Friday, August 12, 2016


I just read Willard Dix's 4 August 2016 Forbes piece, "So Your Kid's a Medieval Studies Major? Relax," here. In it, Dix makes the point that a student's major is not the determiner either of the whole set of courses to be taken or the career path to be followed after graduation. Often, he points out, major coursework is a small part of the overall curriculum. Often, too, as Dix notes, incoming students are unsure of what it is that they want to do; college is, in large part, about exploration, so having students take a number of courses across fields is helpful. And even in the majors that do prescribe narrower courses of study, there are summer and extension programs available, so that students need not be defined wholly by their majors. Emphasized is the idea that careful attention and interpretation are key--and every major offers a view on providing both.

Some problems do emerge from the article. One that comes to attention for me is the thwarted promise of the title; only in it is medieval studies referenced. At one level, the title lies; titles are supposed to indicate both content and approach, and while the latter is conveyed, the former is not. At another level, though, the use of "medieval studies" in the title is troubling; it marks medieval studies as shorthand for perceived uselessness. As a medievalist, I resent the implication; I and others argue at great length (here, for example) that the medieval continues to influence what goes on, whether in popular culture or in global political affairs. Understanding what was helps us understand what is, which is far from useless. Too, medieval studies is inherently interdisciplinary; it is not possible to understand the literature without understanding the music, the art, the architecture, the theology, the economics, the military and political histories, the materials conditions, and so forth. Synthesizing information, perhaps more than simply paying careful attention and applying methodical interpretation, is vital to the current multimedia climate, and medieval studies specializes in that very thing. To call it useless, then, rankles. (And there is the tendency to have medieval studies programs at the graduate, rather than the undergraduate, level; graduate majors are not quite the same thing, just as graduate school is not quite the same as undergraduate.)

Even with such a problem, though, the core message of the article is a sound one. We are not our majors only. We are not our careers only--even those of us in academe, where that is uncomfortably close to true. And what will be needed is not something that always emerges from current conditions. Trying to train for it in college, trying to use today's methods for tomorrow's challenges, is not necessarily the best way to go about things. And since Dix's article appears in Forbes, it is in a position to have some impact on more general audiences; I am given to understand that Forbes carries a fair bit of social cachet. For it to speak kindly of non-career-driven majors, then, is a good thing. Perhaps it will make easier some of the work that I will have to do in the weeks to come.

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