# 95: Dear American Studies, What Is Your Value Proposition?

Story behind the Passage

Today I am not talking about a book, I am talking about a study I found online. It is one of the most helpful studies to explain the economic value of the humanities. There is just one tiny cosmetic problem: This study was published by a consulting firm and a pioneering Australian university, not by members of the humanities (alone). The reason why I am saying that this is a problem is not because I am skeptical of Deloitte in any way. To the contrary, I am saying this is a wonderful study. The problem is just what I wish, the humanities would be able to come up with such a concise description of the value proposition of the humanities.

Unfortunately, this is not happening. What you find instead are very long and quite oblique descriptions of the research and teaching aims of the fields. Here is an example from a German introduction to American Studies:

“The scholarly discipline of American Studies documents and interprets the multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic diversity of North American cultures in their social, regional, national, and global shapes and networks from colonial times to the present. As an interdisciplinary field within Cultural Studies, it is concerned with the plurality of textual-verbal, visual, material, performative, musical, medial, and virtual representations and interpretations of ‘America’ from different subject-specific perspectives and with subject-specific theories and methods.” ()

So, this shows the contrast between having a value-based description and having a topic-based description. The former highlights the ‘why’ and the latter deals with the ‘what.’ The reason why I am emphasizing this difference is because the prior is considerably more relevant if you want to sell something. And the humanities, at least certain fields therein, have to sell themselves somewhat more effectively. Otherwise, they will be gone soon. As I mentioned in a video lecture the other day, this might not even be a bad thing. Maybe academia is going through a process of consolidation in which we have to get rid of certain fields that create no or at least very little value anymore in order to make room for other subjects.

What I want to do today is briefly look at the supposed value of American Studies. This is not only because this is the field that I was trained in, it is also because I think that the field is facing exceptional trouble because the world has changed considerably since the subject was founded in the 1960s. Obviously, these global changes happened the way they happened and the academic discipline could just witness and study these changes. Still, I would like to critically reflect on some questions that emerged concerning the impact these changes had on the potential value proposition of the field.

I am saying “potential” value proposition because, as mentioned at the outset, the humanities themselves seem to be incapable of coming up with such a value statement. Otherwise, their position might be much clearer and more uncontested. Let me just define briefly what I mean by value proposition. I am simply using the common definition from the business dictionary here:

I know, people from the humanities will most likely be disgusted by such a definition. I am sorry, I cannot help it. I just want to be clear about the term and the reason why I am writing about this. I am not writing about it to piss people off. I am writing about it because I think that the concept of the value proposition could be a very helpful tool for people in the field to really start a discussion on what their contribution to social problem-solving is. Eventually, such a discussion needs to precede any assessment whether or not this value is sufficient to survive on the market of higher education. This market has turned into a “mass market,” as mentioned in the dictionary definition. So, it better be good.

My Learnings

“Communication, problem-solving, collaboration and critical thinking … technologies may be ever changing but these transferrable skills will always be in demand.” This quote by the Head of Learning, Leadership and Development at Siemens is no exception among the other quotes. Some of them use different words but what unites all of them is one thing: the focus on “transferrable skills.”

You immediately notice that this is the crucial gap between people who look at the value of the humanities from outside and those who look at it from an insider perspective. This gets even more complicated when we consider the different subjects. The example I showed above from American Studies gives you an idea of how complicated such descriptions can be. The study by Deloitte, in contrast, offers a great systematic overview of what the benefits of certain fields are more specifically. Here is a glance at the table they came up with:

Source: Deloitte Access Economics (2018) compiled from various university handbooks, 13.

I would like to solely focus on the last line, the one on “Language and literature/Area Studies.” There are two reasons for this: One is that American Studies is in this category, which is the field that I am most familiar with. The second reason is that from my perspective, globalization, digitalization, and resulting economic changes in the world society may in fact have changed the demand for these skills in particular. To be more precise, some of these qualifications might have been replaced or they are simply not needed to that extent anymore. At least in the case of the U.S., which has traditionally played a special role in world politics, this could be the case. Let me briefly go through the list of bullet points to explain what I mean in more detail.

1. Diplomacy skills

When we read the word “diplomacy,” we often think of politics. But behind this concept really is the skill of bridging differences and negotiating well. This is something that we need in any social and economic sphere, including business. In both areas, however, we are seeing that the U.S. has lost considerable ground within the last decades. Yes, if you just go by GDP, the U.S. is still the richest country on earth. But Europe and especially Asia are quickly catching up ().

With respect to the political need for diplomacy as a skill, the situation might look more promising at first — in a subversive way. For sure, the Trump administration heightened political disagreements between national governments and thus also the need for more diplomatic interaction. Still, diplomatic affairs are driven by mutual political and thus mostly economic interests. In fact, these are the last common interests standing. Yes, 60 years ago, Germany was interested in learning “democracy” from the U.S. I guess, I do not have to go into why this seems to have changed by now after four years of cowboy legislation…

In sum, therefore, diplomacy skills, beyond the general meaning of learning how to communicate and negotiate well, have no particular raison d’être for American Studies. The only reason why one could argue that there is a special learning benefit to learn this in the U.S. context is social and cultural diversity. But, again, the world has also changed in this respect. All our societies are increasingly pluralistic by now. This goes along with racial and other socio-demographic clashes. Of course, we can argue that the U.S. has a unique history in that respect. But it is questionable whether this “exceptionalism” will really remain so special.

-> Hence, this first “value” of learning diplomatic skills can also be acquired in other fields, even in daily life by now. American Studies has no special position anymore when it comes to teaching this skill.

2. Graduate language capabilities

This is a significant one — significant in the way that it, from my perspective, is a major reason why subjects such as English and American Studies are losing ground. When our field was introduced in German universities, for example, many still taught and wrote papers in German. It was a major achievement to completely turn English, the language of the U.S., into the working language of our field. And, of course, this was and partly still is a major reason why students choose to study the field. Remember that more than 50% of our students are training to become teachers. The field they will be teaching is called English and they are supposed to educate students in elementary and high schools to graduate with a decent level of written and verbal communication skills in English.

The problem nowadays is: you learn to read and speak English ANYWHERE — YouTube, movies, comics, books, commercials — you name it. English to a large extent, especially in the big cities and in universities themselves, has already become the lingua franca. So, studying English or American Studies for three to four years just to learn English is a waste of time and resources. Why would you do it?

Oh, yes, sure, but you learn “proper” English in American Studies, i.e., you learn academic vocabulary and, of course, you also learn how to write well. That is true and the quotes above from the practitioners in the study confirm this — that written communication skills do play a role when it comes to defining the value of the humanities. Still, as the internationalization of the student body proceeds in universities in Germany and around the globe, there is little reason to assume that the written language skills of students who studied other subjects, inside and outside the humanities, are so much worse than those of American Studies graduates.

-> Again, acquiring language capabilities is not a sufficient criterion anymore to justify the unique value of American Studies.

3. Context-specific cultural knowledge

I partly hinted at this one when talking about diplomacy above. For sure, the U.S. has a special cultural history just like any country does. This is also the one and only reason why one would focus on studying one nation or cultural area in depth, given the fact that writing and reading (in a foreign language) applies to all other subjects in the humanities. But the U.S. did play a special role with respect to the nation’s cultural impact on other cultures — at least in the past. The term “Americanization” reflects this and what I am writing above about English as the lingua franca is another derivative of this.

Surely, one cannot claim that the U.S. has completely lost its cultural significance. This also applies to the realm of business. For sure, U.S.-led companies have a different corporate culture than German companies. I am not going into a deep discussion about this now but anybody working in business knows what this means — in positive and negative ways. Even the academic field of American Studies has been proud of its open-mindedness and diversity, which are signature cultural traits of the U.S., also in organizational culture terms.

However, even in this respect, the U.S. is losing ground. Asking whether this is an economic or a cultural aspect now is a hen-and-egg problem which leads nowhere. What is obvious, for example, is that fewer exchange students are choosing to study in the U.S. (). This might be a loss of interest in the culture but it can also be rooted in many other reasons. It does not make sense to speculate about the reasons without having all the evidence. What we are seeing in other parts of the world, particularly the East, is that more students are getting interested in studying in China, for example (). Yes, these are just snapshots at the data and they say little about causalities. Still, certain trends are visible, right?

So, what I am saying is that the popularity of learning about a culture is influenced by the value a culture has for the entire world. In the U.S., a major value has always been innovation and technological development. If you wanted to see what the future would look like in Europe, you took a trip to the U.S. There, you saw skyscapers, huge malls, and the newest technology in home entertainment, gaming, and industry. Today, that is hardly the case anymore. If you want to see what the future will look like, you travel to Shanghai or even to the United Arab Emirates. Why study the U.S.? Even Silicon Valley has lost much of its unique status.

The only true motivation to study U.S. culture in particular would obviously be that you are personally interested in the U.S. That is fine but then, looking at the employment side, you have to argue very well why your employer should prefer you over someone who studied French or German. Consequently, the cultural differentiation aspect is only relevant if you are working in a field or at a company that is decisively related to the U.S. This will continue being the case for some but in a less decisive way than before. To the contrary, right now, there are many good reasons why the German economy needs to make sure it does NOT copy the growth-oriented rocket economy of the U.S. in which only Amazons and Googles thrive.

-> As to this last point, again, the global cultural value of the U.S. as the pioneer of innovation has eroded in many ways.

What does all this mean then? This means that, by and large, the value of an academic subject such as American Studies very much depends on the ascribed value of the country that it owes its name to. This value obviously depends on the country’s global reputation if you want to summarize all my points above. Yes, reputation is something that can change pretty quickly. Still, it is not going to swing back completely. The world is changing and the polarity of Europe and the U.S. as the only superpowers is long gone. Eventually, other fields are gaining ground — rightly so, particularly Asian Studies and, of course, all the more applicatio-oriented and technical fields.

American Studies has somewhat been making up for this decline by integrating many “interdisciplinary” components, including Asian American Studies, Transatlantic Studies and so many other Pre-, Post-, and Trans- Studies. This has also brought about a detrimental effect for the value of the field. Again, if you want to explain your value proposition to someone who should buy your product, i.e., study your field, you better be crystal-clear about this. All the interdisciplinary mix ups have brought about the opposite, i.e., a lack of profile. The argument from insiders of the field has always been that this exactly marks the value of American Studies.

I increasingly doubt this.

The only pragmatic approach to at least making sure that the general values we do contribute are not getting lost, is to focus on the transferrable skills mentioned at the outset. When I say “focus,” I mean two things: 1) teach them exceptionally well, i.e., get the students to learn very good reading, verbal, writing, and thinking skills. And 2) properly communicate these skills as the most important values for the work world and society at large. This means: internally and externally; to the students themselves and to the public.

This is something that will at least fix the debate about the so-called “Third Mission” in Germany (public value creation). What this will not fix is the question of how research fits in here, i.e., whether or not individual researchers contribute to social problem-solving. But exploring this issue was not my aim in my post today. What I wanted to point out was that thinking about and clarifying the value proposition of American Studies — and the humanities at large — is a necessary and very helpful tool for winning support and understanding for the mission of the humanities.

I do hope that some readers (from the humanities) will look up the study mentioned above. I am not saying this to advertise this particular consulting firm. I am saying this because I want to simply point to a pragmatic example of how you can explain the value of the humanities from different perspectives — inside and outside the field. Exactly this shifting of perspectives and the collaboration with outsiders is the most necessary step, from my perspective, to clarifying the public and also democratic function of the humanities, including American Studies.

Reflection Questions

1) What is the biggest value that humanities graduates create in companies from your perspective?

2) Do you think that the U.S. is still a major power in the world? Why/not?

3) If you were to study a particular culture in university — which one would it be?




Founder & CEO of Companypoets

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Silke Schmidt

Silke Schmidt

Founder & CEO of Companypoets

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