What is an American Studies Major Good For?

The main thing it’s good for is thoughtfulness, which is supposed to be the main product of colleges. The St. Olaf American Studies program operates on Lionel Trilling’s premise that the primary function of art and thought is to liberate individuals from their culture in the environmental sense and to permit them to stand beyond it in an autonomy of perception and judgment. American Studies, therefore, helps us understand why we think and act the way we do, and how we might think differently.

But American Studies also has another practical side. Like most of the majors at St. Olaf,American Studies helps students read critically, analyze carefully, and express themselves clearly. It offers them opportunities for independent study, for experiential learning, and for individual achievement. Its focus on cultural patterns helps students to “read” any culture they encounter… the culture of business, the culture of education, the culture of home… and to act effectively and responsibly within it.

Recent American Studies graduates have applied their majors in a variety of vocational callings. Several have continued their learning and preparation in graduate school, law school, divinity school and seminary. One graduate edits a trade magazine; another has published two books for teenagers. Some alums work in advertising and public relations. Several have entered service occupations like Social Work… one recent graduate spent a year in Washington, D.C. with Lutheran Volunteer Corps, then a year working in a political campaign, before she applied to divinity school. She now teaches Religion at Hamline University.