Majoring in History

From The Conversation:

Don’t despair if your teen wants to major in history instead of science

It might be your worst nightmare. Your child, sitting at the kitchen table, slides you a brochure from the local university.

“I’ve been thinking of majoring in history.”

Before you panic and begin calling the nearest computer science department, or worse, begin to crack those tired barista jokes, hear me out. This might just be the thing that your child, and our society, needs.

Choosing to become a history major is a future-friendly investment. A history degree teaches skills that are in short supply today: the ability to interpret context, and — crucially — where we’ve been, so as to better understand the world around us today and tomorrow.

We’ve never needed knowledge of history and the skills that come with the discipline more than we do now. Not only is it a good choice of a major for all the usual selfish reasons — you’ll likely get a good job, even if it takes a bit longer than the STEM disciplines, and more importantly you’ll probably be very happy with it.

But for our society more generally, we need a generation with deep capacities to acknowledge context and ambiguity. This idea of ambiguity not only pertains to interpreting the past based on a diverse body of incomplete sources, voices and outcomes, but also how our contemporary judgements of that record shape our choices today.

Our whole society hurts when students turn their back on history. A sense of history — where we have come from, the shared anchors of democratic society, the why and how of our current moment in time — is critical.

Read the whole thing.

Venice

My friend Roisin Cossar writes on The Conversation about the recent floods in Venice:

The city of Venice was recently hit by the worst flooding in more than 50 years. Water in the lagoon that surrounds the city rose 1.87 metres higher than normal, very close to the peak levels of the disastrous flood of Nov. 4, 1966. High winds of nearly 100 kilometres an hour made the situation even worse.

The city’s pedestrian streets became rushing rivers of brackish water, boats were thrown onto walkways and the crypt of the basilica of San Marco was submerged. The damage is still being tallied, but the mayor currently estimates restoration costs at more than 1 billion euros. As a historian of Venice who has spent long periods living and working in the city, I followed the stories of the damage with growing sadness and dismay.

Then I reminded myself that the international community has always responded with great concern to cataclysms in Venice. Assistance from across the world in the aftermath of the 1966 flood allowed the restoration of dozens of damaged monuments, paintings and sculptures, as well as the creation of foundations that still work to benefit the city’s artistic treasures.

Why does Venice attract so much international attention compared to other cities? I’ve been pondering this question. The city is an undeniably beautiful place, and many tourists remark on the haunting lights and sounds of a city built entirely on water, with no vehicular traffic.

But Venice is also a place with a long tradition of convincing outsiders of its uniqueness. This tradition may continue to shape the way the world sees the city today, and could be what ends up helping the city survive.

More at the link

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Thomas MacMaster writes, in reference to a recent death in Syria:

Am I the only one startled to see the lack of discussion over the death of a world famous scholar of the medieval world (BA, MA, & PhD as well as numerous publications) who probably did more to weaponize medieval studies in the past decade than anyone else?

We should also acknowledge his leadership of one of the largest medieval re-enactment groups (with a serious commitment to using the digital humanities for outreach).

He makes a good point…

A Recent Local Event

Near where I live is a mosque, called the “Masjid Quba.” It is in a strip mall on GA-20, off I-75. They have a sign over their storefront, and a two-part sign on the strip mall index by the road. The top reads “Masjid Quba” and the bottom is in Arabic script.

Or rather, was. As I drove by today I noticed that “Masjid Quba” had been removed, and only part of the Arabic script sign remained.

And on the other side, the Arabic was completely gone, although “Masjid Quba” remained.

Were they moving out? Probably not – Pakiza Grocery and Chuska Restaurant are no longer in the strip mall, yet their signs are still up.

The broken sign at the foot of the index indicates violent removal.

Could it have been the wind? Not likely – for the wind to take out both sides of the same sign, while leaving everything else intact, would make for a very freak wind.

The fact that one broken part of the fallen “Masjid Quba” sign was placed directly in front of the mosque’s entrance suggests that human agents were responsible, and that this represents an act of vandalism. The metal pole in the photo above was likely the instrument used.

So what is going on? A friend thinks they did it to themselves to get sympathy. Another posits that it was intra-Muslim factional violence, or that they may have owed money to someone.

But given the fact that this was directed against a mosque, in a part of the country where the overwhelming religion is evangelical Christianity, suggests that it is an example of what the newspapers call a “hate crime.” If so, it is rather disappointing.

And, I regret to say, it’s not first time that the Masjid Quba has been targeted:

Mosque Vandalism Includes ‘Racial Slurs’

The Bartow County Sheriff’s Office and FBI are investigating possible hate crimes.

By Brande Poulnot, Patch Staff | Apr 15, 2011 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has stepped in to assist detectives in determining whether acts of vandalism at the are hate crimes, which are federal offenses, Sgt. Jonathan Rogers said.

The mosque twice has been the target of vandals in the past few weeks. The first incident, on March 18 or 19, involved messages such as “Muslim Murders” and what deputies called racial slurs.

The morning of March 19, a worker at an adjacent business noticed several windows had been smashed along the front of the building on Merchants Square. Two messages, including a drawing of the Star of David, had been written on the windows, and concrete and bricks that had apparently been thrown through the windows contained “racial slurs,” according to the incident report.

In the second incident, deputies Tuesday retrieved four large rocks used to damage the center the previous night or early that morning. Four glass doors and windows in the front of the building were damaged.

Of course, this is pretty small potatoes on the grand scheme of things. Muslims in Cartersville, Georgia do not have nearly as much to worry about as, say, the Copts in Egypt do. But it’s still an ugly and shameful incident. It’s a free country, dammit! Their rights are your rights. Don’t do stuff like this!

ADDENDUM

I snapped this picture in 2015, of a church sign on GA-140, illustrating an attitude that (I guess) is all too common around here. Of course, the fact that Muhammad is dead is the entire point of Islam, and I still maintain that you don’t need to run down someone else’s religion in order to promote your own, especially in a place where the only presence of that religion is single mosque in a strip mall.

Our Appeal Has Become More Selective

Some sobering news from IHE:

History has seen the steepest decline in majors of all disciplines since the 2008 recession, according to a new analysis published in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History.

“The drop in history’s share of undergraduate majors in the last decade has put us below the discipline’s previous low point in the 1980s,” reads the analysis, written by Benjamin M. Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University.

Some numbers: there were 34,642 history degrees conferred in 2008, according to federal data. In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, there were 24,266. Between 2016 and 2017 alone, there was a 1,500 major drop-off. And even as overall university enrollments have grown, “history has seen its raw numbers erode heavily,” Schmidt wrote, especially since 2011-12.

“Of all the fields I’ve looked at, history has fallen more than any other in the last six years,” he says. The 2012 time frame is significant, according to the analysis, because it’s the first period in which students who experienced the financial crisis could easily change their majors.

The data represent a “new low” for the history major, Schmidt wrote. While a 66 percent drop in history’s share of majors from 1969 to 1985 remains the “most bruising” period in the discipline’s history, that drop followed a period of rapid enrollment expansion. The more recent drop is worse than history’s previous low point, in the 1980s.

I think that one of the main reasons for the decline in the history major is on account of university tuition fees continually rising far beyond the rate of inflation, so that students, of necessity, must see university as a financial investment that needs to start paying off immediately, rather than an incubator of cultural literacy, informed citizenship, and a personal life philosophy, as it may once have been. I am not saying that history majors can’t perform well in a wide variety of jobs, precisely because they can conduct research and present it coherently, it’s just that they have to overcome certain hurdles before they can convince people to hire them. I would not discount the politicization of the discipline, although this is not nearly as bad as some commentators would like to suggest (the profession as a whole might lean to the left, but you can always find professors who keep their politics to themselves, or who are even conservative). But I take consolation in the fact that our appeal really is selective: to do history properly you need intelligence and motivation, literacy and hard work. These qualities are less common that you might imagine.

Manners Maketh Man

Adrian Woodbridge in The Economist‘s 1843 magazine:

In his new book, In Pursuit of Civility, British historian Keith Thomas tells the story of the most benign developments of the past 500 years: the spread of civilised manners. In the 16th and 17th centuries many people behaved like barbarians. They delighted in public hangings and torture. They stank to high heaven. Samuel Pepys defecated in a chimney. Josiah Pullen, vice-principal of Magdalen Hall, Oxford, urinated while showing a lady around his college, “still holding the lady fast by the hand”. It took centuries of painstaking effort – sermons, etiquette manuals and stern lectures – to convert them into civilised human beings.

Reading Thomas’s book on a train recently I was gripped by a terrible realisation: everything our forebears worked so hard to achieve is now reversing. A process that took centuries has been undone in just a few decades.

There is no better place to observe the collapse of manners than on mass transport. The most basic move in the civilising process was to make a distinction between the public and the private: persuading people to defecate in lavatories rather than chimneys and eat at regular times in designated places, not whenever or wherever the mood took them. Yet today city streets reek of urine and trains smell of fast food. I recently had the misfortune to sit next to a quivering man-mountain on a train who proceeded to slurp a Coke, demolish a Big Mac, munch fries and spill ketchup onto his beard while giggling at a film on his super-sized iPad. His only concession to the fact that he wasn’t in his own sitting room was to wear headphones.

Read the whole thing. Article title is a reference to a famous book on the subject.

Medievalism

In the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, Amy S. Kaufman of the Public Medievalist blog writes in the Washington Post:

Chivalry isn’t dead. But it should be. The medieval defense of Brett Kavanaugh

Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court has been fueled by deep rage among conservatives, who think his position in the American nobility guarantees his fitness for the job. Wayne Allyn Root, for instance, defended Kavanaugh as “a great man” by comparing their pedigrees: “Brett Kavanaugh graduated near the top of his class in his high school while starring in sports. I graduated number one in my high school while starring in sports. Then he went on to Yale. I went on to Columbia.” Kavanaugh himself dodged Sen. Mazie Hirono’s (D-Hawaii) questions about college drinking by responding, “I got into Yale Law School. That’s the number one law school in the country.”

Supporters not only pointed to Kavanaugh’s elite credentials to defend his nomination, they also have extolled his chivalry, from parading around the young girls he coaches to sharing support from women who knew him in his prep school days. Kavanaugh stressed his chastity and his care for women in an interview with Fox News: “Just ask the moms,” he said. Heather Mac Donald touted Kavanaugh’s “unblemished record of treating women with respect” to argue that even if the attack on accuser Christine Blasey Ford happened, it would be “feminist narcissism to put an uncharacteristic instance of adolescent, never-repeated sexual aggression ahead of a lifetime of achievement in the law.”

These medieval defenses of Kavanaugh’s nobility and chivalry seem out of place. After all, Americans pride themselves on their modern, meritocratic culture. Moreover, the notion of a chivalrous Kavanaugh seems tenuous: As accounts of hazing, sexual assault and drunken violence in his social circle keep emerging, we’re getting the picture of a man who exhibits anything but modesty, restraint and respect for women. And yet in that sense, very little has changed between the Middle Ages and today: Medieval chivalry also was a fiction that masked aristocratic violence.

Chivalry, which has always been more literary than real, has been called a “protection racket,” because it forces women to rely on men to protect them from other men. Even then, chivalry protects only certain women. The 12th-century poet Chrétien de Troyes, famous for his chivalric romances, explained that if a noblewoman or her lady in waiting traveled alone, a knight could “no more treat her with dishonor than cut his own throat.” But if he fought another knight for her and won, he could “do with her as he pleased.” Lower-class women didn’t warrant a mention in Troyes’s chivalric code.

Read the whole thing. (If you’ve run out of Washington Post articles for the month, just hit the “stop loading” button after the text has appeared but before the entire page is loaded – that should allow you to read it.)

Ms. Kaufman raises several points in this piece, many of which, I confess, I disagree with. It only makes sense that Kavanaugh would invoke his “chivalry” towards women, given that he was accused of attempted rape – he was trying to establish that his general attitude toward women was positive, not abusive – and I put chivalry in quotation marks because mentoring women law students and coaching girls’ sports is fundamentally different from the “protection racket” that medieval chivalry apparently was. Teaching women some (masculine) skill acknowledges their potential for independent action, something generally lacking from medieval romance. I suppose that Kaufman is suggesting that Christine Blasey Ford is playing the role of the lower-class woman who gets no mention in Chrétien’s code, although Ford went to a tonier prep school than Kavanaugh did, and for Kavanaugh to mess around with someone like that would have been playing with fire (one reason to be skeptical of the accusation leveled against him).

I wish that Kavanaugh had not invoked his Yale education to deflect stories about his high school social life, as in:

-Were you a party animal in high school?
-I was first in my class and got into Yale!

This does not answer the question, of course. It is perfectly possible to compartmentalize one’s hard work from one’s hard partying; I knew plenty of people like this. But I reject Kaufman’s designation of Kavanaugh’s educational career as a “pedigree” – or rather, I think that Kavanaugh’s hard work in high school to get into Yale is a perfect example of America’s “modern, meritocratic culture.” I reckon that there were plenty of people from Georgetown Prep who tried to get into Yale and didn’t, and plenty of Yalies who tried to get into YLS and didn’t, because their grades weren’t good enough.

But in defense of chivalry: that women must place themselves under the protection of men, whether their fathers, brothers, or husbands, who are then obliged to defend them, is not anything “medieval”; it is the human condition. Medieval chivalry, even if it was just a literary conceit, was an attempt at universalizing this protection. That women as such were entitled to knightly consideration, I would argue, was a step toward gender equality. (And Chretien de Troyes was not the only arbiter of chivalry – I am unaware of any other authors claiming that men could do whatever they wanted to the women they had “won”). Sure, maybe you had to be a classy lady before you could attract the service of a knight – but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good – one must start somewhere

On the contrary, if there’s anything medieval about the Kavanaugh hearings it’s the notion that we must believe all women unconditionally, that we are not allowed to subject their claims to critical scrutiny, that an accusation and a conviction are essentially the same thing. There’s some “chivalry” for you! Leap to it, white knights, and defend the honor of your lady! And insofar as the Middle Ages are cast as an irrational, pre-Enlightenment time, the #MeToo movement can certainly be seen as a return to this.

This is why l liked Lindsay Graham’s riposte to some protestors. When pressed why they weren’t demanding that Kavanaugh take a polygraph, the senator responded “You’ve humiliated this guy enough and there seems to be no bottom for some of you.” When the protesters continued to talk, Graham asked rhetorically: “Why don’t we dunk him in the water and see if he floats?”

Trial by ordeal! Something also putatively medieval.

Some Recent Links

• Noble Ingram on Christian Science Monitor: “History lesson: Scholars take aim at racist views of Middle Ages”

Fiamenco File: “OMG, She Cheered for White Men!” (16 minute YouTube video)

• Peter Wood on Inside Higher Ed.: “Anatomy of a Smear: Scholars should speak out against those who have weaponized the language of “safety,” “security,” “acknowledgment” and “inclusion” to silence anyone who disagrees with them”

• Jay Nordlinger on National Review Online: “One Gutsy Medievalist” (link to Ricochet podcast)

News from Ireland

• Our guide in Belfast claimed that the different communities were beginning to appreciate each other’s customs. But what this can mean in practice is that the one community might adopt the other community’s customs, in reverse. If Unionists will go marching around in nationalist neighborhoods, then nationalists will go marching around in Unionist neighborhoods. If Unionists have huge bonfires on which they immolate nationalist symbols, well then nationalists will do the same with Unionist symbols. A twitter post from Leave.EU showed a recent nationalist bonfire in Derry that consumed several Union Jacks, Ulster banners, poppy wreaths, a British Army flag, various Protestant paramilitary flags, a Trump flag (!), and, to the consternation of the Times of Israel, an Israeli flag.

• I don’t know which community was the first to paint its kerbstones in the relevant colors (red, white, and blue for Unionists; green, white, and orange for nationalists), but apparently doing so counts as a hate crime now (or at least, you can report it as such, and the PSNI is obliged to investigate).

• Féile an Phobail, or the West Belfast Festival, was founded in the late 1980s in order to convince people that the Republicans who lived there had other interests besides terrorism. Alas, you can’t have something in West Belfast without someone ruining it; the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar opened the festival this year and was roundly criticized for doing so, after the appearance of IRA flags in the crowd. He had been warned that this was likely to happen, but went ahead and participated anyway.

Dare Stones

I have just discovered the existence of South’s version of the Kensington Runestone. From the Brenau Window:

In November 1937 as America clawed its way out of The Great Depression, a Californian man showed up at the history department of Emory University in Atlanta with a most peculiar object – a 21-pound chunk of rough veined quartz with some foreign looking words chiseled into its surface. The man said he found the rock in a North Carolina swamp, about 80 miles from Roanoke Island, while he was driving through on vacation. The strange stone caught the attention of one of the professors, Dr. Haywood Pearce Jr., who also served as vice president of Brenau, where his father was president. The inscription on the stone read “Ananias Dare & Virginia went hence unto heaven 1591,” and a message to notify John White of that news bore the initials of the author of the carved writing, EWD, presumably those of Eleanor Dare.

Although Emory’s historians weren’t interested, Pearce and his father certainly were. Perhaps they concluded that, if this chuck of rock indeed marked the graves of America’s “first white child” and her father, it might well be the thing to put their college on the map. They wound up paying the California man $1,000 for the treasure.

Anyone who has used tiller, plow or trowel in Appalachian dirt will swear the region grows rocks. But nothing plows better than cold cash. To make a long story short, over the next four years, similar rocks popped up all over the place, mostly found by four people. Pearce and his father over the years acquired close to 50 of the huge stones, all with similar inscriptions unearthed as far south as the banks of the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta. Although the Pearces’ fervent explorations and money never turned up graves or any other evidence to authenticate the stones, a team of Smithsonian Institution-commissioned historians – headed by the venerable Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard – traveled to Gainesville and, in a preliminary report, assigned some validity to what had then come to be known as “The Dare Stones.”

David Morrison’s article notes that the Saturday Evening Post, in 1941, conclusively proved that most of these stones were forgeries, but what about the original one? From the Washington Post on July 5 (hat tip: Ron Good):

In the past few years, researchers have been taking another look. For one, the letters etched on the first stone look very different from the others. It doesn’t contain any suspiciously modern words as the others do. Plus, Dare was “moderately educated,” Schrader says, and her husband was a stonemason. It’s reasonable to think she may have learned the skill from him.

In 2016, Schrader had a sample of the stone analyzed by the University of North Carolina at Asheville, exposing the quartz’s bright white interior.

“The original inscription would have been a stark contrast to the weathered exterior,” science writer Andrew Lawler wrote for National Geographic. “A good choice for a Roanoke colonist but a poor one for a modern forger.”

Schrader said he would like to marshal the funds for an “exhaustive, geochemical investigation,” but first, this fall, a Brenau professor will assemble a team of outside experts to analyze the language more thoroughly.

“The type of English that’s on the stone was really only used for about a hundred years, so it’s a nice time marker to be able to study,” Schrader said.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out. (I make no comment on the use of “Virginia Dare” by white nationalists – if the rock is authentic, then it’s authentic, and if it’s fake, then it’s fake. What “uses” it is put to are beyond the investigator’s concern.)