On American Studies, asking questions, and studying the everyday
Remarks delivered at the 2018 California State University, Fullerton Humanities and Social Sciences Commencement for American Studies and Religious Studies, May 19, 2018
Before proceeding, I want to take a moment to acknowledge Dr. Pamela Steinle, who is retiring from the American Studies department after teaching at Cal State Fullerton for 38 years. Pam Steinle has been central to shaping the identity and culture of our department, and our graduate program in particular, and I wanted to give our students a chance to join me in recognizing her for all that she has done for them and for American Studies. Thank you, Pam.
Any student who has taken a class with Pam Steinle knows she likes to challenge them to formulate their own questions about American culture. She encourages them to come up with what she calls their “cultural question.” What is it about culture and the way culture works that you want to try to figure out? Learning to ask good questions is of course one of the goals of an education. Questions drive discovery, questions spur innovation. Questions also make us feel human and alive because they light a spark to our curiosity and our imagination. These students are sitting here today because the courses they took at Cal State Fullerton taught them how to ask questions and how to try to answer them.
The graduates sitting here today have learned to ask questions about the past. About history. About cause and effect, about change over time.
The graduates sitting her today have also learned how to ask questions about everyday life. The author John Updike once said that in his fiction, he strived to “give the mundane its beautiful due.” The short story writer Raymond Carver similarly observed, “There are significant moments in everyone’s day that can make literature.” When we study work, leisure, family, art, religion, community, identity, we are studying those significant moments, we acquire knowledge about us, we study what the scholar Lynn Spigel calls the “invisible history of everyday life.”
At Cal State Fullerton, students in American Studies and Religious Studies have learned to ask—and to try to answer—some big questions about the everyday: Why do we believe what we believe? How do we shape our identity, our sense of who we are? How do we find community? Why are we driven to create? How do we try to live up to our ideals? Why do we sometimes fall short? How do we learn to love one another? I can think of no more urgent questions than these questions about the everyday, these questions about how we live and why we live and how we might live differently.
The graduates sitting here today have learned to ask these kinds of questions and they have acquired the tools, the methods, and the knowledge to try to answer them. The writer Sven Birkerts, reflecting back on his own education, once wrote that knowledge “was less a means to an end than… a way of transforming the experience of the daily. To be curious, to study, to find out—this was the path to the world. Knowledge exposed connections, imparted significance to the incidental.”
Speaking of the incidental…a few weeks ago I was enjoying some pizza with students from my capstone seminar on music and American culture. We were at BJ’s Restaurant, in Brea, for a faculty/student social event put on by our student club. As we chowed down on that delightful deep dish pizza, some of my students jokingly complained that American Studies had ruined their leisure time. “I can’t just watch a movie and enjoy it anymore, professor. Now I have to think about. And then I have to talk about it with my friends and my family.” Many of you in the audience know what I’m talking about, because you’ve been on the receiving end of those conversations.
I’ve heard this same lament from students many times over the years, that their education has ruined television, or sporting events, or social media, or even trips to the beach or the mall. What were once innocent escapist pleasures have suddenly become serious occasions for cultural analysis. When my students say that their education has spoiled their leisure time, what they mean, of course, is that it has seeped beyond the walls of the classroom. What they are learning in school has changed the way they think, the way they contemplate the world, the way they process their encounters with diverse people, ideas, places, and stories.
So when students say this to me, when they lament that their education has ruined their free time, I say good, great, that was our plan all along. And then I do the evil laugh. I hope the education you received here continues to ruin your leisure time for the rest of your life. And by ruin, of course, I—and my students—both mean, enhance it and make it richer because of the questions we find ourselves asking even—and especially—when we’re outside the classroom.
We are here today in this lovely auditorium to celebrate the fact that the people you care about have had their curiosity and imagination set on fire, and they’ve been armed with the tools to go out and try to answer their questions about the past, the present, and about everyday life. One of my favorite authors, the African American writer Ralph Ellison, once said that education is all a matter of building bridges. I love that idea. A bridge, after all, is an answer to a question: how do I get there?