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Inquiring Minds

My wife Carole Bernstein C’81 has a story about Edward Peters, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, who is the subject of this issue’s cover story by John Shea Gr’84. It’s one of those faculty memories that, while small in themselves, have far-reaching implications. Responding to a paper she’d written for his class on Europe and the Middle Ages, Peters (who, she says, “was just astonishing as a teacher”) informed her that medieval monks could not be said to have a “lifestyle,” as she had chosen to refer to their mode of existence.

For Carole, this was a valued lesson in the precise use of words, “being sensitive to where language comes from.” More broadly, it speaks to an unfortunate tendency among many—including politicians, pundits, and others with less excuse than undergraduates—to view the past through the lens of the present.

Peters sees countering this impulse as one of the main goals of the serious study of history. At the start of each course, for example, he hands out a set of “protocols,” including: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there” and “History can teach only those who listen to it, not those who want to tell it something.”

In his 35 years of teaching and scholarship at Penn, Peters has done of lot of close listening. While his work has dealt with a multitude of topics within the “1,500 years and three continents” he covers, he is probably best known for his scholarship on the Inquisition, witchcraft, and torture. Ironically (to this 21st century observer, at least), in his book, Torture, Peters explains how its use actually grew out of the shift away from a legal system based on divine intervention and toward one in which a judge and jury sifted evidence, proofs of guilt were sought, and the accused could defend themselves—in other words, one bearing a distant resemblance to our own. Confession by the accused, and the resort to force to extract one, was seen as a remedy for the many resulting uncertainties.

For today’s prosecutors, the tools of the trade include intelligence and wit, obsessive preparation, and the occasional theatrical gesture. In two stints as a U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Alan Vinegrad W’80 prosecuted white collar and computer criminals, drug cartels, and the Mafia, as well as two of New York’s most racially explosive cases: the federal civil-rights trial for the defendants in the Crown Heights murder case and the multiple trials of New York police officers arising from the assault of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima with a broom handle. David Porter C’82 (who also writes the Gazette’s sports column) describes the path that led Vinegrad, who entered Penn expecting a career in accounting and/or tax law, to become, as a New York Times reporter put it, “the most controversial prosecutor New York has seen since Rudolph W. Giuliani was handcuffing Wall Street traders.”

In the media furor over the Louima case, Vinegrad was accused, among other things, of engaging in a “witch hunt.” The past several hundred years have stretched the commonly used meanings of such terms considerably. The “public stock” in which Penn’s former president Sheldon Hackney Hon’93 found himself standing following the “water buffalo incident” was a metaphorical one, but painful nonetheless. Ten years after the events of his “spring-from-hell,” Hackney offers his interpretation of what happened and his assessment of his inquisitors’ motivations, in an excerpt from his recent book, The Politics of Presidential Appointment: A Memoir of the Culture War.

Also in this issue, we highlight a new permanent exhibition at the University Museum that involved a $3 million renovation/modernization effort to create a suite of galleries devoted to the Museum’s rich collection of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman artifacts. Finally, freelancer Virginia Fairweather details Cret Professor of Architecture Daniel Libeskind’s winning design for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site in New York, announced in February.

—John Prendergast C’80

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 04/28/03