The country at the heart of this discipline isn’t the only thing to have changed – the research, teaching, and studying activities at the John F. Kennedy Institute are also no longer the same. But one thing has remained the same: the fact that the institute’s interdisciplinary perspective on the United States can be formative, both personally and academically.
When Renate Semler was growing up in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district in the 1950s and 1960s, America was both a presence and far away. The Armed Forces Network (AFN) made jazz and blues the soundtrack of those years, and the Allies were still a part of her neighborhood as an occupying force. “So many life circumstances collided with each other,” she recalls today. “The older men who had come out of the war, the women who rebuilt Berlin, and then a generation that took to the streets, chanting slogans like, ‘Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh!’” Semler says she saw workers who had rocks in hand, ready to fight back against this incomprehensible crusade against the Americans.
“American culture? What’s that supposed to be?”
In 1966, when she decided to major in American studies, meaning that she would also be studying American culture, Semler encountered a similar level of incomprehension among older, conservative acquaintances: “American culture? What’s that supposed to be?” they asked. At the time, America’s lack of history and culture was still a widely held prejudice in the educated middle class. That was part of the reason that scholars and students at the John F. Kennedy Institute felt they were almost avant-garde; Semler says it was a true departure from existing practices.