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The American Studies Program at 50 Years Old

The American Studies Program is an interdisciplinary major within the College of Arts and Sciences. By constructing a sustained research agenda culminating in a senior thesis, students acquire the abilities to organize logical arguments guiding original inquiry and to work collaboratively in a set of out-of-class activities coordinated with the curriculum.

Last weekend, the program celebrated its 50th anniversary with a gathering of current and former students and faculty. Over 250 former students attended the event, some who graduated in the early 1970’s. This, in my experience, is an extraordinary assembly for any major.

The gathering prompted deeper thoughts about higher education:

First, what are universities about? What is their role in the society? What is their unique contribution?

They build the leaders of the next generations of the collective population. In a liberal arts tradition, they do so by transmitting knowledge sufficiently broad that the recipients can be wise in all the life situations they will encounter. At the same time, they foster opportunities to go deep into a knowledge domain, experiencing the thrill of being at its edge.

When alumni return, it is rare that they praise a faculty member through reciting memories about the content of a course. Instead, they remember conversations about navigating conceptual frameworks, learning how to identify good questions, and connections among disparate facts that affected their life perspective. In short, the lasting lessons appear to be ways of thinking and doing. We have terms for this: critical thinking, rhetorical competencies, design-based thinking, entrepreneurial thinking, cross-functional group collaboration, reflection and discernment, evaluative judgment, self-learning, systems thinking.

Second, how is the knowledge in the day-to-day world organized? Are there organizations that have the same name as university departments — The History Firm; The Physics Company; Philosophy, Incorporated; Sociology Associates?

Few, if any. Day-to-day life does not package its issues into disciplinary bundles, but disciplines are crucial to navigating the world. Making connections among knowledge domains is key.

Third, because of the organization of knowledge in the world, the challenge of effective undergraduate experience is to provide depth of intellectual development and a breadth of cognitive approaches to launch the student as a leader of their generation, whatever sets of careers they will pursue. Most of the current undergraduates will live beyond 100 years old; they will have four to five distinct careers; our job is to prepare them to retool their knowledge base when they’re 75 because their current career has been disrupted. This will require self-teaching — observation, analysis, interpretation, reflection, evaluation, inference, explanation, problem solving, and decision making. All of this requires agile wisdom under uncertainty.

Studies of learning impact are crystal clear on two attributes of a successful undergraduate experience — the existence of a strong mentoring relationship with a faculty member and the experience of an extended, year-long academic project. Each of these breed experiences connected to the learning goals above.

In the American Studies Program, Georgetown has a program intentionally designed with this in mind.

Happy Birthday, American Studies!

One thought on “The American Studies Program at 50 Years Old

  1. Thank you for these thoughtful and substantive reflections on Georgetown’s American Studies Program. It is a pleasure teaching American Studies students when they begin the major as curious learners, and when leave Georgetown as scholars who have developed deep expertise in their thesis topics. Georgetown students crave opportunities to be agents in creating their educational experiences. This means our job as faculty is to offer them platforms for asking new questions, crossing disciplinary boundaries, working collaboratively, and making strong analytical arguments. I believe so many alum returned to Georgetown last weekend to celebrate the ways that their undergraduate education continues to inform their work and lives.

    Erika B. Seamon, Ph.D.
    Core Faculty / Former Director
    American Studies Program
    Georgetown University

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