally, my grandmother told my mother that she cast her first vote, for James Cox, in 1920 because my grandfather voted for Warren Harding; Gramma never explained that. While these first-hand accounts of the past are interesting and colorful, they don’t tell us a lot about the past; not really.
Studies programs suffer from biases of all kinds, especially confirmation bias, and the fallacy of believing that eye-witnesses are superior sources of information.
Adults who came through the civil rights struggles of the ‘50s and ‘60s remember the tear gas and the hoses, not the federal troops ushering the students into the schools. Their accounts of what their parents struggled with would color those memories—if they got memories at all, since the former slaves in the 1940s would have been infants or very young children as slaves. Similarly, the suffragettes or their descendants would have been young women—brave, but young—in a very different time and place. It was not long before the “studies” departments became hotbeds for dissatisfaction with the past.
Not just the record, but with the past itself.
Generally, there are two purposes for history:
To learn from the past;
To cudgel the present.
They then projected the past onto the present, and then the future. While I agree the record of the past and the teaching of history in academic settings does not include the contributions of women, or persons of color, or of the differently abled, or the LGBTQ+ community, I cannot see how having a WWII class that does not touch on a single military operation, leader, or occupation is in any way educational for a late teenager. I’ve seen a university syllabi in a “history studies” department—not mine—for the US in WWII that contain references to Japanese-American internments, the Tuskegee Airmen, union organizing during the war, the Zoot Suit riots, the liberation of concentration camps by African-American units, and the atomic bombings of Japan. According to the instructor, talking about military campaigns would be “distressing” for young people who could just as easily be in uniform themselves.
And there’s the “language studies” programs.
Imagine studying 20th century American literature without a mention of Hemmingway of Falkner, or Fitzgerald or even Dr. Seuss—or of any Americans at all. Think of an English professor standing in front of a class with a Webster’s dictionary, declaring it to be useless because its definition of “gay” is “obsolete”—before the latest edition moved “gay” to Sense 1 in the 2010s. How can anyone talk about 20th century German literature without mentioning Nitsche—colored as a neo-Nazi? Just think of a campus protest that demands that “black English” be allowed for doctoral dissertations… in English literature “studies.” Or a religion “studies” class in a Christian university that removes the Bible from the syllabus as being “non-inclusive.”
“Studies” has become a code for “what we’re not really studying, but what we’re complaining about.”
In the ‘80s, I composed a title for an imaginary thesis that read something like: “The Great Awakening of The Great Masses: A Post-Derridaist Pseudo-narrative.” While non-academics might scratch their heads at this, the key to this parody is a Post-Derridaist Pseudo-narrative. Jacques Derrida was an Algerian philosopher who founded the anti-historical idea of deconstruction, an exercise that turns everything—texts, dialogs, pictures, artefacts, ideas—into a Scrabble set, claiming that everything is nothing but a “text” to be reconstructed at will. “Studies” departments have embraced this philosophy, so that they interpret the Gettysburg Address as supporting the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (and at least once, it was). More recently, a deconstruction of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has been interpreted as a “demand to return to Jim Crow” by a “black studies scholar.”
A pseudo-narrative is apparently real, but is not, not really. Most fiction is like that. Pseudo-narratives in academia allow “scholars” to say whatever pops into their head. They declare this valid… when the “studies” department syllabus allows pseudo-narratives. It could say that white was black and black was orange and orange was white… and this could be acceptable in “studies” departments because they can be “personal expressions of lived experience” whether the writer lived them at all. Thus, a post-Derridaist pseudo-narrative could be about literally anything… or nothing at all.
The proof of the pudding is not in the eating, but in the cook’s pedigree.
People who have axes to grind often staff studies departments, and just as often, they are required to be members of the “oppressed” group that the class covers. This is because “lived experience” is vital to “studies” programs. This fallacy, discussed above, only allows “learning” from the standpoint of individuals who have felt the oppression or the discrimination or the harassment or the whatever else their axe is ground for. Statistics and counter-examples contradicting lived experience are dismissed as deliberate attempts to falsify lived experience by “oppressors.”
Lived Experience is how the philosophy of studies programs spread into other departments without carrying the “studies” moniker.
Imagine a mathematics department claiming that “odd numbers stigmatize,” that “prime numbers are conceptually oppressive,” that “negative numbers colonize,” and that “rational numbers make irrational numbers seem mentally ill.” In this department, budding scholars can declare that 2+2=47, provided they can provide an interpretive dance as a “proof.” This is where the Academy has arrived; anything is true as long as the scholars declare that they believe it… and woe betide those who do not believe.
The Past Not Taken: Three Novellas
In The Past Not Taken, I deride “studies” programs as being unworthy of creation at my mythical Crest University. The narrator of Past Not Taken is an academic historian in an ‘80s-’90s private school that takes no federal funds. It must be observed, however, that most “studies” programs then and now have limited practical value in the workaday world. Their value as degree-creating programs is practically nil… other than to create more academics. The market for these scholars is limited to… “studies” programs. Market saturation has been fast and fairly firm.
What the future/present may hold for Crest is unknowable.
A common theme links the stories in the novellas—choices made have future effects. We often make these choices in an instant and they can change everything in our lives. The title suggests that when we look back at our past, we can see where we did not go just as clearly as where we did. However, “studies” programs, especially in history, look at the past only to find links to current issues… and to seek redress with the present using those links.
Isn't All History Political History?
Aren’t All Politicians Crooks?
On 10 September:
1813: British and American naval squadrons clashed off Presque Isle on the southern Lake Erie shore. The fight was fairly one-sided—nine American ships to six British—and ended in an American victory. Sometimes called the battle of Lake Erie, sometimes Put-In Bay, it was possibly the most important battle in the War of 1812, as it decided the control of the Great Lakes and, ultimately, the American West.
1953: Swanson introduced the TV dinner. Scores of imitators followed this ready-made confection, much to the delight of harried homemakers all over the world. My mother, of course, fed them to us when Dad wasn’t home… which was a great deal in the ‘60s.
And today is NATIONAL SWAP IDEAS DAY. It’s a good day to exchange views with whoever seems to be at hand, as long as you agree with their ideas, especially in academia…