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Skidmore College
American Studies Department

History of Skidmore's American Studies Department

(The following is paraphrased from a chapter of the American Studies senior honors thesis of Blaine VanRy, Class of 1995.) 

A new school of thought emerged in the middle 1900s, which began in the Northeast, but quickly spread to other parts of the country. Known as American studies, the movement was built around the idea of national unity, and its members advocated collectivism as a means of reducing biased observation. As Professor Gregory Pfitzer has summarized, "They emphasized a common core experience to which all Americans were presumed to subscribe" and "did much to encourage the image of America as a 'least common denominator' culture, since they emphasized the 'shared distinctiveness' of the American experience."

American studies got its start at the colleges and universities of the United States. In 1960, Robert E. Spiller, one of the founding fathers of the field, described the spirit of the 1930s in an essay called "American Studies, Past, Present, and Future." "American studies as a separate academic program began as a series of rebellions in the various established disciplines," he explained, and was created to have "a convenient pedagogical device for liberalizing higher education." This growing unrest came mainly from professors of history, who were tired of the traditional approach, and instructors of literature, who wanted to distinguish American writing from that of the English. Soon, however, educators from a wide array of departments, including music, anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science, education, philosophy, art, and economics, collected themselves together into one interdisciplinary body.

Before 1930, only three schools provided training of any kind in American studies, with Harvard beginning in 1906, the University of Dayton in 1921, and Sarah Lawrence in 1928. Ten more undergraduate programs started in the 1930s, and on the advanced level, Spiller recalled that again "Harvard led the way in 1936 with a graduate prgram in the History of American Civilization, and Pennsylvania, Yale, Minnesota, and other universities followed." The field grew even more in the World War II period, and as Huber related in 1954, "more than 60 institutions were offering the B.A. degree in American Civilization by the academic year 1947-1948, while approximately 14 were awarding the Ph.D."

Skidmore first offered a major in American Studies in 1957. From 1957 to 1967, American Studies was a program conducted by a committee of Americanists from departments including History, English, Government, and Art History. In 1960 a program director, Dr. Donal Baker, Ph.D., Syracuse, was appointed; he was succeeded by Dr. David Marcell, Ph.D., Yale, in 1964. In 1967, with the addition of Dr. Stuart Blummin, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, the American Studies Program formally became a department, and Dr. Marcell became its chair, serving in that capacity until 1977.