Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Will Carly Fiorina's Medieval History Degree Help Her Fight ISIS?

The GOP presidential candidate is taking a lot of heat for saying that her study of medieval history as an undergraduate at Stanford will help her fight terrorism as president of the United States. 

At a town hall meeting in Windham, New Hampshire Fiorina said: "Finally my degree in medieval history and philosophy has come in handy because what ISIS wants to do is drive us back to the Middle Ages, literally."

First of all, it is impossible for ISIS to literally drive us back to the Middle Ages unless they are able to engage in time travel.  But I digress.

Fiorina continued: "Every single one of the techniques that ISIS is using, the crucifixion, the beheadings, the burning alive, those were commonly used techniques in the Middle Ages, so we can't avert our eyes and pretend it's an exaggeration that ISIS wants to take its territory back to the Middle Ages but that is in truth what they want to do and are attempting to do."

I am not a medieval historian so I do not know just how comparable these medieval "techniques" are to the techniques ISIS is using today, but I am willing to admit that they are similar.  I am also more than willing to say that the study of history can help us make sense of the present.  I think more presidential candidates need to study history.  I am also willing to say that the study of the past could provide understanding about ISIS that could aid in its defeat.  So in a lot of ways, Fiorina should be applauded for invoking her study of history.  But I think that there are some serious problems with the way she invokes it.

I could riff on this myself, but I think I will get a real medieval historian take it from here.  David Perry teaches teaches medieval history at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Guardian titled "No, Carly Fiorina, a degree in medieval history doesn't qualify you to fight Isis."

I’d like to state unequivocally that my years of training to become a professor of medieval history in no way make me fit to be appointed commander-in-chief of the US military. While the Middle Ages do in fact shape contemporary events all the time, Fiorina unfortunately almost always gets the lessons of history wrong.

When we use the word “medieval” to characterize something we don’t like, be it Isis, the Ferguson Police department or Russia’s driver’s license regulations, we are trying to impose chronological distance between ourselves and things we find unpleasant. Thinking of these distasteful or evil aspects of the modern world as belonging to the past makes it harder, not easier, to understand their root causes and fight them.

That hasn’t stopped Fiorina from bringing up her medieval history training surprisingly often. It used to just be part of her “self-made” mythology: she graduated from Stanford with a degree that taught her how to think, but no specific skills, dropped out of law school, then clawed her way to the top.
The veracity of that story has been called into question, but she does make good points about the value of a humanities education, saying: “My medieval history and philosophy degree … did prepare me for life … I learned how to condense a whole lot of information down to the essence. That thought process has served me my whole life … I’m one of these people who believes we should be teaching people music, philosophy, history, art”. I wish more of her Republican colleagues would take these words to heart.
Lately, though, it’s all about scoring partisan points. She’s incorporated her quip about Isis driving us back to the Middle Ages as a standard part of her stump speech since at least last March. It’s a joke, perhaps, but given that her complete lack of national security credentials is a campaign issue, it’s not a throwaway line. She really does seem to be claiming that her undergraduate degree will enable her to make sound foreign policy decisions, despite her lack of experience.
Perry concludes his piece by suggesting a few things that the study of the Middle Ages should teach us today:

If Carly Fiorina really wants to draw on the Middle Ages for inspiration, I do have some suggestions. Lesson one: support universities, scholars, writers and artists, as their contributions outlive us all. Lesson two: peasants, oppressed for too long, always rebel. Lesson three: don’t go to war in the Middle East without a good exit plan.