The Liberal Arts, Carly Fiorina, and the Middle Ages

Bruce Holsinger is a medieval literary scholar, a novelist, a public intellectual, and a friend. Here’s my review of his novels, political thrillers set in medieval London, with John Gower as the protagonist. You should read them.

Holsinger has a piece in the New York Times today on Fiorina, extending the conversation about her regular invocation of her medieval studies B.A. (for my take, you can read here). Holsinger writes:

How could medieval studies prepare a president for the global struggle against Islamist fundamentalism? Well, Mrs. Fiorina explained, “What ISIS wants to do is drive us back to the Middle Ages, literally.”
And did she mean literally. “Every single one of the techniques that ISIS is using,” she elaborated, “the crucifixions, the beheadings, the burning alive, those were commonly used techniques in the Middle Ages.” She added, “ISIS wants to take its territory back to the Middle Ages.”
Sounds familiar. Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, American political discourse was flooded with this kind of language. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld spoke of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s “medieval vision of the future.” The writer Christopher Hitchens warned of the Taliban’s program of “medieval stultification.” Osama bin Laden himself mastered this medievalist idiom, invoking the Crusades time and again in his polemics against the West.
Mrs. Fiorina’s resort to this sort of garden-variety medievalism represents a failure of historical imagination on at least three levels.

One – ISIS is very, very, modern.

Two – By claiming that non-state actors aren’t modern nations, we can torture them and otherwise be as savage as we like.
Three, and here Holsinger makes a point I tried to hint at, but didn’t really nail in my own piece, Fiorina has been an eloquent defender of the vitality of the humanities, something so critical in an era with Republicans (and neoliberal Democrats) have so gleefully attacked in recent years.

This came across most clearly in Mrs. Fiorina’s address to the Stanford University class of 2001. The most valuable course she took at Stanford, she told the graduates, wasn’t economics or politics, but a seminar called “Christian, Islamic and Jewish Political Philosophies of the Middle Ages.”
Each week, she explained, students had to distill what they’d read into a mere two pages: “The rigor of the distillation process, the exercise of refinement, that’s where the real learning happened. It was an incredible, heady skill to master. Through the years, I’ve used it again and again — the mental exercise of synthesis and distillation and getting to the very heart of things.”
Rarely has the value of humanistic education been defended so eloquently.

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio is snarking about the uselessness of Greek Philosophy. He, of course, studied Political Science in college, a discipline that traces its roots directly back to people like Thucydides and Aristotle.

Leave a Reply