Update on Academia: a Medieval Studies feud

V0050236 A fist-fight between Lord Brougham and Lord Melbourne as Pea Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A fist-fight between Lord Brougham and Lord Melbourne as Peachum and Lockit. Coloured lithograph by H.B. (John Doyle), 1837. 1837 By: John DoylePublished: 22 October 1836 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

From Inside Higher Ed:

No one — besides fellow racists, perhaps — is pleased that white supremacists have been using imagery from the Middle Ages to further their cause. However, as two professors disagreed about what was to be done about that trend, the dispute was laid out for the public to see, resulting in calls for civility from medieval studies organizations, and Facebook posts tagging far-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos.

Dorothy Kim, an assistant professor of English at Vassar College, called on fellow professors who teach about the medieval period to overtly condemn white supremacy in their classrooms. Kim, who is Asian, wrote in a blog post for medieval studies blog In the Middle that unless white supremacy was explicitly condemned by the overwhelmingly white population of professors who teach on the subject, it would continue to be used by white supremacists, especially those who are young and college aged.

“If the medieval past (globally) is being weaponized for the aims of extreme, violent supremacist groups, what are you doing, medievalists, in your classrooms?” she wrote. “Because you are the authorities teaching medieval subjects in the classroom, you are, in fact, ideological arms dealers.”

“Neutrality is not optional.” . . .

Rachel Fulton Brown, an associate professor at the University of Chicago, doesn’t deny that white supremacists use medieval imagery in their protests or in attempts to invoke a mythical, purely white medieval Europe. However, she disagreed with Kim’s assertion that white professors needed to do more to call out white supremacy in the classroom.

“Richard Spencer and company that are making arguments bringing back a particular vision of Europe, they’re bringing back a fantasy that is their own making, and [that is] instantly punctured if you actually study the history of the Middle Ages,” she said. “We are creating a fear that is unnecessary.”

The article continues by describing a feud between the two scholars and their defenders.  Fulton Brown is labelled as “racially insensitive”; Fulton Brown claims, in a blog post of her own, that Kim has called her a “white supremacist.”  In Kim’s own article, on the progressive Medievalists site In the Middle, she writes,

You really have no excuse to address whether your medieval studies is a white supremacist medieval studies or not. You also do not have a choice in whether you are part of this debate because the debate is already prevalent and public. Our students are watching and will make judgements and calls on what side you are really on. I suggest overt signaling of how you are not a white supremacist and how your medieval studies is one that does not uphold white supremacy. Neutrality is not optional.

And this all pretty much sounds like a mess.

Yes, if white supremacists look back longingly at the Middle Ages as a time when Europeans were “pure white”, well, that’s a bad thing — though a bit odd, too; it’s not as if Medieval culture hit great heights due to its whiteness, so I’m not sure exactly what they’re taking pride in.  Frankly, though, I don’t see that it does a lot of good to structure one’s medieval history class as one that emphasizes  (and prioritizes class instructional time) on interactions (trade, scholarly connections, diplomacy) between the “white” ethnic groups of Europe and nonwhites, e.g., Arabs from the Islamic Empire, the Chinese of the Silk Route, and so on; it certainly seems to emphasize and reinforce the modern color-lens which differentiates between white people and “of color” people (or, apparently, BIPOC, the new acronym, for “black, indigenous, and people of color”, which the In the Middle blog uses); even if your objective is to promote the notion that the BIPOCs are part of the “medieval story.”  In fact, in Fulton Brown’s own blog post, she emphasizes that Christians of the time were perfectly comfortable with the idea that Mary was dark-skinned, pointing to examples in writing and in art, and that the main organizing element of their worldview was not skin color but religion:

Medieval European Christianity was focused not on Europe, but on Christendom – and the center of Christendom was not in Europe, but in Asia.

But this is where I get helicoptery.  After all, we are, in the end, not just talking about scholarly debates, but about students in classrooms, students who, for all that they are, strictly speaking, adults, really don’t have enough experience with the wider world to just roll their eyes, and take things with a grain of salt.  I am, in fact, the mother of a child who will be in a college classroom next year, a child who is more likely than the average kid to struggle to brush off teachers who bring politics into the classroom, and this concerns me considerably — politicized classrooms, a quad full of protesters, mandatory sessions on anti-racism (“white men are all racists”) and anti-sexism (“white men are all rapists”) are a recipe for wasted tuition, if he can’t cope with all of this.

 

Image: V0050236 A fist-fight between Lord Brougham and Lord Melbourne as Pea
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org
A fist-fight between Lord Brougham and Lord Melbourne as Peachum and Lockit. Coloured lithograph by H.B. (John Doyle), 1837.
1837 By: John DoylePublished: 22 October 1836
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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