Speaking of reasons that maybe some people occasionally dislike academics, I found myself nearly unable to restrain my pedantry last night at my daughter’s back-to-school meeting.
The school theme for the year is “medieval times”. Cool, that’s fun, good idea. The principal, who I think seems really great, started her introduction to the school year by saying that she wondered how the experiences of our kids in school would compare with their medieval counterparts. Not very well, I whispered to my wife and a friend of ours, because a lot of them would have died before the age of three.
But then it went on and on. Today our kids climb on the playgrounds, back then they would have practiced archery and jousting. Today our kids learn to read, back then they would have learned to read, except in Latin. Today we track their absences carefully, back then they would have done something rather like tracking absences. Ok, I get it.
This is the kind of situation that puts you in a bit of a no-win circumstance. I mean, you can’t exactly complain about it to anyone directly. You’d have to be a humorless prat and to completely lack any sense of proportion. It’s not a big deal. But you know, at the same time, I couldn’t help but think, “Look, first off, past the initial fun of the comparison, a lot of this is wrong, plus it’s kind of awkward in that you’re analogizing everyone in the room to the European nobility of the high Middle Ages.”
I’ve talked before about the fact that it’s more or less impossible to teach even very smart, capable, theoretically-savvy undergraduates that Africa is a continent, not a country. I’m sure it’s hard for medievalists to shake some similar understandings of their subject matter. Certain kinds of “facts” are mapped very deep into our collective unconscious, often precisely by these kinds of everyday reinforcements.
I’m not sure what harm most of those non-fact facts actually do, in the end. Let people think that everyone in ye olden medieval times was a lady or a lord, living in a castle. Maybe only a pedant would care about getting that image right? What would I ask for as a historian, if not that? A speech where my little joke about infant mortality was shared in public? A “medieval times” theme for grade schoolers that had them re-enacting the Black Death and serfdom?