Skip to content

American Studies Meets the Press

September 2, 2011
drawing by Eli Friedensohn

drawing by Eli Friedensohn, in Action Studies

At the 1989 meeting of the American Studies Association, Allen F. Davis of Temple University gave the Presidential Address, entitled “The Politics of American Studies.”  In it he noted that,

….the forum for a dialogue between those who called themselves radicals and those more traditional … helped revitalize American Studies in the early 1970s and prevented the divisions and despair that infested many other academic groups during these years. Perhaps the most important place where such dialogue took place was the Kirkland College conference of August 1972. ( full text of the address can be read at this link.)

Davis credits Doris Friedensohn, Kirkland Dean of Students and Associate Professor of American Studies, for hosting what became known as  the “Kirkland Institute.”  Friedensohn joined the administration in 1970, after her predecessor, Inez Nelbach, retired.  Recently, Doris shared some thoughts and recollections with us:

In the course of writing acknowledgments for [her latest] book, Cooking for Change: Tales from a Food Service Training Academy (Full Court Press, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, July 15, 2011), I couldn’t help remembering and acknowledging one of my favorite Kirkland projects. I’m referring to a small book, published by the College, 242: Education and Social Change, written with Daphne Petri (’72) and with illustrations by Elias Friedensohn.  This little volume spoke to what I took to be the heart of the Kirkland experience.  It asked, “How does education shape us and change us and how can we use this Kirkland education to make further changes in ourselves and our thinking?

Of course, it was a mark of the ’70’s to speak about “social change” and to connect it idealistically with the democratizing of higher education — and with empowering students. At Kirkland, the focus was on empowering women students — to have the highest expectations for themselves and to demand support for those expectations from the institutions educating them. The time was right. And ripe. Feminism gave us good rhetoric, some organizational tools, and plenty of company. Students in my course, American Studies 242, “Education and Social Change,” wanted their lives to matter and believed that Kirkland existed to enable them to imagine what might matter and how they might move forward.

As a young faculty member and dean, I shared those good hopes, some of which were, of course, wishful thinking. Still, I valued that energized and positive way of thinking just as I valued Kirkland’s willingness to publish 242 in 1972 and a year later to publish another collaborative effort, Action Studies: American Attitudes and Values and the Struggle for Social Change, with Gwynne O’Gara (’73) and with illustrations once again by my husband Eli.  This book revolved around students’ internships, which were a class requirement. The publication is a kind of conversation between the students and me on what it takes to make small changes in the world beyond ourselves.

The Kirkland work proved to be a forerunner and model for 25 years of collaborative feminist pedagogy at the former Jersey City State College, now New Jersey City University. Learning from Kirkland, I persuaded JCSC to publish a faculty/student collaboration, Generations of Women: A Search for Female Forebears, written with my colleague Barbara Rubin (1984). While Kirkland students asked themselves, what are we learning from looking critically at our college and ourselves, students at JCSC focused on lessons taught by women in their families – as they understood struggle and challenge, inequities and unexpected opportunities.

Diagram from Action Studies publication

This brings me to my current project — about very poor people, mostly minorities, and many who are ex-convicts or recovering addicts. The institutional setting is a job training program for food service workers located in New Jersey’s largest food bank, right on the border of Newark. These students, ages 19-70, have “learned” to expect very little from a harsh and deeply unfair world. Their challenge is how much to expect from themselves – – how much to dare to hope for, given  their previous histories, family troubles, lousy educational training, dangerous neighborhoods, and minimal resources. Some hours of the week, I am hopeful for them; on those occasions I want them to prove to themselves (and to me) that “opportunity” isn’t dead in America and that getting (semi) skilled work, even at poverty wages, can be a source of pride and a proverbial turning point. What I’m saying, very carefully, is that while I no longer have large hopes for institutions or for “social change.” I still think individuals can be helped to put their lives to good purposes, and, if they are lucky, can become the change agents of their own experience. This sounds suspiciously like Kirkland rhetoric — and that’s what I wanted to acknowledge here.

Watching President Obama’s struggles with a recalcitrant Congress and nervous country and thinking back to 1970, I appreciate how easy it is to talk about change and how difficult to make the talk meaningful. Back then, we couldn’t begin to imagine the power of banks, insurance companies, lobbyists of every stripe, the media and the net, organized religion and all those fringe lunatics who refuse to stay on the fringe.

Perhaps your didn’t bargain for that rant — but it comes from remembering the idealism and innocence of those Kirkland years. That Kirkland died, as Sam’s book Limited Engagement suggests, was partly a function of innocence in relation to Hamilton.  And partly a consequence, as we all know, of its ideas going mainstream.

[Ed. Note:  A gallery of images and illustrations from 242: Education and Social Change and Action Studies: American Attitudes and Values and the Struggle for Social Change can be seen at this link.  A contemporary video of Prof. Friedenshohn discussing her husband’s work and legacy can be viewed on YouTube.]

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: