Back to School


Education ideally lasts a lifetime. It is a process, not an end in itself. Learning to read is only the first step. It takes decades to master a particular subject, even longer to reach the cutting edge, that point at which you have read the best of what has been written in your particular field and can see just that little bit further ahead.

I have been in school since before I can remember, and every autumn I am eager to return. This autumn I am teaching a new course on towns in the Middle Ages, for which I have just started reading intensively. I have been thinking about the history of Europe in the Middle Ages for over thirty years, and there are still things I do not know. I could write a syllabus about towns in the Middle Ages tomorrow, but I know that there are things still to learn, Alps upon Alps yet to scale.

I wish that I could find some way to share with you this experience of learning as an ongoing adventure. It saddens me to read the things that people are saying on college campuses these days, the ways in which they prefer to shut themselves off from learning rather than embrace it in all its discomfort.

Learning is fun – but it is also frightening. There is always the possibility that you will learn something you did not expect, something that challenges you to rethink everything you thought you knew. On the whole, people don’t tend to like this feeling. It is too unsettling. As Alexander Pope (1688-1744) puts it in his poem, it is intoxicating to drink shallowly, at which most people prefer to stop.

I say, most people, but I don’t really know. Judging from the conversation that my friends and I have been having in my Facebook salon, there are many people who do enjoy being challenged with new information, but learning involves more than just facts. It also involves being able to see patterns – which can change as the facts change, even as they enable us to see the facts in the first place.

I am all too familiar with this experience as an historian. Just when I think I know something well enough to teach, I find a new bit of information that takes me in an entirely different direction from what I had expected. Or that expands my sense of the topic beyond the boundaries I had originally drawn. Or changes everything I thought about the significance of even the most basic claims.

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For example, towns. I had never been terribly interested in towns. Monasteries, that was where all the cool stuff happened – liturgy and mysticism and prayer. Towns were just places where people bought and sold stuff and government happened. But then my study of the ways in which medieval Christians served the Virgin Mary took me to the image of her as the city of God, the place where God became present in creation – and suddenly towns were the most fascinating topic ever!

And what have I found looking at towns? The utterly fascinating tidbit that medieval towns – at least, the newer ones founded in the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries – were laid out according to strict geometrical patterns so as to represent in the human built environment the work of the Creator as He made the earth and heavens. Which makes every one an image of the Virgin, herself the holy city designed by God in which to dwell (Psalm 86 Vulgate). How cool is that?!


I went to sleep last night with visions of medieval towns dancing in my head and woke to the thought of how important they are to civilization. What’s in a town? People who make things. People who have specialized skills that enable them to make things that other people find useful or beautiful and for which they are willing to trade. Why is it that the Left hates capitalism so much? Because – according to the Left – it makes people greedy. But people do not become wealthy through capitalism by stealing. They become wealthy through capitalism – living in cities and developing specialized skills – by making things that other people want.

By the time I was ready to get out of bed, I had realized that studying towns in the Middle Ages really is the key to understanding Western civilization, but not quite for the reasons that Marx and Weber said. It’s been a long time since I read Weber, although I have read bits of Marx regularly over the years. I did a paper back in college where I tried to challenge Marx on his reading of feudalism. Now, God willing, some thirty years on, perhaps I have the knowledge and the tools to make that challenge good.

One of my favorite talks that Milo gave this past year on his Dangerous Faggot Tour was why, when feminists complain about the patriarchy, what they are in fact complaining about is Western civilization.
The patriarchy is the idea that people can achieve their best if they work hard, it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, what color you are, or are a man or woman.... The patriarchy says your potential is not based on your identity, but what talents you are born with and to what lengths you will go to achieve greatness.
In other words, Western civilization means towns, where, as charter after charter proclaimed, it was possible to become legally free simply by living there debt-free for a year and a day. Towns meant markets and schools where both boys and girls might study. They meant luxuries and temptations but they also meant opportunity. They meant crime but also preachers trained in theology and in telling gripping tales. They meant specialization in skills ranging across all the arts.

Oh, but this was the Middle Ages, and we all know what they were like. Oh, we do, do we? Tell that to the tanners, plasterers, cardmakers, fullers, coopers, armorers, glovers, shipwrights, fishmongers, mariners, parchment-makers, book-binders, hosiers, spicers, pewterers, founders, tilers, chandlers, goldsmiths, goldbeaters, moneyers, masons, marshalls, girdlers, nailers, sawyers, spurriers, lorimers, barbers, vintners, smiths, curriers, ironmongers, plumbers, patternmakers, pouchmakers, bottlers, capmakers, spinners, vestmakers, cutlers, bladesmiths, sheathers, scalers, bucklermakers, horners, bakers, cordwainers, bowyers, fletchers, tapestrymakers, couchers, listers, cooks, watercarriers, tilemakers, millers, furriers, hayresters, bowlers, shearmen, pinmakers, latenmakers, painters, butchers, poultry dealers, saddlers, glaziers, joiners, carpenters, winedrawers, brokers, woolpackers, scriveners, illuminators, pardoners, dubbers, tailors, potters, drapers, linen-weavers, woolen-weavers, innkeepers, and mercers who helped sponsor the Corpus Christi pageants at York in 1415.

Fast forward to the late eighteenth century and the Scottish enlightenment: according to the philosophers, it was specialized skills like these that were at the root of civilization. As Adam Ferguson observed in his Essay on the History of Civil Society, fifth edition (London and Edinburgh, 1782):
It is evident, that, however urged by a sense of necessity, and a desire of convenience, or favored by any advantages of situation and policy, a people can make no great progress in cultivating the arts of life, until they have separated, and committed to different persons, the several tasks which require a peculiar skill and attention. The savage, or the barbarian, who must build and plant, and fabricate for himself, prefers, in the interval of great alarms and fatigues, the enjoyments of sloth to the improvement of his fortune: he is, perhaps, by the diversity of his wants, discouraged from industry; or, by his divided attention, prevented from acquiring skill in the management of any particular subject.
The enjoyment of peace, however, and the prospect of being able to exchange one commodity for another, turns, by degrees, the hunter and the warrior into a tradesman and a merchant. The accidents which distribute the means of subsistence unequally, inclination, and favourable opportunities, assign the different occupations of men; and a sense of utility leads them, without end, to subdivide their professions.
The artist finds, that the more he can confine his attention to a particular part of any work, his productions are the more perfect, and grow under his hands in the greater quantities. Every undertaker in manufacture finds, that the more he can subdivide the tasks of his workmen, and the more hands he can employ on separate articles, the more are his expenses diminished, and his profits increased. The consumer too requires, in every kind of commodity, a workmanship more perfect than hands employed on a variety of subjects can produce; and the progress of commerce is but a continued subdivision of the mechanical arts.
Every craft may engross the whole of a man’s attention, and has a mystery which must be studied or learned by a regular apprenticeship. Nations of tradesmen come to consist of members, who, beyond their own particular trade, are ignorant of all human affairs, and who may contribute to the preservation and enlargement of their common-wealth, without making its interest and object of their regard or attention. Every individual is distinguished by his calling, and has a place to which he is fitted. The savage, who knows no distinction but that of his merit, of his sex, or of his species, and to whom his community is the sovereign object of affection, is astonished to find, that in a scene of this nature, his being a man does not qualify him for any station whatever [i.e. he gains no privilege from simply being a man, so much for the patriarchy--FB]: he flies to the woods with amazement, distaste, and aversion.
By the separation of arts and professions, the sources of wealth are laid open; every species of material is wrought up to the greatest perfection, and every commodity is produced in the greatest abundance. The state may estimate its profits and its revenues by the number of its people. It may procure, by its treasure, that national consideration and power, which the savage maintains at the expence of his blood. 
Communists hate specialization – they said so in the ABC of Communism – as, it seems, do feminists. At least, those feminists who hate the patriarchy and all the skills that it involves. Studying history is one such skill, as is writing about history in articles and books. Ferguson says so: “Thinking itself, in this age of separations, may become a peculiar craft.” These are the skills currently under assault in the fight over education in our schools. The question is whether we can survive as a civilization without them.

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Education should mean doing what I just did: take an inkling of an idea, mull over it, read the sources, think more, test the patterns by which it seems the facts might make sense against the theories others have proposed, think again about the sources, read some more, maybe try to put your thoughts into writing, read some more. I am years away from being able to put all of these thoughts into book form. And yet, all some of my academic colleagues care about is how training students in skills like these perpetuates patriarchal ways of thinking. Because Marx. Or feminism. It is hard to be sure. Which is hysterical because, if I am right about the way in which Marian imagery lay at the heart of the medieval town, it means, yes, the Lady was the inspiration for capitalism – and freedom.

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“A little learning,” as the poet said, “is a dangerous thing.” Milo has invited us all to be dangerous, to keep asking questions, keep challenging the narratives that we have been told. As we go back to campus, let’s keep Pope in mind. Not because he was white or European or male, but because he had thought about what it meant to learn. How exciting it was – and how daunting.
A little learning is a dangerous thing; 
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: 
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, 
And drinking largely sobers us again. 
Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts, 
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts; 
While from the bounded level of our mind 
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind, 
But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise 
New distant scenes of endless science rise! 
So pleased at first the towering Alps we try, 
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky; 
The eternal snows appear already past, 
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last; 
But those attained, we tremble to survey 
The growing labours of the lengthened way; 
The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes, 
Hill peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
Welcome back to school, Milo and I are just getting started!

Image credits: Monteriggioni, Tuscany, founded by the lords of Siena 1214-1219; Milo at Ohio University, Miami, December 2, 2016.

For the guilds represented at York in 1415, see Maryanne Kowaleski, Medieval Towns: A Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), pp. 296-99.

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