American Studies: Stars and Gripes

It’s registration week at the University of Nottingham and hundreds of bright-eyed first-years are filing past recruitment stations manned by groups such as the Lithuanian Club and the Sri Lankan Students’ Association. Along the way, a flurry of red, white and blue draws them to a stand promoting a country that could currently do with all the p.r. help it can get: the U.S. “We wanted everything in our stall to look American,” says the American Society’s vice president Francesca De Feo, seated before a Boston Red Sox pennant and an image of a Thanksgiving Day turkey. Like many of her fellow society members, De Feo majors in American studies, which her department handbook describes as “the integrated and interdisciplinary study of the United States and its culture.” Peers tease her for devoting her undergraduate years to a nation that twice elected George W. Bush President, but that doesn’t faze her. “We love America,” says De Feo, who hails from the rural English county of Hertfordshire. “America has a lot more to it than its President.”

In Europe, where America the Beautiful has lost some of its luster of late, De Feo’s enthusiasm is increasingly rare. According to the 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, the number of Brits who view the U.S. favorably has dropped from 83% in 2000 to 53% today; in France, it has fallen from 62% to 42%; in Germany, from 78% to just 31%. Once esteemed as a beacon of liberty and a defender of Europe against the Soviet Union, the U.S. now faces constant criticism for everything from its lack of action on global warming to its faith in unfettered capitalism, which has lately led to the spread of economic contagion from American banks to the rest of the world. But most damaging to America’s global reputation has been the invasion of Iraq, which many Europeans viewed as a dangerous misadventure from the start. “There’s concern that America goes its own way rather than listening to its allies or seeking international approval,” says Andrew Kohut, president of the Washington-based Pew Research Center. “The war in Iraq is the poster child for America behaving badly.”

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Given all this drama and controversy, studying the U.S. ought to be more interesting than ever. But undergraduates across Europe have shifted their focus elsewhere, their disaffection a barometer of America’s diminished standing in the world. “Students don’t trust us,” says Walter Grünzweig, a professor of American studies at Germany’s Dortmund University, where the number of students applying for exchange programs to the U.S. has roughly halved since 2004. “We have to convince them we’re not part of the propaganda branch of the American Embassy.”

Many new students — whose first political act was to protest against the war in Iraq — are consumed by anti-Americanism, he says, and refuse to distinguish between the American people and the U.S. government. Suspicion also clouds the thinking of some university administrators. When Gunlög Fur, a professor of history at Sweden’s Växjö University, tried to set up an American-studies program, the board of governors turned her down. “I got some fairly confrontational questions,” she recalls. “They asked, ‘Is this program meant to promote the United States?’ ”

Nowhere is such skepticism more pronounced than in the U.K., where the nation’s “special relationship” with the U.S. has failed to insulate American studies from public opinion. According to ucas, the body that handles applications to British universities, the number of people wanting to major in the subject has plunged from 1,086 a decade ago to just 381 last year. “Students see us as apologists for America,” says Ian Bell, a professor of American literature at Keele University, where enrollment in the American-studies department has halved since Bush took office. “They don’t want to be branded by the degree.” Interest has been so low at Lancaster University that administrators have decided to phase out their program; the 14 freshmen who entered it in October will be the last to do so. According to Alasdair Spark, a lecturer in American studies at the University of Winchester, high school students selecting their majors are particularly sensitive to criticism of the U.S. on issues such as torture and global warming. “Would you study English if you were told novels were evil?” he asks.

The spirit of critique is so strong among those studying the U.S. that academics now sometimes refer to the subject as anti-American studies. Students often gravitate toward research areas like Native American history, where even the most pro-American teachers would be hard-pressed to praise historic government policies. When Grünzweig speaks with wary students, he tries to make it clear that they are entirely free to criticize the U.S. “Doctors don’t like diseases,” he says, “but they know it’s important to deal with them.”

America does have its fans in Europe, of course, especially in parts of the former East bloc. “Having been a country under dictatorship, we are characterized by a veneration for big, important and powerful countries,” says Brunilda Kondi, a lecturer in American culture at Albania’s University of Tirana. To help the university keep up with growing demand for courses, the American Embassy there organizes summer programs on U.S. culture. In other corners of Europe, even where opinions of America are low, a desire to learn English and engage with the West is strong enough to attract students. According to Pew, only 12% of Turks view America positively. But, says Tanfer Emin Tunc, an assistant professor at Ankara’s Hacettepe University, enrollment in the Department of American Culture and Literature has jumped 50% in three years: “We’re having a very difficult time finding enough instructors to teach courses.”

And it might not just be simple anti-Americanism at work in parts of Western Europe. “Any program has its peaks and troughs,” says Heidi Macpherson, chair of the British Association for American Studies. The current trough in Britain, she argues, can be partially explained by confusion over what the degree entails, and the introduction of fees that have pushed students toward more vocational majors. Still, since 2000, the popularity of other disciplines such as Middle Eastern and Chinese studies has more than doubled in British universities, even as interest in the U.S. has faded. Says Tim Wright, president of the British Association for Chinese Studies: “Increasingly, people are realizing that to be successful in the world of the 21st century, they need to understand China.”

To woo kids back, the American Embassy in London is promoting the country’s diversity and popular culture as reasons to understand it better. Encouraging people to study the country “furthers our mission to explain America to the world,” says Liza Davis, the Embassy’s cultural attaché. The embassy has also given Richard Ellis, a professor at the University of Birmingham, a generous grant to produce promotional CDs and a website that asks: “Why Study America?” The site features interviews with people enrolled in American-studies courses (one student says he’s developed a “toolbox” to analyze cultural phenomena such as ripped jeans), useful factoids (the novel Moby Dick tells the story of the hunt for a whale, not a criminal), and a video that shows Chevy trucks traversing the U.S. to a background of nostalgic folk music.

But the best advertisement for studying the U.S. has been the extended presidential primary season, which professors say has gone some way to reviving interest. As the election heated up in recent months, Lancaster University’s American-studies office received several inquiries from high school students interested in the program; in the previous two years they had received none. “Obamania has infected students,” says Patrick Hagopian, who teaches “Mom and Apple Pie: Gender and the Making of the American Family.” “America becomes a more attractive place simply because of the prospect of a new government.” He’s hoping students will agree.