Defiantly useless

Early Medieval Art has a post today on the uses of teaching such apparently irrelevant topics as hers to undergraduates in this day and age. I quote:

The Early Middle Ages offers the point of origin for many modern-day realities- of modern European national identities, of a collective European identity, and of the Christian Church, to name but the most obvious – and the tracing of these traditions to their early medieval origin certainly constitutes a valid undertaking. To search for reflections of ourselves, however, in this distant past seems to me a bit problematic. Indeed, I question the need for each and every course to prove itself directly relevant to the lives of students…

Instead, I see great value in course material that is not all about the student. First, always seeking the relevance of the past to the present somehow denigrates the past, as if it only has meaning if it relates to us and our experience. Furthermore, approaching the past through such a lens distorts our view of it and thereby does not do right by the past.

In fact, the irrelevance of early medieval art (or the art of any other distant period) makes it especially valuable for the development of upper-level thinking skills. In the study of early medieval art, students can develop their upper-level thinking skills without interference from assumptions and biases…

More here.

I like her staunch defence of the apparently irrelevant, but i’m not sure that you can count any period of study ‘free from assumptions and biases’. Quid Plura, for example, talks today about teasing students away from their inherant assumptions about the repressed society which we call ‘the middle ages’, in order to properly understand Chaucer. I find it hard to believe that art is any different…


6 Responses to “Defiantly useless”

  1. B. Hawk Says:

    I’m continually worried about relevance and usefulness–but the medieval art post made me feel much better about it! I think there’s something there: irrelevant? Maybe. But it’s still worth learning! And I love knocking students out of their biases and assumptions.

  2. highlyeccentric Says:

    I think Jonathan Jarret had the last word on the matters of historical usefullness, did he not? I printed out his ‘mission statements’ posts and stuck them on my mother’s fridge with a pointed look.

  3. Jeff Says:

    I like her defense, too, although I’m not convinced that early medieval art is “irrelevant.” For starters, the subject has immediate relevance to any Christians, Muslims, and Jews who are well-informed about their own religious traditions. Even so, I agree that medieval places, objects, and texts are useful in getting students to think about subjects beyond themselves. Heck, I considered it a breakthrough in my medievalism course last year when two students finally stopped using “I feel…” in their papers.

  4. highlyeccentric Says:

    Nice work! I had the urge to use ‘I’ beaten out of me in high school… it was a wrench to have to learn appropriate uses of the first person in essays sometime last year.

    And you’re right about the religious relevance, actually. Not enough people care about the period between St Paul and Martin Luther, in my humble opinion. Most of the time they have no idea of the centuries of thought shaping what comes down from their pulpit every week.
    After I reeled off a few defences of medieval studies to my entirely uncomprehending mother over the summer, it was a very proud day when I found she’d been trying to defend my choice of study in the face of a bunch of protestants of the ‘all-catholics-are-going-to-hell’, and ‘the-church-was-so-corrupt-back-then’ persuasion.

  5. Jeff Says:

    It’s funny: one of the student assumptions I regularly encounter (and this is partially a response to Brandon’s comment above) is the idea that anyone who studies or writes about the Middle Ages must want to live there, too. I’ve argued to my students (a diverse group of adult undergrads) that the Middle Ages weren’t necessarily better or worse than they imagine, only different. Once they get that, they begin to understand that medievalists aren’t necessarily in it for the nostalgia. They also begin to see that hey, it’s possible to de-personalize the study of art, literature, and history and still retain great enthusiasm. (Not that it’s all impersonal for me, of course, but I do have to preach the standard, no?)

  6. Kirsten Ataoguz Says:

    Thank you for all your thoughts on my post!

    I just glanced at Jeff’s blog, Quid plura? and followed his reference to the David Brooks’ essay in the New York Times, “The Great Escape”. I myself turned to the early Middle Ages as an escape, after an intensive engagement with politics as an undergraduate, but I never returned from it. So, although relevance can be defined to the advantage of early medieval art, I must confess that I wonder whether relevance is such a virtue at all.

    Thanks again for your comments!

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