Studies “R” Us

Of the responses I have gotten on campus to my blogging about Milo, the most revealing of the stakes in our current culture wars came to the fore this week: I threaten medieval studies. I threaten lots of other things, too, I am told: our students, my colleagues, the culture of diversity and inclusion that they would like to foster. But worst of all, I threaten medieval studies.

I know this because, as one of our graduate students explained this past Monday on one of the campus Facebook groups, “[many] graduate students and faculty have tried to step up and address this [my endorsing (in her words) “a known white supremacist”--who dates only black guys, says “white nationalism is not the answer” (his words), and whom the actual alt-Right hates, not that that makes any difference to the way the Left or Right talk about him], including holding conferences and workshops.” (She is talking about the ones I mention here.)

Why the pressing need to shut me up? This is where things get interesting:
We are doing our best to separate medieval studies from this AltRight neo-traditionalist trash. If you don’t like this kind of speech, write your deans, and above all else, vote with your feet and take a different history class in the coming terms. You have the right to know.
Fair enough, the whole point of having a curriculum like ours is so that the students are free to choose from courses that they find appealing within the degree requirements set by the departments and studies programs for their majors. My courses count for a number of these degrees, including Medieval Studies and Religious Studies as well as History. It seems appropriate if students do not want to study with me that they take courses from my colleagues instead.

You would think this would solve the problem, but apparently not. To judge from the numerous panels and workshops that my colleagues in Medieval Studies (not my faculty appointment, we don’t have faculty appointments in Medieval Studies at Chicago) have convened (there have been at least three this quarter that I am aware of, there may have been more), I am a threat not just to those who might want to take courses with me, but to the whole concept of studying the Middle Ages.

There have been similar reactions from colleagues who identify as medievalists elsewhere in the country, most notably the group sponsoring the session at the International Medieval Congress last weekend on “Whiteness in Medieval Studies.” As they see it, our field is not only too white in its faculty and student demographics, but too white in its methodologies, above all in its “lack of complex racial consciousness.” In their view, having people like me who say things like “Some of the things that we value most in our contemporary culture were conceptualized and supported by white, a.k.a. European, men” (like, for example, chivalry, marriage by consent, and women's right to vote) only serves to attract white supremacists to the study of our field.

(Other than myself, Derek Black is their one example--and he abandoned his white supremacism thanks to his academic studies in medieval history. Although I value greatly the contributions that Western civilization has made to the history of our species, I am not and have never been a white supremacist, not that saying so is going to convince them. Milo knows how futile this exercise is.)


One of the things that Professor Peterson and his graduate students have been working on is understanding the personality dimensions associated with particular political affiliations, most notably conservatism and liberalism. Liberalism, they have found, is correlated strongly with openness, that is, being prone to fantasy, caring about aesthetics, ideas, and creativity (basically, me). Conservatism, on the other hand, is correlated strongly with conscientiousness, that is, being concerned with order, self-discipline, competence, and achievement (again, basically, me--I told you I was an Ent.*)

Everybody in academia loves liberalism, right? We are all about ideas. Perhaps not so much aesthetics and creativity anymore, but definitely ideas, the more culturally diverse the better. Conversely, academics hate order and discipline... No, wait. Something is wrong here. Politically speaking, as the Heterodox Academy has pointed out, there are almost no conservatives left in academia, but surely there are those of us who care about order and discipline, competence and achievement. That is our whole point, after all: training young people to think. Isn’t it?

I have never been wholly comfortable with “Studies” programs, and I think now I understand why. I love studying religion and the Middle Ages, even at times gender (I'll wait), but I have resisted our setting up a department or graduate degree program at Chicago in Medieval Studies, and I wish that I could teach in a Department of Religion, not Religious Studies, just as I teach in History, not Historical Studies. Gender Studies presents peculiar difficulties for me, as I have mentioned. But the problem, I now realize, is not with the “gender” part of the program so much as it is with “studies”--thus, I would argue, the ease with which such programs can be spoofed.

It is also the reason that my colleagues in “medieval studies” feel so threatened by me. To coin a phrase: “There is no there there.” “Studies,” by their very nature, have no borders--or discipline. They depend utterly on feelings of belonging to a group defined only by mutual interest in particular periods, regions, sources, or themes, not any shared training or expertise. It is as if one wanted to have a program in sports--and refused to train the students in any particular sport lest they exclude anybody for not having that skill. Or a program in music in which nobody learned a particular instrument to play. Or a church where nobody had to confess any particular doctrine or understanding of God, that is, had no shared conception of worship or how to act in relation with the divine. In Professor Peterson's terms, “studies” have no motivating story or star because they offer no training in what to do.

Sure, everybody in medieval studies likes studying the Middle Ages, but so what? Lots of people like studying the Middle Ages--including, quite possibly, a few white supremacists, who also like studying the history of Europe, the U.K., and the United States--but shared liking creates a different kind of community from shared discipline. You cannot compete or excel in a game without structure and rules. It’s the reason every child worth his or her salt hates P.E. Not because they don’t like being physically fit. But because there is no point in being physically fit without being able to play a particular game. (Arguably also why so many exercise programs fail.) The same thing applies to playing music. It doesn’t work unless the musicians know how to play. It is part of the reason I converted: I believe that liturgy follows creed, even as creed is given life in liturgy and service.

Imagine a fencing tournament where nobody was supposed to know how to fence. Or a symphony played by musicians who had never trained in a particular instrument. How would you determine who got to play? Is it discriminatory to insist that fencers fence rather than, say, come to the strip wanting to have a tea party instead? We don’t want people to feel excluded, my colleagues say. We want everyone to feel welcome. Another of our graduate students has argued in a piece published in Sightings this week (I have had quite an exciting week!) that medieval studies needs to forcibly diversify its faculty by purposefully hiring from underrepresented communities so as to counter the impression of “Whites Only” that persists in the field. What he does not explain is why anyone would want to study the Middle Ages in the first place.

I do not teach “medieval studies.” I teach history, particularly the history of Europe in the Middle Ages, but also the history of Christianity, because I believe that training students to think historically is a valuable discipline. To be sure, I also believe that it is important--vital--to teach students the particulars of history, but this is the WHAT to my HOW and WHY. I do not teach the history of Europe in the Middle Ages because I want to create a community of medievalists, although I enjoy greatly the conversations of colleagues in my field. I teach the history of Europe in the Middle Ages because I believe this period of history made important contributions to the development of human civilization, above all in the development of Christian practice and thought, including the thought that all human beings, whatever their skin color, are made “in the image and likeness of God.”


Which brings me to the importance of borders. According to Professor Peterson, another of the things that conservatives like is borders--and walls. They like borders, he argues, because borders represent orderliness. Liberals, on the other hand, dislike borders and walls and want everybody to be able to come in.

Contrary to what many of my colleagues would have you believe, there are good reasons to like both. The question is, as Professor Peterson points out, how do you know which is the right response at a given time? Sure, borders--and especially walls--are designed to keep people out, which makes it difficult to trade with and learn from them. But borders and walls are also designed to protect the people living within from attack--and contagion. (Just ask the indigenous peoples of the Americas about smallpox, measles, and chicken pox. Oh, right, you can’t. Most of them died.)

Here’s where things get really interesting. Still following Professor Peterson: the best indicator of orderliness is not just a liking for discipline, but disgust. Those high in the personality trait of orderliness respond not with anxiety or fear to those they see as belonging outside their borders, but disgust. Much, you might say, as my academic colleagues in medieval studies are now responding to me.

The same student who made the Facebook post this last Monday was deeply concerned back in March that I mislabeled an image I had used to illustrate one of my posts (ironically, about all the insults I had been getting; I have since fixed the reference). Such sloppiness, she insisted, indicated my complete disregard for the standards of scholarship to which, as a medievalist, I should be holding myself. “If you're going to embarrass us transatlantically,” she told me, “please use correct reasoning about the illuminations you cite!”

What perplexed me at the time and still does is why she cared so much about defending our field of study. Somehow, thanks to the fact she and I were both medievalists, I was embarrassing her. You might almost think she was a conservative, so disgusting did she find what I had done. (The giveaway here is her emphasis on separating medieval studies from the “trash” she says I speak.)  

Here’s my theory. Our political labels of “liberal” and “conservative” are useless in explaining the tensions that we are experiencing over how to study the humanities on our college campuses. What we have is not a political crisis so much as a crisis of discipline. Ent that I am, I am so open to new ideas and ways of thinking that I drive my peer reviewers nuts. They never know what box to put my work in--and tell me so. But I also believe deeply in borders, that is, the distinction between disciplines, not as ways of keeping people out, but as ways of defining the skills that we need in order to be able to act and to think.

I am not an “athlete” except insofar as I am a “fencer.” I am not a “musician” except insofar as I am a “fiddler.” I am not “spiritual” except insofar as I am “religious”--and Christian. I am not a “medievalist” except insofar as I am an “historian.”

Every skill I gain makes me more of a person. And less afraid. Having walls may be useful for keeping strangers out, but they are also places in which to train heroes--who will then have the courage to go out into the unknown and meet strangers, perhaps even make new friends.


I said it back in September, and I will say it again. What our students need is not “safe spaces,” but skills. This, I now realize, is why I have been wary of programs designed around “studies.” It is also, I hypothesize, why my colleagues in medieval studies feel so threatened by me. Not the fencers, who just want to fence. Not the fiddlers, who just want to play music. Not the Catholics at my new church, who just want to worship God. Not even most of my colleagues in History, although there are notable exceptions. But the medievalists, who have nothing to define their activity except their shared interest in a particular set of images, artifacts, stories, and texts. 

About which, as they have shown these past several weeks, they can be very possessive indeed.

*As Treebeard puts it: “I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me.” Except Milo and, I think, JBP.

Image: William of Nottingham, Commentary on the Gospels, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud. Misc. 165, fol. 211r.

Treebeard: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, bk. 3, chap. IV (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), p. 461.

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