Through the Eyes of Visitors on Independence Day

July 4th weekend in Middletown has been a wonderful time to show off our town and campus to some relatives visiting from Norway. It’s always interesting to see where one lives through the eyes of visitors. We grow accustomed to the beauty of the campus, with its impressive array of facilities — from the Freeman Athletic Center to the Center for the Arts. Kari’s cousins’ reactions to seeing Wesleyan for the first time was a reminder of how special university environments are. As the gloomy weather lifted, Middletowners came out in force to enjoy a perfect 4th. Check out recent posts by biology professor Steve Devoto and by alumna Jennifer Alexander ’88 on the Middletown Eye.

I had the curious task of leading my weekly Torah study group on the 4th of July, pinch-hitting for our vacationing rabbi. This week’s texts included the famously paradoxical purification ritual of the “red heifer.” I didn’t attempt to solve the enigma that is said to have stumped even Solomon but instead used the coincidence with the American holiday to talk about how a people achieves “independence.” In the case of the Jews wandering in the desert, this has to do with independence from the experience of slavery (without forgetting that experience). In the case of America, one might say that we are still working out what independence means in a dynamic, multi-polar world.

American Studies has been at the forefront of interdisciplinary academic work at Wesleyan, for years inspired by the popular culture analysis of Richard Slotkin. His work in film studies along with Jeanine Basinger’s has been fundamental to establishing film studies here. Recently, American Studies at Wes has been in a “post-national” key, exploring social and cultural formations that go beyond national borders. I’ve learned about that trend from Professor Claire Potter, who recently stepped down as Chair of the program. Claire writes about pornography, the FBI and has a very active blog: . Wesleyan’s government department is home to prolific and influential scholars of American law and politics who are also great teachers. Here are just two examples: John Finn, an expert on law, civil liberties and political violence who has just published a new edition of his co-authored American Constitutional Law; and Elvin Lim, whose incisive work on the American presidency and politics has been getting enormous attention (check out his blog: ).

Although I am a European historian, I’ve often written on American topics, especially in the press. In some of my classes we read Emerson’s take on self-reliance, or Stanley Cavell’s essays on the “unfinished project” of freedom for Americans. A few years ago I was asked to review a French philosopher’s take on the USA in American Vertigo, by Bernard-Henri Levy. Like many other reviewers, I thought the book shallow and self-serving. Today the San Francisco Chronicle published my view of Simon Schama’s new book, The American Future: A History. Although the book has its faults, I thought this British historian (now a long-term US resident) provided an interesting perspective on recent American politics in relation to some long term historical themes:

Well, my Norwegian guests are ready for the next round of activities. I wonder what else I’ll learn about Middletown from them!

[tags]July 4, Steve Devoto, Jennifer Alexander, Middletown Eye, Torah study, independence, Richard Slotkin, Claire Potter, John Finn, Elvin Lim, The American Future: A History, Simon Schama[/tags]

2 thoughts on “Through the Eyes of Visitors on Independence Day”

  1. Serendipity is a lovely thing — as you post about American Studies (one of Wesleyan’s Best Programs Ever), we are having an intense discussion about MoCon — a building of considerable architectural significance, and one that has an important place in the fabric of the Wesleyan community. We are also having some trouble getting straight information from Wesleyan governance> A trustee who posts to WesChat assures us that NO decision has been made about the building (though so far no answer to the question if the roof is still leaking, which is a form of gravely destructive neglect), while another alum was assured by MORE than one person connected with building and grounds that the building IS being demolished at an as yet undetermined date.

    Please, would you go to the list and read this discussion? And then could you provide an example of open government and tell us what the heck is going on? If, as I hope, it’s true that no firm decision has been made, I hope you can see that there is a great deal of talent and passion available to help lead and inform a juicy, “Wesleyan-type” discussion. How we deal with this building has important ramifications in history, community, the arts, and environmental responsibility. We recognize the financial difficulties — they are real and urgent. We also know that catastrophic either/or thinking is poor thinking, and not up to our community’s standards. We’d like a chance to make this a thoughtful and ethical process.

    Thank you!
    Suzy Shedd, ’80

  2. I’ll check out the discussion on WesChat. Thanks for the tip. MoCon has a fond place in my memories, too. But it is a terribly inefficient building, and we haven’t come up with a cost effective way to use it. We’ve looked at several different ideas, but none seem to work. I don’t want to tear down a building for which many alumni have affection, but I also don’t want to invent a use for a building that no longer functions well. If we can come up with something that works for the campus and that we can afford, I’ll be all for it.

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