OutlineTop of page
1In The First Salute, a book first published in 1988, Barbara Tuchman (whose maiden surname was Wertheim) analyzes the relations between the newborn United States and France, Britain, and the Netherlands in the eighteenth century. The title of her book refers to the very first time the United States, which had just declared their independence from Great Britain, received international recognition. The place was the tiny island of Saint-Eustatius, a Dutch colony in the Caribbean, and the day was 16 November 1776. An American ship named Andrea Doria, which was part of the recently founded U.S. Navy and whose commander was Josiah Robinson from Philadelphia, had arrived at the island’s harbor, to acquaint the Dutch with what had happened in the thirteen colonies—among other things. The Andrea Doria saluted the Dutch garrison in Fort Orange with eleven shots fired from the ship’s cannons. The Dutch replied in kind, which was regarded as the first token of the kind of recognition the United States were yearning for.
2That is how formal relations between America and the Netherlands started off, and that was the moment when Dutch interest in America, as a country separate from other countries and in many ways unique, began.2 Only in 1782, however, did real diplomatic recognition follow, when the Dutch government accepted John Adams as the first American envoy to The Hague.
3In the nineteenth century many Dutch people emigrated to the United States. Some of them went there to seek a greater degree of religious freedom, others merely to survive economic hardship. The economic refugees turned their back on the home country, but the religious refugees stayed in touch. The Dutch in New York and New Jersey, whose presence in the New World dated back to the seventeenth century, and the more recent immigrants in many cases kept sending their sons who wanted to become ministers to the Netherlands for education. This ended once new theological institutions had been established in the United States, like Queen’s College, later called Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey.3 As far as the Dutch were concerned, they did not harbor strong feelings about far-away America. Its democratic character was well-known and celebrated, but its culture seemed strange and shallow to the conservative Dutch public.
4In the twentieth century this situation of—culturally speaking—reciprocal non-interference and disregard gradually changed. America’s participation in World War I made it an entity of the greatest importance in world affairs, a development which also had effects in the realm of culture. Political power immediately draws attention to the cultural foundations that support it. Even though America withdrew, to a degree, from the world scene after 1920, it had made its mark. Across the globe people had been alerted to the American promise, and many of them wanted to know all about it.
5 The Dutch, however, were a “neutral” country at the time. There was no German invasion and the Netherlands escaped participation in World War I. This can help to explain why we were rather slow in recognizing the importance of the American appearance on the world scene. After that war, a badly damaged country like Belgium received funds from Hoover’s relief commission, and one of the things it did with that money was the establishment of a Belgian American Educational Foundation. No such initiatives occurred in the Netherlands. Nonetheless, even as a neutral country, the Netherlands was aware of its past as a relatively great power and of its responsibilities as the seat of the International Court of Justice, and recognized that it had a stake in international peace and stability. This provided an important motive for trying to wise up to what was going on across the Atlantic. One particular reason for the Dutch to keep abreast of political developments in the United States was American “ownership” of the Philippines, a colony that neighbored on the Dutch East Indies. The Dutch colonial establishment watched with dismay as America granted her Philippine subjects more freedom, fearing that their own Indonesian subjects would demand the same. The Dutch view of America, whether critical or positive, was not cast in one mold, however. As the Netherlands was to an extreme degree a “pillarized” or “columnized” (i.e. segregated along denominational lines) country, in which different sectors entertained their own particular ideas about the world, conceptions about America diverged widely. Those who, on the basis of economic doctrine, political ideology, or cultural orientation were inclined to be critical, thought of ways to counter the threatening colonization of the entire world by American mass culture, commercialization, and capitalism. Other people thought rather highly of the United States, for instance because it guaranteed freedom of religion.
6Yet on the whole America as a country, apart from what it produced in the field of popular culture, remained basically unknown to the Dutch, and more generally the European public. They watched American movies and sometimes dreamed about the country that produced them in such amazing quantities, but Dutch newspapers paid little serious attention to these movies, or the cultural backdrop against which they were made. If they did, they tended to speak scathingly about these cultural exports. They held Russian, French, and German movies in much higher esteem.4 Scholarly interest in the United States did not really thrive either. In Dutch universities nothing even vaguely resembling an American Studies program was taught. Students in high school learned English as a required language, and university students could study English at an academic level (the greater part of those who studied a language to become a teacher were female), but America as such was not on the agenda. Area studies were not part of the curriculum anyway. Only traditional disciplines were.
7World War II, of course, brought major changes, but to say that Europe, or the Netherlands for that matter, fell in love with America is putting it far too simply. The fairly unspecific ideological rift between the two continents and systems that had existed before the war had not disappeared. On the contrary, it had become more distinct and more complicated. Take the danger of communism. Whereas America had maintained and even built-up its hostility towards that “unnatural” doctrine, European electorates were much more divided on the issue. Although Europe had learned to appreciate Americans as liberators, they were not (yet) generally looked upon as “kin” or “friends.” On the whole people lacked the self-confidence they had had before the war and also the self-understanding one needs to understand “strangers.” Europe was in a kind of limbo. Americans were not. For them, the world in 1945 did not differ as much from the world in 1939 as for Europeans. This implied an important cultural divide to deal with. After the war several years passed by before Europe was won over to the view that the world had to be interpreted as a dichotomy; that communism constituted a mortal danger; that the American side was their side. Only after the coup d’état in Prague (1948) was the general public converted to anti-communism.5
8How did this contrast occur? Even before 1939, few people in Europe had regarded communism as something “alien” to the continent, or had talked about it in terms equivalent to the description of “un-American activities” in the official American political (and politicized) language. The war increased, not decreased the mental separation between America and Europe on this issue. When Nazism disappeared from the scene in 1945 and with it the one political canon every decent person was opposed to, many people at first did not know what “ism” to love or to hate. As a result of the war, Stalin and his ideology had become popular among many by 1945. After all, the Soviet Union had borne the brunt of the Nazi aggression and had suffered enormously doing the right thing. Capitalism was still compromised by the lingering memories of the great depression with its many social injustices. America took the lead in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Why side unequivocally with America? Linked to the moral and political uncertainty was an unclear self-image. At the time, there was no concept of Europeanness to speak of. Some people would say such a concept still does not exist today, after more than fifty years of European unification, we might add. In most of Europe people identified solely with their own nation, but during the war so much had happened to make people less proud of their country and to fuel a rethinking of nationalism that this identification was now relatively weak in many countries. For want of a strong sense of self, the idea of Americanness also remained rather vague. Only at the end of the 1940s did notions of “freedom” versus “slavery,” “communism” versus “capitalism,” and “Europe side-by-side with America” become less abstract.
9Whatever the reservations, after World War II American popular culture spread rapidly across the whole of Western Europe, in the wake of the soldiers. In every country the impact of this cultural tsunami was different. Reactions to America’s presence on the scene were as diverse as Europe. Varieties of anti-Americanism occurred everywhere, along with a widespread admiration of everything American, and in some countries the anti-American mood was even fairly strong. France, for one, struggled to be recognized as a great power, discovered that America was an obstacle, and reacted bitterly. The French government, and the French cultural elite, had trouble distinguishing between politics and culture. In general, however, Europe underwent a shock of recognition of a common heritage and of America’s uniqueness, and gave up the old, solidly embedded myth that American culture derived from, and depended on the European example. It slowly and gradually opened up its mind to the New World’s writers and philosophers.
10In the Netherlands, a country of traders which had much less to lose and whose orientation had traditionally been relatively international, the mood was more moderate—and receptive. Military, economic, and cultural politics intertwined. The Dutch gave up neutrality, became recipients of both economic and military aid in the Cold War and joined NATO in 1949, as one of its founding members. This was long before critics would describe the Netherlands as “the Albania of NATO,” but at the beginning of the 1950s few people questioned our “friendship” with America. Even so, nothing remotely resembling a comprehensive American Studies program found its way into our academic curricula. Therefore in his inaugural lecture on “American Studies in Europe” of 4 October 1955, the newly appointed lecturer in English literature (which included American literature!) at the University of Groningen, E.N.W. Mottram, saw no reason to call this country an exception when he described his personal feelings as those of a “deserted desert islander,” dramatically conscious as he was “of the almost universal academic suspicion and ironic disdain of American Studies.”6 Looking for an explanation for Europe’s disdain, this is what he said: “After all, a former colony doing well, if not better, than its parent, is an unpleasant reminder, the black sheep who becomes, all too soon, the president of a bank…. The family’s alarm and awkwardness is first passed off as surprise, and this soon turns into accusations of corruption; finally the black sheep becomes, if not quite a whited sepulchre, certainly an object lesson in progress; but never an example of culture.”7
11This call from Groningen provided just one, and very marginal example of a more and more widespread awakening. As a result of the surge in the general public’s interest in the United States after World War II, it had become logical, if not necessary, to study America also at the academic level. Amsterdam paved the way. Foundations for the establishment of a chair at the University of Amsterdam were laid in Amersfoort concentration camp. The need for a Dutch America Institute was discussed among the intellectuals interned there. The University of Amsterdam was the first to follow suit, thereby getting an edge on its competitors it never abandoned. A. (Arie) N.J. den Hollander, born in 1906, partly trained as a scholar in America, and one of the prisoners in Amersfoort, was appointed professor of sociology in 1946 at this university, his alma mater. In 1947, American Studies was specifically added to the fields his chair was supposed to cover. As far as America was concerned, his scholarly interest in this point in his career—he had written extensively about “poor whites” in the South before the war—related to perceptions of America in other nations, and European nations in particular. He became a pioneer in what was almost regarded as a new discipline, called “imagology.”8 More often than not, he said, ideas people develop about other peoples and nations say less about these strangers than about themselves. As such, perceptions of the United States developed in Europe are expressions of Europe’s own identity and part of Europe’s cultural history. The Den Hollander tradition of focusing as strongly on images of America as on America proper is still visible in the current Amsterdam American Studies program.
12This slight Amsterdam emphasis on images is not unique. Most Dutch universities, in fact most European universities offer courses that one way or another deal with European perspectives on America. Given the obvious strengths and advantages of American universities in all kinds of specialized fields of research, trying to compete with them in those areas would be like an attempt to carry coals to Newcastle, or as the Dutch would say, “to carry water to the sea.” In addition, we should realize that all scholars from whatever country who are active in this field, are one way or another working within a distinct national mold, defined by distinct cultural pressures. American “Americanists” are not as free from their own particular preoccupations as some people seem to think. At any given moment since the time, before World War II, when “American Studies” began to flourish in America as a more or less separate area of research and teaching, “identity politics” have played a role of some importance. But if the emergence of comprehensive American Studies programs at (at first, primarily) East Coast universities in the inter-war years was basically just another attempt at national self-definition, so were the classes and courses offered at universities across Europe. To study the history of America was for European scholars no less than for their American counterparts a means to better understand oneself and one’s own country’s history and identity. Their contribution to American Studies turned out to be not without merit, even from the American perspective, as looking at yourself through other people’s eyes—something American scholars could do when they acquainted themselves with the observations of De Tocqueville’s twentieth-century successors—is always helpful to anyone who is craving for a depiction of reality, warts and all. What goes for that period of time still holds true nowadays. It seems that the one most valuable contribution European scholars can make to American Studies in general is the very distance from which they view America when they deal with it in their research and teaching. Instead of trying to duplicate American approaches they offer the added value of the mirror of America’s “rejected past,” held up by the Europeans who were still living, in a way, in the midst of this rejected past.9 Thus, to engage in an international division of labor in American Studies between scholars from various countries, including the United States and also including the Netherlands, is to a degree a sensible thing to do. Let all Americanists in the world approach the subject from the perspective and with the mind-set which suit them best, and appeal to them most, and American Studies will benefit.
13By “division of labor” I do not mean to suggest, however, that historians from abroad should not do their utmost to develop a thorough understanding, indeed a feel for what moves and motivates American scholars and vice-versa. A mixture of perspectives will only be fruitful if scholars are capable to at least speak each other’s language. Jane Desmond and Virginia Dominguez were right on target when they argued, in their now famous essay “Resituating American Studies in a Critical Internationalism” for a joint effort by all scholars, from everywhere, to embrace a “paradigm of critical internationalism” in American Studies, but such a paradigm is only imaginable if a Babel-like confusion can be avoided.10
14This said, we should admit that in 2006, theory and practice are still at odds with each other. The absence of foreign scholars’ perspectives in the inwardly oriented American debates is conspicuous. Apparently, there is a noticeable lack of communication between American Americanists and their European colleagues. Or must we, ten years after Desmond’s and Dominguez’ call to arms, still speak of lack of interest? In his extensive essay on recent developments in American Studies (in the Currents in American Scholarship Series), Bernard Mergen of George Washington University says that “despite some protestations to the contrary, most American Studies scholars in the U.S. remain unaware of much of the work being done by their colleagues in other countries.”11 He lavishes praise on the European Association for American Studies (EAAS) sponsored series European Contributions to American Studies (originally a Dutch venture, founded by Rob Kroes) and grants special mention to some of the recent publications of Dutch editors. “American Studies [in America] remains inwardly focused,” he observes. “The awareness that American culture exists in a global context has yet to take hold among most U.S. American Studies scholars.”12
15Den Hollander’s career in American sociology and American Studies blossomed, and he became the president of the European Association for American Studies. When he was not too far from retirement, at the end of the 1960s, he witnessed increasing anti-Americanism in Dutch academe and suffered the pressures his students (and some politically correct colleagues and university administrators) put on him. After an incident in the classroom that occurred in 1969 and which made headlines in the papers, the students declared war against him. He remained director of the Amerika Instituut of the University of Amsterdam until his death in 1976. He was succeeded by Rob Kroes, one of his former students and not one of the leftists who dominated the scene in many universities in Europe. Kroes had to run the gauntlet of, again, anti-American feeling in the Netherlands before finally being appointed. He managed to steer his scholarly activities clear of controversy, and reached the same position Den Hollander had held: that of godfather of American Studies in the Netherlands. He founded the association of Dutch Americanists, the NASA (Netherlands American Studies Association) in 1977. This was still, at the time, an undertaking that required diplomatic gifts and some courage, as the anti-American feeling that had recently created so many problems for the Amerika Instituut in Amsterdam was still fairly strong. Some more years had to go by before it subsided.13 Rob Kroes has retired in the fall of 2005, but his successor Ruud Janssens had been appointed quite some time ahead. In the inaugural lecture he gave in October 2003, Janssens said that “American Studies should encompass understanding American politics, but more fundamentally it should try to understand and interpret what is so American about American politics and culture.” In his view this approach is the Amsterdam tradition, as it emerged in the first activities of the Amerika Instituut.14
16The University of Leiden is also strong in American Studies, with a special emphasis on American history. It has, in fact, the only chair in U.S. history in the Netherlands. Theoretically this tradition goes back in time even further than everything Amsterdam has accomplished. The famous Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, who published two renowned books about America (one before and one after he had spent two months in that country in 1926), was, after he gave up his chair in Groningen, a Leiden scholar.15 After World War II Jan Willem Schulte Nordholt represented Leiden’s stake in American history and culture. He taught at Leiden from 1963 until his retirement in 1983, since 1966 in the position of professor. Alfons Lammers succeeded him and retired in 2002. His fields of interest were twentieth-century U.S. political and cultural history. Currently Leiden’s chair in American history—now an endowed chair, funded by the philanthropist Raymond Sackler and named the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Chair in American history—is held by Adam Fairclough, a British historian, who specializes in the Civil Rights Movement.16 That the Civil Rights struggle is in Leiden’s focus is part of this department’s heritage. Schulte Nordholt, the professor who put Leiden again on the map of American Studies, was rather famous for his scholarly work on African American history and African American literature. The Leiden American Studies program, which constitutes a specialization in the curriculum of history or English and is not an independent BA/MA program, still bears the evidence of Schulte Nordholt’s personal interest.
17Let me try to summarize the elements in the American Studies programs in the Netherlands that can be said to constitute the highest common factor in “Dutch American Studies”: the Dutch “canon” in the field.
18In Amsterdam, Groningen, and Nijmegen full-fledged, comprehensive study programs attract a growing, or even mushrooming number of students, both in the BA and in the MA program. Utrecht and Leiden also teach the disciplines that are relevant to understanding America’s institutions and the most important aspects of its culture. These courses comprise a consistent program in American Studies. Everywhere American literature and American history are core elements in the curriculum.
19Among Dutch universities there are many differences in emphasis as to what subjects are important to teach and in the theoretical foundations of the curriculum, but all programs deal with the main social, economic, and political issues in American history, and in addition pay ample attention to the reflection of these issues in the American literary production. Most programs allow (in differing scales of course) for the study of American diplomacy and foreign relations through the ages, for the study of legal (including constitutional) history and of the legal system as such, for classes about women and issues of gender, for courses on religious affiliations in the United States, and on the educational system.
20The perspective is, as stated above, in most cases (and I earlier mentioned the University of Amsterdam with special emphasis) to a great degree European, which does not entail that all that America stands for is presented as unfamiliar or strange. It only means that, inasmuch as it does not make sense to merely emulate what is being taught in American universities to American students, the European perspective is taken as the logical approach in programs taught mostly by Europeans to European students. As such, it is not an article of faith but to a large degree a matter of practicality and expediency. In all but one Dutch American Studies curricula students are strongly encouraged to spend at least one semester in an American university and take home in credits the equivalent of a full Dutch semester.17 Every time a Dutch university has the privilege of hosting (or hiring) an American scholar to teach in our programs, subjects and outlook change accordingly, and students enjoy the benefit of being taught, in addition to what and how they are taught by Dutch professors, from an American perspective.
21What, then, is making up the highest common factor? It all started most frequently with combining American literature courses and American history courses, and this genesis can still be discerned in some programs. As far as history is concerned, all programs offer at least one course in which the American Revolution and what it led to (its settlement, completion, and practical implementation) are dealt with. This is regarded as one of the two most important and pivotal events in U.S. history. The same applies to the U.S. Civil War, and events that flowed from it, such as the constitutional history of the Fourteenth Amendment, one of the two or three most important episodes in American legal history that we want our students to know about. Dutch universities tend to teach constitutional history in its social and political context, rather than offering courses in American political theory. (Some universities do, however, have courses in political theory.) In view of Europe’s plight in the unification process, which was recently even further complicated by the rejection of a “constitution” by the French and the Dutch populace, it is small wonder that we acknowledge that the federal implications of the American constitutional arrangements are also of particular interest to students in any European Union country.
22All universities have courses on the American West. Although relatively little attention is paid to the pre-Columbian period, we follow the trend that was set long ago by American universities to help students give up the idea that the United States of America began their existence when the continent was discovered (well, when Columbus went ashore) in 1492. In some Dutch universities, more than in others, there are courses that include Indian-European relationships, including cultural and political exchanges between native Americans and newcomers from Europe, whether immigrants or temporary visitors. As such, this kind of courses goes way beyond an approach which merely focuses on the paradigm of conquest or “victorious” settlers versus vanquished Indian victims.
23Few institutions offer courses that could be labeled “demographic,” but all include in their programs serious attention to the idea of a nation of nations, to the melting pot, the salad bowl and the concept of multiculturalism. Patterns of migration and assimilation, or the lack of it, are part of this. As in other fields in American Studies, American problems and solutions in this area are relevant for Europeans and noteworthy for our students. Most universities have courses on aspects of American philosophy, of intellectual history, and of “the American mind.” No university would think of glancing over Dewey and pragmatism, but the approach seems to be rather eclectic. Many fairly specialized single-topic courses are offered that only focus on typical examples of American thinking about society and how it should be organized. The freshman and sophomore courses provide the general overview; courses at the higher levels rightly or wrongly assume that students have in-depth knowledge and understanding of the big picture.
24I think we can say that on the whole, the arts are rather marginal in the Dutch canon of Americana (i.e. what I called “the highest common factor”). Utrecht, which has persistently offered courses on modern art and American pop music, is the notable exception. We Dutch do realize, however, that the United States have sufficiently important schools of painting and sculpture; renowned music composers and performers; and dramatists, essayists, and poets. Courses on these subjects would be worthwhile, in fact indispensable, but it seems that, while we certainly do not lack the interest, or even fascination, so far we have not found ways to squeeze them into the program.
25 The approach of American Studies at the University of Amsterdam is traditionally more pure than programs elsewhere (in the Netherlands and other countries in Europe), in the sense that unlike other programs it has always been interdisciplinary, combining history, social sciences and literary studies in its methods and style, instead of primarily deriving from the historical and/or literary disciplines. Amsterdam looks at the United States both from the outside, from an international and comparative perspective (something that can be called the Rob Kroes approach) and from the inside, along the lines of what Kroes’ successor Ruud Janssens seems to be strongly interested in: American perceptions of their own position in world affairs. Since recent years the Amsterdam program pays ample attention to the issue of globalization, as a way of evaluating the role the United States have assumed in the international arena. It is clear that Professor Janssens’ personal interest in international relations bears fruit.
26The Amsterdam program expresses its distinct comparative approach in the following way. Students are required to read and write about the United States as an international presence, about the way this country affects other countries and cultures politically, economically, militarily, and culturally. In addition, they study the ways in which American and European intellectuals have interpreted America as critically different from European traditions. To do this means that they study both European intellectual history and the concept of America. The third element in the Amsterdam program is the American cultural presence in European mass media (film, radio, television, photographs, fashion, and advertizing). The nature and scope of American culture, the Americanization of Europe, the European debate about American mass culture, and the relation between Americanization and globalization is a central theme. The Amsterdam program’s core courses have the following contents:
27 The first course focuses on a few of the scholarly debates about American history that historians have engaged in. Exploring “classic” texts about the topics of American foreign policy, the American presidency, slavery, and the origins of the American Revolution, students will become acquainted with not only the major facts and aspects of these themes of American history but also with the presuppositions (theoretical and otherwise), the stated and tacitly implied biases, and idiosyncracies and singularities of the individual historians involved, and get a sense of the developments within scholarly debates.
28The second course is described as follows. “Since World War II in particular, the United States have been a presence in Europe, economically, militarily, and politically. Yet its cultural presence, though, antedates its physical presence by centuries. ‘America’ has since its discovery stalked through the European imagination, in either positive or negative guises, but always seen as crucially different from Europe.”
29The third course, about American-European relations, looks at the various policy options of governments on both sides of the Atlantic. It takes a historical approach, mostly studying the period since World War II, and in addition to diplomacy, trade, military relations, and cultural exchanges are studied. Finally, it tries to answer the question if and how transatlantic relations need to be improved.
30This is what the study guide says about the fourth course. “After reading one of the current theoretical introductions to the topic, Jürgen Habermas’s Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, we will look into the nineteenth-century debate about the issue on the basis of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s and Henry Adams’s novels on domesticity. Before moving to the more recent debates about, for instance, the personal nature of politics, we will study Freud and go into the discussion between John Dewey and Walter Lippmann about the role of opinion leaders and the status of individuals in a democracy.”
31Amsterdam pays special attention to “the urban phenomenon” in the United States, including urban planning, architecture, ethnicity within the urban-environmental context, race relationships, and the ideas of a wide range of “public intellectuals” about urban problems. “Public history,” an area of specialization Amsterdam is particularly interested in, also emerges in this context, and a comparison with Europe is part of the themes being dealt with. Students who participate in this course round it off with a field trip to one of the urban areas in the United States that are especially suited to illustrate its subject-matter.
32What to say about reflections of the American “culture wars” in Dutch universities, and the University of Amsterdam in particular, when we talk about the teaching of American history? At the April 2005 conference in Middelburg people witnessing the discussions might think that the great majority of European universities made “the cultural turn” of the post 1960s era as profoundly as some of their peer institutions in the United States. History as traditionally taught by “traditional” historians was said (by some) to be fighting a rearguard action against an enemy consisting of zealous proponents of vaguely defined explorations of cultural phenomena in old and modern American society. They argued that solid research on politics and economics has borne the brunt of a frivolous shift in emphasis towards the study of “meaning.” Reality is no longer of any interest to those who believe that we cannot identify what is real, caught up as we are in perceptions and social constructs. Has the study, I asked Rob Kroes recently, of processes and practices of meanings won a victory over old-fashioned historical research in Amsterdam as well? “No,” he replied. Amsterdam keeps track of these developments with amusement, but without really feeling involved. As a sociologist by training Kroes recognizes in the carping on social constructs certain ideas that were propagated by the Chicago School in its glory days during the early twentieth century and with which he was confronted when he was a student; he is surprised about the diligence with which the wheel is being reinvented. “We do not feel any urge to take sides,” he said. “The squabbles and bickerings are objects of our attention and research, but in our view they have little relevance for methodology.”
33The Leiden program is not very different in this respect. It offers courses on American popular and consumer culture, African American history, problematic neighborhoods in the United States and the Netherlands, Native American languages and cultures, and the history of thinking/philosophy in America, alongside American literature and a survey course in history. It seems that most of the obsessions which we are now used to calling typically postmodern, and which the culture wars have brought to light—and stimulated—have not to a significant degree touched Leiden.
34In Utrecht, American Studies was established as an interdisciplinary major by the Faculty of Arts in 1987.18 The English and history departments formed the pillars of this multidisciplinary program, while additional courses were furnished by the departments of art history, film studies, and women’s studies. The Utrecht program from the start was modeled after similar curricula in the United States. It explores the unique quality of American culture and history in their multiple manifestations. American Studies at Utrecht strives to employ a broad definition of culture; in addition to “high” art expressions in literature, film, and the visual arts, the program makes a point of treating expressions of popular culture as legitimate subjects of study. This requires in-depth discussion of problems of cultural hierarchy, mass culture and mass media. This “cultural” focus notwithstanding, political history is an important element, side by side with cultural history. Utrecht’s curriculum also explicitly deals with the political and cultural interaction between social and ethnic groups within America, and on the global spread of American culture. The teaching methods used within the program borrow from the cultural history and literature programs, although the graduate program aims at an integrated American Studies approach that is influenced by American traditions in the field .
35What follows now are some personal observations of Jaap Verheul, an Utrecht historian and Americanist, concerning the place of the historical discipline in the Utrecht curriculum.
36American history is an essential part of the new, integrated American Studies program. On the undergraduate level, however, courses tend to be offered from the disciplinary perspective of history, literature, women’s studies etc. Yet even in the undergraduate courses, attempts are made to offer students a wider perspective by pointing at cross-currents between history and culture et cetera. In the undergraduate program student interest is remarkably focused on minorities. It takes a real effort to draw students away from literary authors such as Toni Morison, Amy Tan, Sandra Cisneros, and Louise Erdrich. And the same goes for American history, which witnesses an uneven interest in topics such as slavery and Reconstruction, Native American history, the civil rights movement, the 1960s, multiculturalism, and gender issues. Students seem to have embraced the “race, class, and gender” aspect of the cultural turn almost more emphatically than their instructors.
37In Utrecht, American history, together with American topics in general, enjoy huge and steady popularity among students. An undergraduate survey course on American history will easily draw 120 students. The student demand is not met, however, merely by supplying courses. American topics do not rank high in the perception of all colleagues, however. Department chairs tend to be more enthusiastic about programming esoteric topics than in meeting the student demand for courses on the American sixties, or Native American history. America is not easily recognized for its high culture or canonical history. Also, when threatened with budget cuts, departments will concentrate on their “core activities,” which tend to be disciplinary, and walk away from “innovative”or “experimental” programs that attempt to build bridges across the departments. In such an atmosphere interdisciplinary cooperation is often accused of siphoning away students, funds, and energy—they claim. This is an ongoing battle. Ironically, American Studies programs sometimes are looked at with envy because of the large audience they draw from students. In Utrecht one department chair proposed to eliminate the enormously popular course on “American History and Culture after 1900” because of fears that it would draw students away from more “important” topics. Also, the contrast between student demand and limited faculty references leads to an enormous pressure on faculty members to keep courses on offer by sacrificing their research time, making the program vulnerable to outside reviewers.19
38At Radboud University Nijmegen, where Gerardus A.M. Janssens was the first Dutch professor to hold a chair in American literature, a full-fledged American Studies program was launched in 1987.20
39In its early years the Nijmegen curriculum in American Studies, while reckoning with the specific intellectual foreground and career perspectives of a Dutch (European) student body, was closely modeled on the practice of American Studies in universities in the United States. It was developed in close cooperation with the American Studies program at the University of Iowa, with which it has maintained frequent staff and student exchanges over (almost) twenty years. In 1996, Janssens’ chair in American literature was transformed into a chair in American literature and American Studies, an institutional recognition that by then American Studies in Nijmegen had evolved into a flourishing program with a student-body outnumbering many traditional programs. Janssens’s successor, Hans Bak, has aimed to strengthen the interdisciplinary character and international comparative orientation of the Nijmegen program, by strongly developing the political-economic dimension of the American Studies curriculum (side by side with a cultural approach), and incorporating Canadian Studies.
40Since 2000 Nijmegen offers a comprehensive American Studies program, both at the BA and MA levels. A firm grounding (in the first two years of study) in American history, literature and politics (both domestic and foreign) has constituted the intellectual multidisciplinary base on which an interdisciplinary exploration of issues in American culture could be taught in more advanced undergraduate and graduate years. The Nijmegen “mission statement” reads, in part, as follows: “A professional Americanist will have the scholarly competence to analyze and evaluate contemporary social, political, cultural and economic developments in the United States, to understand them from a broad historical and cultural perspective, and to consider them in the light of a specific American ‘psyche’ as well as in the light of the regional, ethnic and racial diversity of the United States. He/she will be aware of the cultural differences between the Netherlands (Europe) and the United States in these manifold areas and be able to form a critical comparative judgment of the social relevance and applicability of American developments, policies and solutions for Dutch (and European) society, and vice versa. Indispensable for a professional Dutch Americanist is a near-native command, in writing and speaking, of (American) English. … Building on a long tradition of interdisciplinary scholarship in the United States, but conscious of the necessity for evolving a distinguishable European scholarly perspective on North-America, the Nijmegen program offers students a solid scholarly foundation in the study of the United States and Canada from a diversity of disciplinary angles, a firm theoretical and methodological insight into the practice of interdisciplinary thinking and research, and the competence to apply these theoretical and practical skills in independent scholarly research as well as in a wide variety of professions and positions.”
41Starting from a combined first year in English and American Studies (including a solid training in American English language skills, a survey of American literature, and an Introduction to American Studies in which students explore core-issues in American culture and history, and make a first theoretical and practical acquaintance with working and thinking in an interdisciplinary fashion), students move on to a core-program in American Studies encompassing a combination of multi- and interdisciplinary courses in American history, literature (nineteenth and twentieth centuries), popular culture (film, TV, radio, photography, media, music), the American political system (in an international comparative perspective), and American foreign policy. Building on this base, students can opt to pursue either a “cultural” or a “political-economic” stream, at both the BA and the MA levels. In the cultural stream students take courses in American art and architecture, theater and film, history and film, gender and popular culture, preparatory to an MA-variant build on a “cultural studies” methodology, comprising courses in cultural representations of “otherness,” multiculturalism in the United States, contemporary American and Canadian fiction, and interdisciplinary seminars on varying topics (the Beat Generation, African American literature and culture, the American West, the American sixties, etc). The political-economic variant (popularly referred to as the “business and politics” variant) offers courses in urban politics, history and society, the history of U.S. business, and American and Dutch business culture, preparatory to an MA-variant with a strong international, comparative focus: “Global Shift: International Political Economy,” “America and the World: Cross-cultural Management” and “U.S. Constitutional Law in International Perspective.” Students in both the cultural and political-economic streams take advanced seminars in “Transatlantic Ties: Europeans and America” and in the theory and praxis of American Studies as practiced in Europe, the United States and across the globe. Overall, the Nijmegen MA program is rooted in an exploration of the cultural, economic and political impact of the United States on the global scene. It also seeks to reckon with the fact that two-thirds of Dutch American Studies graduates end up in a position with a Dutch or international business company or in a position having to do with international relations or diplomacy. Nijmegen graduates in American Studies are qualified to become teachers of English at the Dutch high-school level. In addition, the program offers the opportunity to look at the United States from the perspective of Canada by offering a minor in Canadian Studies, comprising courses in the history and literature of Canada, as well as an interdisciplinary seminar on Canadian politics, business and society.
42Then finally Groningen, where until recently there was no full professorship in American Studies. Wil Verhoeven for a few years had an endowed chair in American culture sponsored by the Roosevelt Study Center in Middelburg. Besides that, my chair in contemporary history, including the history of North America, was the only one that had America mentioned in its mission statement. Since 2006, however, Wil Verhoeven is full professor in American culture. He currently chairs our American Studies department, where we have no lack of students—to put it mildly—and which runs both a BA and an MA program in American Studies.
43We teach about America’s global impact, about America’s culture being the world’s only “super-culture,” and of course about what makes America. The program regards it as hardly conceivable that anyone could effectively understand the power relationships in, and the complexity of today’s world without a thorough analysis of the history and culture of America, the nation which has in various degrees impacted on our way of life and our thinking about the world and ourselves.
44In a way, the Groningen program is the most influenced by the cultural turn in American Studies that was described above, but within the limits of a traditional “salad bowl” of disciplines, taught separately and independently, however intertwined the curriculum presents them. What now follows is the language of the study guide. Exploring the cultural domain called “the United States of America,” our program starts from the premise that “America” was shaped as much by its literature, arts, folklore, music, film, philosophy, commerce, entertainment, media, education, science and religion, as by its Constitution, its laws, political treaties and wars. Part of our program is the traditional exploration of the question of what constituted America’s common national identity. We integrated the paradigm shift of the 1960s, when increasing attention was paid to America’s racial, ethnic, social and regional diversity, as well as to exploring and theorizing the cultural and ideological processes that have generated, mediated and institutionalized this diversity. We study and analyse both “high culture” and the aspects of the culture of everyday social practice—film, music, fast food, the media and other forms of “popular culture.” Our program tries to create awareness that none of the academic monodisciplines (history, literature, sociology, art history, philosophy, and so on) is sufficiently equipped to offer a comprehensive account of the complex dynamics of American culture. Interdisciplinarity is therefore a key defining characteristic of our program. Our focus aims at representing new developments in the broader field of cultural studies.
45We try to comply with the mission statements and bench marks drawn up by programs at universities in America, and the aims of the program have been formulated in accordance with the Agreed Aims and Objectives for American Studies of the British “Quality Assessment Agency of Higher Education” (QAA). The aims of the Groningen MA program can be summarized thus: to equip students with multidisciplinary and, where appropriate, interdisciplinary knowledge and theoretical insights to enable them to develop an informed and critical understanding of the culture and society of the United States, past and present; to allow students to engage with the highest quality up-to-date research on the United States in a variety of disciplines; and to encourage students to apply multi- and interdisciplinary paradigms in independent research.
46In short, the program’s central unifying principle is “The Dynamics of Cultural Change: Nationhood and National Identity in the United States.” Approaching the idea of culture as “the process of production of meanings, signs and values in social life,” the program aims at offering students broad theoretical insights into the idea of culture in general.
47So much for what the study guide has to say. The historians at our school are not in every respect happy with the apparent emphasis on “meaning,” but that is not to say that there is a culture war raging in Groningen. The program is still developing and under construction, and there is, and for a certain time to come will be, a lively debate going on about the degree to which traditional disciplines, and the way they are being taught, must be integrated. Integration as such is not the issue.
48So far, research in the Netherlands in American Studies was only referred to in passing. Each university taking itself seriously as a stronghold in this field provides its staff with opportunities to do research, but the degree to which research in American Studies is truly stimulated differs. The numbers of students are on the rise —there is a fascinating correlation between critical thinking about the current administration in the United States and a desire the study everything American—and so are teaching loads; university officials are not always ready to make up for research time gone up in smoke.
49Theoretically every university offers PhD programs, but for lack of funds (research grants for graduates) this theoretical stream is in many a case just a trickle in reality. Although Nijmegen, Utrecht, and Groningen do produce PhD’s in American Studies on a regular basis, Amsterdam and Leiden are somewhat ahead of the pack when it comes to numbers. As far as dominant themes are concerned, students are free in their choice of subjects, so it is pretty hard to discern patterns when we try to analyze the issues (e.g. what is typical for Amsterdam?) that they deal with in their dissertations. In general these themes do not stray far from the dominant issues in the pre-graduate curricula.21
50Apart from the universities with their American Studies programs, the Netherlands has the privilege of possessing the Roosevelt Study Center (RSC) in Middelburg, which works at the frontiers of our scrutiny of America, and which hardly needs recommendation to anyone who knows about American Studies in this country. The RSC, an independent research institute on U.S. modern history and European-American relations, was founded in 1984 and has been in operation since 1986. Affiliated with the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1990, it is the home of the Netherlands American Studies Association (NASA, introduced above), if only because it hosts the annual NASA conference and many other conferences where scholars in “Americana” from both sides of the Atlantic meet and discuss all kinds of themes of common interest. Well-known is its series of biennial conferences for European historians of the United States. More importantly, thanks to its inviting research facilities and its broadly oriented holdings of archival source material—with an emphasis on everything having to do with the times of the Roosevelts, whose ancestry reaches back to the Dutch Province of Zeeland—it attracts researchers from many countries. In addition to its own research on Dutch-American relations produced by its senior staff, the RSC has initiated several PhD projects on the basis of matching funds together with Dutch universities, among others with Nijmegen on the theme “Magazines and Periodicals as Instruments of Twentieth-Century American Culture” and with Utrecht and the Kampen Theological University on post-World War II Dutch-American relations.22
51In conclusion of this essay it seems reasonable to say that although “American” historians in the Netherlands nowadays are more concerned with cultural history than before the “cultural turn” in American Studies (and scholarship in general), they are still free to teach and to do research as they see fit. The fact that they now sometimes focus on suburbia, shopping malls, mass entertainment, and “low” art and literature, is just an indication of innovation, much more than of their being forced to give up their turf and pay lip-service to the fashion of the day. In short, there is no victory for a “culture mafia,” in past or present. In some universities, however, colleagues see reasons to be worried about a future that might be less bright, as all faculties have to cope with financial cuts, and faculty boards in many cases regard integration of “study-paths” and curricula as the magic solution. It is our common challenge to make sure that integrated programs will still offer elements of the historical discipline that deserve to be taken seriously as such. The problems ahead will not be easy to solve, but we should not allow the administrators, or those who propagate more “cultural turns,” to become our despair. And if there is despair, let it also give courage.
Doeko Bosscher, « American Studies in the Netherlands », European journal of American studies [Online], Vol 1, No 1 | 2006, document 12, Online since 30 January 2007, connection on 27 March 2017. URL : http://ejas.revues.org/1106Top of page