This is an excerpt from the keynote address I gave on June 11, 2010 at the American Studies Institute of the Lovett School in Atlanta.
…In my talk this afternoon, I would like to conceive of American Studies not as a method, or a field of study, but rather as a habit of mind. I think we in American Studies sometimes get too bogged down in trying to define concretely what American Studies is or is not, in trying to identify whether or not American Studies has a method, or in debating what kind of scholarship or what kind of teaching is or is not “America Studies.” I’d like to set all of those debates aside for now, and talk about American Studies as simply a habit of mind.
I believe American Studies is, at its core, a habit of mind. What is a habit of mind? A habit of mind is a usual way of thinking about things. A habit of mind is a disposition. It’s a disposition we employ to solve a problem. It’s a disposition that we have internalized and that we can draw on instinctively when confronted with a problem. Especially when we are confronted with a problem whose solution is not immediately apparent.
So what is the American Studies habit of mind? I would argue that the American Studies Habit of Mind is a disposition we employ in the study of culture and history. We draw on this habit of mind when looking at cultural problems and historical problems, when asking cultural questions, when analyzing cultural products like literature, art, film, and music, and so forth, and when framing cultural inquiry.
So what exactly is this American Studies Habit of Mind? This disposition? What are its characteristics? How can we define it? Let me begin by offering a few quotes that I think capture the essence of what the American Studies habit of mind is.
First, a quote from American Studies scholar Gene Wise. In 1979 Wise published an important essay in the American Quarterly called “Paradigm Dramas.” And in this essay, Wise wrote that the practice of American Studies requires one to have a “connecting imagination.” A connecting mind. I’ve always loved this phrase. Wise argued that exercising this “connecting imagination” was necessary if one was to properly understand the world around in its interconnecting context. He wrote that the connecting mind can “probe the immediacy of the situation to search for everything which rays out beyond it.” So I would make the case first and foremost that the American Studies habit of mind is a connecting imagination.
Let me offer another quote.
In his recent book Five Minds for the Future, cognitive theorist Howard Gardner—he of Multiple Intelligences fame—argues that people will need to cultivate a “synthesizing mind” if they hope to thrive in the 21st century. As Gardner defines it, the synthesizing mind “takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense.” According to Gardner, a mind that can synthesize will be better equipped for the challenges of an increasingly interconnected, information-driven society.
So what is the American Studies habit of mind? A connecting imagination, a synthesizing mind. Let me go back a bit earlier in time and throw another quote into the mix.
In his 1837 essay “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson describes the mind of what he called “Man Thinking” as a mind that is, “tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct, it goes on tying things together, diminishing anomalies, discovering roots running under ground whereby contrary and remote things cohere and flower out from one stem.”
“Tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct.” Now of course Emerson predated the institutionalization of the field of American Studies, but I would argue that his quote certainly captures the spirit of it.
So what is the American Studies habit of mind? A connecting imagination, a synthesizing mind, a unifying instinct. Connection, synthesis, unification…
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