Articles from the Institute Letter
Additional articles from new and past issues of the Institute Letter will continue to be posted over time and as they become available.
By Christopher S. Wood
Religious art of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe was marked by the creeping presence of the prosaic, the concrete, the familiar, the everyday. Vivid descriptions of furniture and clothes, local flora and landscapes, hometown buildings and skylines, vignettes of laboring and sporting peasants threatened to distract the devout beholder from the sacred narrative. The purpose of the painting, after all, was to train the mind on the episodes of the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. A dramatic instance of this profanation of the cult image was the embedded portrait, the topic of my research at the IAS in fall 2011.
The embedded portrait is the image of a real, modern person, usually the donor or person who paid for the painting, introduced into the narrative. The donor has him- or herself depicted in an attitude of pious attentiveness. A good example is the Nativity of Christ by the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden, painted in the middle years of the fifteenth century—the exact date is unknown—and today in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. This is the central section of a three-paneled altarpiece, or triptych, perhaps once mounted on an altar in a chapel, perhaps displayed in an altar-like space in a home. Mary and Joseph, sharing quarters with an ox and an ass, contemplate the naked body of the Child. The stall is pictured as an ancient building in ruins, a symbol of the Jewish and pagan belief systems that Christianity was meant to supersede. The city in the background resembles neither Bethlehem nor Jerusalem but rather, with its spires, gables, and tiled roofs, a modern northern European town. The gentleman at the right, finally, wears an expensive-looking fur-lined coat and wooden clogs to protect his fine pointed shoes. He presses his hands together in reverence. This is the donor. He is not identified by an inscription or a coat of arms. But there is good reason to believe, on the basis of the painting’s whereabouts in the seventeenth century, that he is Pieter Bladelin, a man of respectable origins who rose through political acumen to a high station in the court of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, in Bruges.
By Paul Antony Hayward
A natural starting point for any attempt to know a past society is its histories—the texts with which its members recorded what had happened and was happening in their world. Many precious witnesses of this kind have survived from medieval Europe, but they are not easily used to answer the questions that modern historians would like to ask.
In essence, three types of historical writing flourished in the Middle Ages: chronicles, hagiography, and the rhetorical monograph. The first category refers to seemingly simple lists of events or, to use the current jargon, “factoids.” These texts usually arrange their factoids in some sort of chronological order; many assign them to the anni, or years, in which they took place, for which reason they are often called “annals.” The second type comprises records of things that God has done in this world, through the grace that he has bestowed on his saints and their devotees. The third category refers to narratives that celebrate or criticize the acts of rulers, dynasties, or communities.
All three types clash with modern ways of thinking. Hagiographical texts baffle, because they are the most overtly empiricist and yet, it often seems, the most unreliable. They ask us to believe that God was an active presence in the life of a certain saint and his or her people, that whenever he or she requested divine help he provided diverse wonders, extending from food and water in times of need to the resurrection of the dead. They ask their readers to accept as absolute fact events that most of us find implausible.
Chronicles favor the mundane, but many incorporate miracle stories, and they typically lack two qualities that modern readers require of a proper historical text: “narrativity” and a metahistorical voice. That is, their authors fail to guide their readers with comments that point them toward a particular interpretation—they fail to connect events in ways that tell stories and explain how one gave rise to the next. The third type, on the other hand, has these “missing” elements in excess.
By W. Bentley MacLeod
In 2003, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the case of Grutter v. Bollinger and upheld the right of the University of Michigan Law School to use race as a criterion for admissions. At the time, the majority speculated that in twenty-five years the consideration of race may no longer be necessary in admissions. This year, the Supreme Court will hear the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, which turns on the same issue. In other words, we may have a change in the law in less than ten years!
This, like many decisions of the Supreme Court, can have a major impact on our day-to-day lives. The decision in this case affects the set of schools to which we may be admitted in a world where access to the best schools is considered by many to be an important career stepping stone. The more puzzling aspect, particularly for non-Americans, is that this change does not result from any change in the law enacted by Congress. Both cases appeal to two laws. The first is constitutional law, namely the Fourteenth Amendment, which ensures that all citizens have equal protection under the law. The second is a statute passed by Congress, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination by agencies that receive federal funds. In Grutter v. Bollinger the judges created new law. They argued that the state had a compelling interest in allowing schools to use race as a factor in admissions. In essence, judges, rather than elected politicians, created a new law that allows universities to choose students on a basis that is arguably inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States.
By Herb Clemens
The Institute for Advanced Study’s Park City Mathematics Institute (PCMI) has run a summer program for secondary school mathematics teacher-leaders since 1994. About fifty nationally selected secondary mathematics teachers participate in the three-week institute each year. Gradually over the years, the program, with its three components —doing mathematics, reflecting on practice, and becoming a resource to colleagues and the profession—has developed into one of the premier programs for the professional development of mathematics teachers in the United States. It is arguably unsurpassed in overall quality.
However, the small numbers of teachers that can be served directly by this program, together with its sizable cost (long supported by the National Science Foundation), have brought the program to a crossroads of sorts. The PCMI Secondary School Teachers Program must either increase its influence on national mathematical development at the secondary level or reduce the cost of its program and so, inevitably, its quality.
Happily, the program arrives at this crossroads at a most fortuitous moment in our nation’s educational history. The reason for this is the advent of the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM), a common set of norms for curriculum and practice at each grade level, that has been voluntarily agreed to by forty-four of the fifty states. (Readers wishing to familiarize themselves with the content of CCSSM are referred to www.corestandards.org.)
By Dan Burt
A sign and eight low buildings pass
unnoticed in a field the size of Central
Park: a wall-flower by a college town.
Wandering its halls, one chair offices,
bare egg white walls, nothing stands out until
I reach a lounge where mathematical
notations – integers, fractions, powers,
roots, Greek letters, brackets, slashes – weave
arabesques of genesis and infant stars
for paper napkin audience and nibbled
chocolate bars, on slate where palimpsests
and marginalia in coloured chalks suggest
a coffee break authored this text
a plaque below it warns, DO NOT ERASE.