After John Howard and the American Australian Association hit what Andrew Bolt described as a “homer”, announcing a $50 million United States Studies Centre, Bolt stepped up in a column on June 2 aiming to hit another home run, at the expense of American Studies academics in Australia. He takes several swings, but all miss and ultimately his effort to label us “anti-American” results only in him striking out.
His first swing comes courtesy of David Martin Jones, of Queensland University, who asserts all universities teach “an anti-American perspective on the world,” and Brian Costar, of Swinburne University of Technology, who claims, “The current state of US Studies in this country is a disgrace”.
Bolt credits the opinions of Jones and Costar as if they have some expertise on the United States - but, in fact, neither identify themselves as experts on the US, conduct research on the US, teach courses devoted to the US, or are active in the American Studies community in Australia.
Jones works on security and ASEAN; Costar is Professor of Victorian Parliamentary Democracy. Both, however, come from the field of politics, and it is certainly true that politics departments in Australia no longer devote the attention to the US that they did ten years ago. The same is not true of other fields, particularly history. Strike one.
Bolt’s second swing is to claim “no Australian university puts serious effort into teaching” about the US. If you actually look at university curricula, you find extensive offerings on the US. At Sydney University, we offer 28 courses in the Faculty of Arts alone, in history, English, art history and music. The academics involved have won awards for their teaching, have had articles published on their methods and approaches and are involved in developing resources for high school teachers of American history.
Students flock to our courses; 353 enrolled in the course on New York City that I taught this semester, making it the largest class in the history department. Together with a new multi-disciplinary survey of American ideas and cultures, these courses form the basis of new major in American Studies to be offered at Sydney for the first time in 2008.
Majors in American Studies already exist at Melbourne, ANU and Flinders. In my field, history, there are specialists in American history on the staff of 15 major Australian universities, with 11 of those academics appointed since 2000. Such a combination of effort and student interest amounts to a significant contribution to teaching Australians about the US. Strike two.
His final swing is at what “preoccupies” the historians of the US at the University of Sydney. The research areas he highlights are drawn from lists of research interests and represent only part of our work.
In my case, the 20th century US is my focus, with the history of sexuality just one of the areas that I explore within that field. Bolt never makes clear what is invalid about the history of sexuality as a field. It does not take a long memory to remember an instance in which sexuality dominated American politics, with a president narrowly escaping impeachment for his sexual behaviour in a process that saw Americans preoccupied for months with debates about sexuality.
I’m the author of the book Bolt mentions subtitled Sexual Violence and Legal Culture in New York City - its title is actually Crimes against Children - which examines a central concern of Americans in the 20th century, and the legal programs with which state governments responded, legislation that influenced how governments throughout the Western world, including here in Australia, reacted to sex crimes.
Nothing anti-American there, but, as in my colleague Shane White’s scholarship on slavery, and in our collaborative project on Harlem, the biggest and most influential black community in the world, there is much that is crucial to understanding the US.
But don’t take my word for it; ask one of John Howard’s favourite Americans, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice whether she agrees with Bolt that understanding slavery and African American history are not central to understanding the US. Judging by a speech she gave during African American History month in 2005, she won’t. Strike three.
Sorry, Andrew, three strikes means you’re out - you don’t understand either the US or American Studies in Australia well enough to hit a home run. But your column does provide further evidence of how much we need a centre to help Australians understand the US, and to help showcase and build on the scholarly work and expertise devoted to that end that already exists in Australia, particularly at Sydney University.