Introduction to American Studies
American Studies 100
Instructor, Melinda P.Wilkins
The course is taught by several instructors, among them M.P. Wilkins, a Senior Lecturer in English at the University Park campus. Wilkins’ syllabus depicts American culture as the expression of a history of uninterrupted brutality and oppression, in which minority groups suffer while their white oppressors write the official story as a narrative of unfolding freedom. This is not atypical of the curricula offered in other American Studies 100 sections. Wilkins is not formally trained in history and only holds an M.A. in English Literature from Virginia Tech, which she received in 1982.
The sole historical text assigned for this course is Jame’s Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. This book is not a scholarly work, but -- as the title suggests -- a sectarian polemic against the traditional teaching of American history and against what the author views as the black record of the American past. Among other harangues to be found in his text, Loewen laments “[h]ow textbooks misrepresent the U.S. government and omit its participation in state-sponsored terrorism.”
According to Loewen, the lies teachers told him result from facts being “manipulated by elite white male capitalists who orchestrate how history is written.” This answers the course’s instruction to students to determine who is telling the story and who benefits. But it is an extreme and sectarian answer, and is not tempered by a required text with opposing views. Hence it violates Penn State’s academic freedom policy which defines an appropriate academic instruction as training students “to think for themselves” and providing them with “access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently.”
A typical chapter in Loewen’s required text is called “1493: The True Importance of Christopher Columbus.” Loewen summarizes the achievement of Columbus in these words: “Christopher Columbus introduced two phenomena that revolutionized race relations and transformed the modern world: the taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous peoples, leading to their near extermination, and the transatlantic slave trade, which created a racial underclass.”
As an extreme view, Loewen’s amateur text might be a useful subject of analysis and discussion. It is certainly not an accurate view of the historical record, since the taking of land, wealth and labor from indigenous people, leading to their near extermination, was a well-known practice of the Romans, long before Columbus arrived in the Americas. Moreover, the intercontinental slave trade (though not the translatlantic one) long pre-dated Columbus making his role hardly revolutionary as Loewen claims.
But Lowen’s tendentious text is not offered as a text to be examined critically and objectively as a reflection of extreme, uninformed, polemical views. Lies My Teachers Told Me is required as an official classroom guide for students. It is the only assigned historical text for Wilkins’ Introduction to American Studies course and its chapters are assigned in lessons throughout the semester to provide historical background to students as they study cultural artifacts throughout American history. In other words, it is the text designed by the instructor course to introduce students to the facts of American history which are said to underlie its culture.
For their other assigned texts, students are required to read novels that, taken together, are clearly intended to present the dark side of American history highlighted by Loewen -- from the destruction of Native American tribes to the African slave trade to alleged massacres of civilians by American troops during the Vietnam War. (Among them the novels Middle Passage by Charles Johnson, The Way to Rainy Mountain by M. Scott Momaday and In The Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien.)
Each novel is presented along with the relevant chapters in Loewen’s polemic to provide the background “facts.” Here is the syllabus description of the lesson agendas in two weeks of Wilkins’ course:
9/20-29: Loewen, Chapters 2, 3, and 4
Momaday, THE WAY TO RAINY MOUNTAIN
10/4-20: Loewen, Chapters 5, 6, and 7
Johnson, MIDDLE PASSAGE
Civil War, Poverty and Race Relations
While there is nothing inherently wrong with examining cultural reflections on such chapters in American history – even when tendentiously presented – since there are no texts, fictional or otherwise, reflecting a perspective at odds with the course’s extreme viewpoint, the clear intent of the instructor is not to introduce students to the academic study of American culture, but to present them with a radical view of American culture, bearing the imprimatur of the American Studies program.
Since this is not presented as a course in radical culture (and since there are no critiques offered to students of its radical perspective) this is not a course designed to educate students about American radicalism but to present them with ready-made conclusions on controversial issues that reinforce the radical viewpoint. It is a course of indoctrination and it violates Penn States academic freedom policy.
Introduction to American Studies (Berks Campus)
American Studies 100
Instructor, Dr. Ray Mazurek
Another section of “Introduction to American Studies” is taught on the Berks campus by Dr. Ray Mazurek, an Associate Professor of English, and is titled “Work in America.” This course purports to examine “work in America in the 19th and 20th centuries, with an emphasis on the last 40 years.” But the course description and syllabus reveal it to be anything but a judicious survey of American labor history. What the course offers students instead is a relentless political attack on modern free-market capitalism that lacks any intellectual balance.
Of the assigned books, only one – Frederick Douglass’s account of his enslavement and freedom -- might be said to be an exception. The others include Nickel and Dimed by journalist and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich is a socialist who excoriates the capitalist system in her book and likens the state of low and medium-wage workplaces in the United States to a “dictatorship.” Another text, No-Collar: The Hidden Cost of the Humane Workplace is by Professor Andrew Ross, a well-known academic radical and socialist, whose political activism focuses on anti-globalization and whose work is featured in The Nation and The Village Voice. Although Ross is not an academically credentialed economist, his book calls for an “alternative economic arrangement” to replace what he presents as the failures of free-market capitalism. Another text, Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life, is an anthology of poems which collectively paint a negative portrait of working-class life in capitalist America. The remaining texts are A Short History of the U.S. Working Class by Marxist Paul Le Blanc and Working by leftist Studs Turkel.
This course is not presented as a review of the perspectives of radical socialists on work in America, but as an academic course about “Work in America,” which it is not. By presenting students with one-sided views of its subject, it fails to adhere to Penn State academic freedom policies that stipulate that “in giving instruction on controversial matters the faculty member is expected to be of a fair and judicial mind, and to set forth justly, without supersession or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators.”
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