Theories of the Past Still Have Relevance Today

By Luke A. Fidler

While I commend Dylan Stafford’s critical attention to the University’s curriculum, I cannot agree with his castigation of historical texts, described in his Maroon column of April 3, 2017, “Intellectual Malpractice.” Perhaps this is because we start from different first principles: I do not grant any solvency to the fictive category of the “great intellectual,” nor do I think that one must be enrolled in an elite university to fully engage one’s intellect. Moreover, if Stafford begins his argument by suggesting that the “affluence” of the undergraduate community is partly to blame for his peers’ interest in the canon, I am a member of the underpaid, overworked graduate student community that cannot be considered “affluent” by any reasonable metric. More importantly, I believe that he mischaracterizes the texts of the past and the relevance of these texts to the present moment.  

Stafford argues that when we privilege works from bygone eras we neglect a “globalized and diverse world.” I submit that Herodotus’s Histories offer an excellent opportunity to inspect a globalized and diverse world, as do the writings of Muslim and Jewish philosophers writing in medieval Spain, or objects like Trajan’s Column. We should not labor under the illusion that migration or trade are constituent features of a new, unique human existence. Such a notion would have come as a surprise to the Aksumite traders on the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian merchants who regularly visited the Swahili Coast. Neither should the desire to read women and non-European thinkers disqualify the “philosophies of the past” from examination in the present, when the textual record boasts the likes of Hildegard of Bingen, Margaret Cavendish, and Ibn Khaldun. My own syllabus for the Introduction to Medieval Art course is largely composed of female authors, includes sections on Islamic science and cartography, and dwells at length on the spectacular paintings and drawings made by medieval nuns.  

Finally, Stafford construes the study of past texts as a frivolous pursuit, irrelevant to present-day concerns. I will simply note here the outsize role that history plays in contemporary discourse and decision-making. While neoliberal hawks and “alt-right” trolls delight in reprising crusader rhetoric, Chicago itself is a case study in the enduring power of racism and segregation. A faculty member in the University’s own history department has gained national prominence by justifying hate speech with the rhetoric of the Middle Ages. White supremacist poster campaigns on this campus—particularly those by the group Identity Europa—have drawn on the art of the Renaissance and Roman antiquity to buttress their distasteful political positions. No study of the present, as thinkers from Augustine to Hannah Arendt have noted, can afford to ignore the powerful afterlife of the past. To do so would truly be intellectual malpractice. 

Luke A. Fidler is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Art History.