Leave My Thirteenth Century Alone!

Posted by sepoy on May 28, 2010 · 3 mins read

Religion gone global: an interview with Reza Aslan

NS: How do you think scholars can learn to take part in broader conversations?

RA: It's often a total waste of time. You can't be trained to speak to the media in a weekend seminar before going on Anderson Cooper. You have to be immersed in the kind of world in which there is no division between the academic and the popular. I honestly think that the best hope that we have is to foster a new kind of student, one who doesn't spend eight years in the basement of Widener Library at Harvard poring over a thirteenth-century manuscript and writing a dissertation on the changes in the vowel markings of a sentence. That kind of scholarship has a very small role in the world we live in now. We need scholars who understand that there is no division between the world of academia and the popular world. Trying to take staid academics and teach them to use words with fewer syllables is not the way to break that wall down.

NS: Doesn't something stand to be lost in terms of pursuing knowledge for its own sake, or rigorous scholarship on topics that don't happen to be in the headlines at a given moment? Isn't academia's ability to think in the long term, to focus on things that no one else is focusing on, something valuable?

RA: It's certainly valuable, but its value has greatly diminished. The ascent of new communications technologies has forced thinkers to take seriously the consequences of their ideas and to engage in the open market of ideas in a much more robust way than in previous centuries.

NS: What about translator figures—a Malcolm Gladwell, for instance—who dive into scholarly texts and turn them into books that nonspecialists can read and be inspired by? Do you think that their contribution is inadequate?

RA: I don't think that it's inadequate. But if the hope is to get academe to do that work itself instead of relying on third parties, then the only way is to start at the graduate level. I know Malcolm quite well, and I can tell you that any academic would gladly take his $40,000 speaking fees and six- or seven-figure book deals if they could. My point is that they could.

Liam Fox, Crack in the Cabinet:

Hours before meeting the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, yesterday, Liam Fox, the Tory defence secretary, risked insulting his host by referring to Afghanistan as “a broken 13th-century country”.

“We have to reset expectations and timelines,” Fox said. “National security is the focus now. We are not a global policeman. We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened.”

It's THE GREATEST CENTURYEver. Seriously. Also, VEILS.

ps. Reza, no.


Rebecca | May 28, 2010

Hmmm...some fact problems. Harvard's thirteenth-century manuscripts are kept in Houghton Library, not in the (dampish) basement of Widener. And facsimiles of thirteenth-century European manuscripts will be in the private classical and medieval studies library on the sixth floor of Widener. Persian facsimile manuscripts are on the fifth and sixth floors. Geez. If you're going to attack scholars, at least get the details right!!