Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Allen Furor

Scott Nokes over at Unlocked Wordhoard has mentioned an article
published in The Weekly Standard titled A Dark Age for
Medievalists: At their annual congress in Kalamazoo, it's no
longer your grandfather's Middle Ages. Its an interesting, if
utterly erroneous take on the International Congress on Medieval
Studies that takes place in Kalamazoo each year; the Weekly
Standard should be embarrassed, as should Catholic University of
America where the author, Charlotte Allen is supposedly earning her
doctorate. There have been some comments to Scott's notice of the
article and his response to it, and he gives a roundup of other bloggers.
In light of my recent post on Kalamazoo, I thought it worthwhile to
take a few monments to respond to the skein of misrepresentations
that the article reports.

So who is this author? Charlotte Allen appears to be a freelance
journalist of some kind and claims to be a doctoral candidate in the
Medieval and Byzantine Studies program at Catholic University of
America. Does that not make her a medievalist? T'would seem so,
thus the "distance" by describing the congress as "their" as if she
were not part of the whole thing...and from the contents of the
article I wonder if she were actually even registered.

And why should we be concerned that it isn't our 'grandfather's
middle ages"? We know a good deal more about the period now than
we did in my grandfather's day. Sure, we stand on their shoulders
and build on their legacy...that's the way its supposed to work!
But why the suggestion that the field should remain static for the
last century with no advances, reassessments, reading texts not
considered before, etc. I rather think it a very good thing that
the field has not remained static since my grandfather's day, and I
wonder at the grasp that this supposed doctoral candidate has to
think or to pine that our grandfather's middle ages should still be
the state of the field.

Moving to the first paragraph, there is much to discuss. I will
let others address the attacks on post-modern approaches to things
medieval. But let's start with a few actual facts. First, the
session she attended was not in a classroom, but in one of the
famed Valleys (Valley II), and those rooms have never held a class.
They're study rooms and lounges for the inhabitants. A small
point, but a point nonetheless that illustrates a whole strategy of
misreporting and factual error in the article. She defines the
topic of the one paper from Session 6 she mentions (and I suspect
the only one from Session 6 she heard, but more on that in a
moment) as being a 15th century farce, telling us that a farce is a
"lowlife comic drama". Lowlife? What makes it "lowlife?" A farce
is a comic play in this case that uses "low comedy", consisting of
sexual and gender confusion, scatology, puns, and highly
caricatured portrayals of personality traits. But does "low
comedy" equal "lowlife"? Well, if Terence and Plautus and most
importantly Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson are lowlife, I would
guess so. But most conservative authors at The Weekly Standard and
like organizations would look to ol' Harold's _The Closing of the
American Mind_ as a good gospel text so to speak, a book and author
who would uphold Shakespeare as a cultural high point whose works
students should learn, and so not "lowlife." Much less the necessity of reading
classical Latin texts, preferably in Latin....I suppose these all
are "lowlife". Nor is the description in the beginning of the
second paragraph any better: "Rabelaisian-style scatology" as a
description of the farce's contents. But Allen seems unaware that
the 15th century farce predates the 16th century writer and that
Rabelais' use of low comedy is a very very very old tradition by
the time he and other sixteenth century writers grasp hold of it,
and anyone vaguely familiar with classical and medieval literature
would recognize the scatological humor and likely would not call it
"Rabelaisian-style scatology". When she reports that she has
translated perfectly good English words (bourgeois fecal habitus)
out of postmodernese (not sure what is post-modern about speaking
of the bourgeois, feces, or habitus, but never mind), one wonders
whether she has truly understood the paper in question.

The beginning of the next paragraph reads: "And you thought that
the Middle Ages was all about jousting knights and damsels in
distress." As someone who supposedly studies the Medieval period,
this characterization, whether negative or positive, is shocking!
Allen and her school, Catholic University of America, Medieval and
Byzantine Studies, OUGHT TO BE EMBARRASSED! Especially for someone
who bemoans the absence of history!

Well she does go on, and others in the blogosphere have addressed
points like her claim that no "big names" come to Kazoo, which even
a cursory glance through the index of participants reveals is false
as is the related claim that those few who do come do so only to
lend gravitas to sessions and don't actually participate. Others
have addressed the fact that she obviously didn't attend at least
one of the sessions she ridicules, and grossly misrepresents
others. But I want to turn to some other points and then address
why we should care.

First, this piece is not merely a rant nor is it merely a crank piece. It is a piece of carefully crafted, and for a certain audience,
effective piece of rhetoric. I'll explain what its aim is below.
But Allen uses all the buzz words that for a certain audience will
in fact push the desired buttons. "Post-modern", "not interested
in history" "scatology", the dance and mentions of illicit sex
(completely ignoring ON PURPOSE the frequent services conducted
over the course of the Congress and open to attendance by all).

Second, following from my "first", is that mention that
"medievalists" aren't interested in history. Ok, to be fair she
said "waste-study scholars". In refutation, a) to the person
posing the question about the commodity of manure being valueable,
the very word manure and fertilizer distance the users from the
fact that its a pile of shit, and there are many things that are
valueable commodities but those commodity dealers are not
necessarily valued or socially acceptable, or necessarily wanted in
"high" or "polite" society. Economic value does not equal social
value. More importantly b) how is observing the difference between
social value and economic value NOT historical and based in reading
the texts? It seems that even mentioning this disproves her
contention of a disinterest in history. But that isn't the point:
the point is that this lack of interest in history is a particular
button for the audience and the use of it here is important. (We
could point out to the many history sessions and history
organizations presenting at K'zoo.....but that's too easy).

Third, she lies. Yes, she lies. For example, she states that students are not required to take courses in Western Civ any more....they aren't? What campuses? I've worked at 5 different colleges or state universities (2 private, 3 public) in as many different states and all 5 of them require Western Civ of some kind. Or there's the statement "in which undergrads increasingly shun the humanities because they can't take all the theory" to describe the current state of affairs in academia. Huh? Oh sure, there are some programs, English in particular that offer undergraduate theory courses....but um, in case she hadn't noticed there are theory courses for undergrads in the sciences too, and in psych and in education and in business.....and students certainly don't shun the humanities because of theory. They major or double major in fields like education and business because in the USA we now place emphasis on going to college to get a better job...i. e. as an expensive vo-tech training and so the emphasis on practical majors like education, business, pre-med, poli sci to lead to law school and the like has nothing to do with theory, but with that practical, pragmatic application. This is an attitude I disagree with, but I recognize it as the reason why students are often convinced they need to go to college. Second, we in the US place a huge emphasis now on math and science scores and where the humanities are stressed at all in high school it is a list of facts from history that are deemed important and the "rules of grammar". We don't stress the need to read stories of any age or period or culture as a whole, that might involve too much reflection. But again, nothing to do with theory. Allen knows this, she deliberately lies.

Fourth, misrepresentation by omission. She focuses her critique on medievalism papers and theory based papers. She does not even mention in a breath the plethora of history, archaeology, theology, medieval science, linguistic papers, much less in literature the philology and historicist and neo-historicist readings or the manuscript studies and other fields I've missed. Not once are any of those even hinted at as having been a part of the Congress. Again, I don't believe that she just missed those and wasn't aware of them: she had a program obviously! She chose specific sessions! She talked to people! No, again, this was a deliberate omission for her audience.

Again, I could go on, but why these cheap rhetorical tricks, why the audience of The Weekly Standard?

Let's remember that The Weekly Standard is the neo-con sourcebook. These are the folk who in their first issue after 9/11 equated the events of that day with Saddam Hussein, whose issue rather than sporting a picture of bin Laden, had Hussein's photo...and this issue appeared before even Shrub, aka Pres. Bush, decided that Hussein was at fault (see timeline in Richard Clark's book). Remember that the senior writer of The Weekly Standard, Matt Labash, has gone on record stating that the method of journalism which they use is utterly subjective: "We've created this cottage industry in which it pays to be un-objective. It pays to be subjective as much as possible. It's a great way to have your cake and eat it too. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It's a great little racket. I'm glad we found it actually." ( He also says that he looks for pockets of journalism not previously covered in choosing his stories.

All very interesting I'm sure the one or two readers out there is saying, but what does this have to do with Allen's piece? I'll get there. Let's look at what else Allen gets herself up to. She's a writer at Minding the Campus. Minding the Campus describes itself as being interested in Intellectual Pluralism, but then turns around and cites Harold Bloom and _The Closing of the American Mind_, yet in my view their description of Bloom's ideas do not match the book I read. They claim that they want to foster honest engagement in ideas, and yet we find that their writers like Allen obviously are not interested in honest and open exchange of ideas--just look at her article on Kalamazoo! Minding the Campus is part of the Center for the American University sponsored by The Manhattan Institute. The Center describes itself first by describing what it isn't: it isn't a modern university that stifles diversity of thought. They claim that their purpose is to restore "the original conception of the university": "We want to foster a university based on neither conservative nor liberal doctrines, but rather on the search for knowledge and truth. Discovering truth, however, is impossible without a commitment to freedom of inquiry and the broadest possible range of viewpoints-what we call intellectual pluralism." HMMM, well no wonder they're after the medievalists! We know what the original conception of the university was! And talking about that would rather destroy their claims and activities. As a test case, they decried Churchill and attacked his scholarship and credentials. Fascinating. Now there were certainly problems with Ward Churchill's scholarship and credentials, no question there. I'm just pointing to the fact that while claiming to uphold freedom and diversity of thought in the university, these folks are talking out of both sides of their mouths: just like the Weekly Standard attacking "liberals" for being subjective, but being subjective all they want. Its a nice racket. So CAU and Minding the Campus will continue to attack American thinkers and universities as not being up to snuff.

What else do these folk want? Well, one thing they want is a return to the Great Books of Western Thought tradition. Allen herself writing in the LA Times criticizes the American university system for forgetting what it is that students need to know, who Plato was and what happened at Appamottox:,0,6765169.story

A couple of paragraphs later Allen says: "Instead of the carefully crafted core programs that once guided students through the basics of literature, philosophy, history and the social sciences, most colleges now offer smorgasbords of unrelated classes for their students to sample in order to fulfill requirements. And the professors stock the smorgasbords with whatever the theorists they idolize tells them is the new new thing." What university has she been to? The article criticizes Occidental university for a class titled "The Phallus" a course on feminist and gay takes on the male member, well it isn't really that at all: Immediately after this she writes to suggest that the Phallus course receives the same credit as the Greek tragedy course. And that's not false, but what she doesn't tell you is that both courses are electives, not requirements. She doesn't talk about Occidental's Core program that aims for "global literacy" in which the freshman spends a year exploring literary studies, art, science and math, etc around a particular subject. No wonder Allen is upset! Plato and Aristotle, authors of some of those great books that Bloom, Minding the Campus et al want students to read, taught us that one's allegiance is the POLIS, one's people or nation (polis is of course the city state, but moderns emphasize the "state" part of that), and that cosmopolitanism is undesirable! But they sort of ignore that the ideas of Socrates is what fueled and spread the kind of cosmopolitanism that places like Occidental want to engage in and spread. But I guess that's the fault of selective reading.

Allen also writes at beliefnet. She wrote an article there on Hildegard of Bingen having become "politicized." She attacks the "liberal church":

Ok, let's put it all together. We can not afford to merely dismiss Allen's Weekly Standard piece as just a rehash of anti-MLA, anti-postmodern hype. The people she writes to and for are people who read the Standard, the current administration for one, people who want to compose and impose lists of facts and works that every student in a college or university in the USA must read and know. They engage in double speak: while touting intellectual diversity and the exchange of ideas, unlike what they think the current state of the university is, they turn around and engage in subjective judgments, conclusions not supported by facts or clear, reasoned arguments. But they have influence, influence that affects policy, and those policies affect all of us who teach and work in American academia.

Now I'm not saying that there's a conspiracy out there. I am saying that merely dismissing Allen and her ilk would be a mistake. We need to respond, not in kind, but by being the intellectually diverse, thoughtful, and engaged bunch that we medievalists generally are and show why Allen and her ilk are mere cranks, willing to lie and twist the facts in favor of an agenda that they claim they do not have. As many a Western philosopher and theologian has said over the centuries, the deeds must match the words: their deeds illustrate all too clearly that the ideals they spout are not the ideals they espouse. Intellectual diversity for them means one kind of thought: theirs. They invoke Socrates, Plato, and Jesus, and yet when faced with thinkers in the tradition of Socrates, Plato, and Jesus they decry them. I'm suggesting that we need to watch, respond thoughtfully, and not let things like this merely irritate and create a flurry of posts, to be forgotten soon. Vigilate, fellow medievalists, vigilate!


Eileen Joy said...

Larry: I am sure that this post took you a long long time to research, ruminate, and write, and I, for one, am grateful that you took the time to do so. Jeffrey has highlighted what you have written here over at In The Middle. Since my initial reaction was just to laugh it off, I am doubly grateful for you reminding us of how important it is to pay careful attention to Allen and her ilk and to respond with all of the sane intelligence and ethical care we can muster, so again, thank you for this.

Eric said...

To address a very small part of your post, I was not required to take any sort of Western Civ course as part of my B.S. in Computer Science at Colorado State University. Unless you consider History of England to be Western Civ, but that's sort of like considering a rivet on the hilt the whole knife, if you ask me.

In a minimally related topic, as a layman completely uninterested in reading Allen's original article, I cannot for the life of me figure out what the heck "bourgeois fecal habitus" could possibly be. If pressured, I could probably hazard a guess, but I couldn't tell you offhand if the feces is bourgeois, or the habitus, whatever that might be.

irina said...

Eric, that's a fair point about the unintelligibility of the phrase, but the fact is, Allen wrote about a conference for specialists. I assure you that if you went to the traditional philological sessions (of which, believe me, there were many), you wouldn't be able to understand most of the words.

Lisa Spangenberg said...

I was at the Neomedievalism panel she sneers at, and grossly misrepresented, and no, I don't think it was an accident, and yes, she is "issues," and an agenda.

Liam said...

Excellent post. I read through her article, which was insulting and agenda-filled and often out and out wrong if not misleading. Among 650 sessions you will find a variety of talks, but if you obviously purposefully pick the ones dedicated to theory, you'll get theory. This is terrible journalism, and I'm not surprising it's in the Standard.

theswain said...

Eileen: Thanks much!

Eric: That's a good point, but I think we need some clarifications. Allen's point is that American universities don't offer or require Western Civ anymore. That isn't true. Perhaps some don't, but some clearly do. (And of course this doesn't address the question whether 15 weeks covering some 4600 years of human history, literature, language, and culture is effective.)

As for your own experience, according to the All-University Core Curriculum at CSU, you had to take a wide range of interdisciplinary foundation courses. In the area in which history is covered you had to take 3 credits from a range of courses spanning the general (Western Civ I and II and World History 1 and II) to more specific topics, most of which were in the "Western Civ" tradition: i. e covering some aspect of Western civilization. Sure, there were other options in Asia, Africa etc, but nonetheless. I didn't see that History of England was an option though.

Re: bourgeois fecal habitus, each is in the dictionary, and if you don't know, you can look them up easily enough. But as Irina points out, the audience in question was a gathering of professionals who would be expected to know the phrase. My point is, regardless of whether you know the meaning of the words etc, is what about them makes them "postmodern?"

Irina: Thanks!

Lisa: Thanks for stopping by. I saw your point on your blog and appreciated it very much!

Liam: Thanks for coming by, and I dropped by your blog....another one to add to my list (one of these days I'll update the blogroll here).

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I posted my response at ITM but want to say here as well: THANKS. You did something many of us did not: research and investigate.

Anonymous said...

Allen lies because Plato said it was OK.

Steve Muhlberger said...

That anonymous above was me.

Anonymous said...

Hi Larry- Thank you so much for the research and very thoughtful response to this nasty little diatribe by Allen. I am especially mad because one of the mocked titles was by a good friend of mine -- and it seems Allen never even heard the paper, just picked it out of the program based on the title. She was pretty upset after reading the screech...

I must have had my head in the sand for the last two months, for I just read the article today (well, actually, I don't live in the blogosphere and it's amazing what I've been missing all this time!).

Thanks again and I hope your research/diss is coming along well. Cheers! jen g-d

theswain said...


Good to hear from you! I'm glad you found this somewhat helpful, and tell your friend not to worry: this piece wasn't about facts, but about rhetoric in a larger culture war.

All the best!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
theswain said...

Anon: Thanks very much, it is appreciated.

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Anonymous said...

If I may be allowed to make a small correction two years after the fact: _The Closing of the American Mind_ was written by Allen Bloom, not Harold Bloom.