Thursday, January 24, 2008

Why do all that medieval stuff?

Anyone reading in the historical (and especially medieval) blogosphere over the past week or so has probably seen the meme out there on "Why teach history" (examples here, here, and here). There have been a lot of really excellent responses out there, to which I can add very little, except to say that I teach it because it's what I love. But I want to call attention to a piece in the recent issue of Perspectives, AHA President Gabrielle Spiegel's essay on "The Case for History and the Humanities."

Spiegel nicely summarizes the usual justifications: that studying the Humanities helps us to understand "what it means to be human," and the updated version of that: the emphasis on critical and reflective thinking that is central to the study of the Humanities. But then she says this:

"Given the current situation of the world, I can't think of anything more important than reaffirming the intrinsic humanity of all peoples, however different ethnically, religiously, politically, or even medically. The great and abiding task of the humanities is to cultivate appreciation for the immense variety of the ways that peoples and societies live and think. […] The humanities teach this most importantly of all the disciplines, in that they require an imaginative, not merely objective or logical, investment in their investigations."

So how does this relate to research in Medieval Studies, a field that I love, but that I sometimes feel can be a little self-indulgent? Spiegel points out that the medieval world is the West's very own historical Other, alien to our own society in many ways, yet intrinsically tied to us. As such (and this is my own musing on the subject now), it informs us that we cannot responsibly interpret our past through the lens of the present; even more importantly, we cannot take a teleological approach and assume that our present is the result of an inescapable evolutionary process. It forces us to exercise that historical imagination that Spiegel speaks of, and then – hopefully – to apply the results of that imagination to ourselves.

I would never suggest that we look to the medieval past for precise parallels or solutions to our own problems of, say, relations between church and state, between members of different religions, or between men and women. But these are persistent questions, and thinking critically about how our own historical Other addressed these issues can shock us out of presentist thinking and the sometimes disastrous complacency it can produce.


Susan said...

I thought that paragraph of Spiegel's was great. As an early modernist, I have always thought that history provided ways of thinking about questions where you were not sure what "side" you were on -- and that provides useful perspective. At my first job interview many centuries ago, one (sexist) faculty member asked how I could write about gender since my questions came from the present. And I said that while the questions came from the present, the present provided no sense that I wanted to find out one thing or another about 17th C women, precisely because it's so different.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Good answer -- but I also think the question is one we should all be asking ourselves, because it forces us to confront our own residual presentism. I can't pretend that questions about my own world aren't what inform my questions about the past. But as long as I remember that they are not me, and I am not them, I think it's entirely fair of us to ask questions of our past that we really want answered about our present.