Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Uses of the Humanities

To piggyback on Matthew's previous blog, sign the petition. And, as a way to continue of the theme of the importance of the humanities, I thought I would comment on this thoughtful commentary from Easily Distracted (which I picked up from The Cranky Professor...btw welcome back stateside!)

As I was reading Distracted's commentary, it struck me as to how applicable these "answers" to the "so what?" question are to the humanities in general (not only history0. In medieval studies, there are constant arguments about how applicable the Middle Ages are to the current political/cultural situation or how they are not (for a nice back and forth on contingency issues see Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages ed. Eileen Joy, Myra J. Seaman, Kimberly K. Bell, and Mary K. Ramsey--an excellent collection of essays that I read cover to cover).

Number three: the past is analogue is applicable for this post. I wanted to comment on this BBC story "Medieval Diets Far More Healthy." Food is a hot button issue at the moment, especially with possible worldwide food shortages. And possibly, the Middle Ages ate far less processed food, of course, no Hungry Knight dinners or Lean Queensines, and the Middle Ages were a lot more concerned with the cycles of the seasons and its effect on crops (as a shameless plug, I just had an article on what medieval people ate published in this collection). There were famines in the Middle Ages, of course, (1315-1317 comes to mind).

The issue with this BBC article is the unequivocal nostalgia. Yes, people ate more seasonally in the Middle Ages, but they were also tied to local markets which could prove volatile (if you were locked within a city under siege, you are out of luck). On the other hand, eating locally, as championed by Bill McKibben and challenged in this article from Alternet is important to consider. We should be more aware of where our food comes from and respect that there should be a fair price for the things we import.

Though the BBC article mentions class differences (albeit briefly), it is safe to say that the lower classes did not always have access to enough food in the MA. In many ways, these problems are resurfacing; with the recent reports on the price of rice and corn (because of faulty rationales that food will solve our energy crisis) and its effect on "Third World" countries--the least of us are already facing food problems. Though, I'm imagining that the recent caps on how much rice you can buy at Costco or Sam's Club are "fear" responses (we seem to be very good at that in this country at the moment).

So, what can be done? How can history help us in this moment? Of course, these situations are not exactly the same, but part of the answer is to admit the volatility of our markets, and to recognize our attachment to the land (until we start eating out of test tubes). [I mean the Plowman WAS often utilized as a Christ-figure, how much more respect can you have for those who work the land?]. We could also take a lesson from theology and think about temperance, about the middle path. Can we survive without our seven televisions (a relative of mine actually has this many TV's in his house)? Or can we learn how to produce more of our own food (grow a garden everyone!) There are bigger problems, too like monoculture and farm subsidies that act as enablers for monoculture.

The problem is complex; history suggests that it is. And THAT is what we often forgot.



Matthew Gabriele said...

Thoughtful post, Chris. I'm giving a talk this weekend to some undergrads at my alma mater, the Univ. of Delaware. The point I'm going for is just this "so what?" that I think we all need to verbalize more often than we do -- just because, as you say, we really do have some good answers...

Croman said...

Thanks Matthew. I realized in re-reading the post that it spins off in a few too many directions--I was doing multiple things at the time of composition (not the best idea). Good luck on the talk; I am curious to know how the undergrads respond to your talk.