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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Spring 2002 > College Row
College Row

From the Folger

"It's déja-vu all over again." One way or another we've seen it all before. Even so, higher education and the scholarly research that underlies it share the optimistic assumption that humans tend to learn from experience. That life can quickly become troublesome when they neglect to do so is a truth well understood, and often ignored. Among the Folger's goals is finding original approaches for understanding early modern European and world cultures. Although the Library houses the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of Shakespeare, it has broad and deep holdings in history, philosophy, religion, travel and exploration, mathematics, medicine, and many other fields. Its resources of early printed books in French, Italian and German, as well as English, far exceed those of the Library of Congress—a little-known truth on which Amherst alumni may proudly dine out.

This extraordinary archive provides solid support for the Folger's educational mission. Long before the shock waves of September 11 rocked the comfortable foundations of life in America, the Folger had designed and scheduled a conference on the world of Islam and its relations with the West from the 15th to the 18th century. On March 8-9, over 100 scholars, many of them Muslim, representing a variety of disciplines and almost as many institutions here and abroad, convened in the Elizabethan Theatre to consider "The Impact of the Ottoman Empire on Early Modern Europe." The conference was conceived as a deliberate effort to reverse our traditional Eurocentric approach, focussed almost exclusively on European influence on Islamic societies and cultures. Beginning in the 15th century and continuing to the present day, Asia Minor and the entire Mediterranean became a zone of contact between Islam and the West. The effects of that ongoing friction resonated beyond political, diplomatic and military affairs, touching many aspects of the arts and sciences. And the struggle for dominance over land, sea and people's minds and hearts constitutes a strange and bitter legacy that continues to haunt the world.

It would be hard to find a more compelling example of the relevance of the past, and of the research institutions that seek to understand it, than this conference. Yet, it is only one of many instances of the Folger's ongoing work of excavating and addressing issues and problems of global importance in the early modern world. Though their origins are distant, even obscure, they intrigue the scholarly community and haunt our public life.

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