Saint Louis University

The Role of American Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences Mission

by Michael D. Barber, S.J., Ph.D.
Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 2010–2015 and Professor of Philosophy

Remarks delivered at the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the first American Studies Ph.D. granted at SLU, held at Il Monastero on May 1st, 2015

Fifty years ago the American Studies Department conferred its first doctorate, and I want to congratulate the Department, and the administrators, faculty, staff, alumni, and students gathered here today for the last fifty years of excellence.

If I might, I would like to comment on the role I see for American Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. Of course, I am a phenomenological philosopher by training, and for phenomenology, the heart of the whole intellectual enterprise involves self-reflection. We ought not just live in experience, but need to reflect on it, to reflect on the ways we approach the world and how the world appears to us. We also have to reflect on the major systematic ways in which we approach our world, and so there is a natural scientific way of approaching the world and particular kinds of evidence that the sciences demand that fit with that approach. There is a religious way of approaching the world, and the evidence it appeals to differs from that of the natural scientific way.

Often commonsense thinkers state, "You can't prove God's existence," but I think that they often unreflectively presuppose a kind of natural-science way of approaching the world that insists on empirical evidence for claims. But the religious way of approaching the world works differently and its claims are based on different kinds of evidence. The key thing for an Arts and Sciences education, then, is that we become reflective about how we approach the world, the kinds of evidence we use, etc., instead of just unreflectively living in those ways of approaching the world. A college of arts and sciences should help students become reflective about the different and complementary ways of approaching the world: the natural scientific, the social scientific, the historical, theological, or literary/artistic ways of approaching the world—to name a few.

But here is where American Studies comes in. American Studies, it seems to me, deals with that which we all naively live in, our own culture and history and day-to-day practices, and that which we are often prone not to be very reflective about at all. American Studies takes this culture, in which we live as fish swim in water, as its object, and it undertakes one of the most daring and challenging tasks of all: to reflect on that which we are most likely not to reflect on at all and to assist students in pursuing this challenging endeavor.

Through American Studies we can become reflective on how we as Americans come at our world and how that world appears to us. And, of course, what American Studies also reveals to us is that there are many American ways of approaching our world—a lesson that Ferguson and Baltimore teach us over and over again. There are Puritan ways of approaching the world, and there are Native American and African American ways, and there are ways of approaching reality that were characteristic of frontier settlers, Civil War soldiers, and Harlem Renaissance artists—even various neighborhoods have their different ways of approaching political reality. Moreover, there are certainly varieties of ways in which individuals and subgroups within those groups approach the world.

American Studies, then, deepens our reflectivity, and we become more and more subtle in our understanding of who we are as a culture, more and more nuanced about our differences and about the complexity of our lives together. Furthermore, to become more subtly attuned to our differences and to reflect on how the everyday world we experience is shaped by historical, economic, social and political structures of which we may not even be aware is fundamental to the struggle for justice to which our University mission invites us.

In addition, American Studies, as an interdisciplinary field, is even more prone to heighten reflectivity insofar as it demonstrates, for instance, how race and gender perspectives illuminate American culture in a different way than history or anthropology or religious studies informed by other perspectives might examine this culture.

As an interdisciplinary discipline, American Studies is a microcosm of the College which is itself inescapably interdisciplinary. However, due to ways in which American Studies cannot escape the engagement with diverse disciplines that constitute its own disciplinary standpoint but actively embraces disciplinary and methodological diversity, it, better than the College at large, is able to integrate diverse disciplines in its investigations and appreciate their unique contributions.

American Studies, then, pursues and deepens the academic mission of the College to develop self-reflectivity and provides a model of interdisciplinary teaching and research from which the College has much to learn.

Higher purpose. Greater good.
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