Lead Us Not Into Temptation

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?

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21 Responses to Lead Us Not Into Temptation

  1. jpool says:

    “Allright, now everyone begin to shake with fever. Good! That’s some really great fever shaking guys! Now everyone pretend to develop pustules! Who remembers what pustules are?”

    Yeah there’s no really good way to do this at the grade school level. Maybe there would be a way to pair Renaissance Fair-style happy fun fantasy time with an exercize where students get assigned different positions in Medeval society and thus gain some insight into the different sorts of possibilities and limits they would have faced.

    Of course I then worry that this sort of exercise would collapse down to, “Boy, things sure were hard then. We sure are all lucky now.” This of course could only be answered by a Peoples Revolutionary Curriculum in which they’d be instructed in contemporary form of systemic inequality and made to feel guilty for their privilege. Then there’d be nothing left to do but send them off to labor in the fields …

  2. ancarett says:

    Oh, you finally tempted me to register on your site with this post. As an academic who specializes in medieval and early modern topics, I was asked by my daughter’s grade four teacher to come in and run a class (and also loan them some of our extensive collection of medieval history books for kids).

    I knew I was in trouble when I started by asking the class “Can anyone tell me something that happened in the Middle Ages?” and the first response I got was “World War II!” Actually, as long as my VHS tape holds out, I’d prefer to try and introduce them to the topic by getting them to watch David MacCauley’s “Cathedral”. At least there’s a nod or two there to the common person and it’s entertaining!

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    If it weren’t for the church-state problem, “building a mini-cathedral” would be a great kind of fun project for grade-school kids that would be much more authentically engaged with real history.

    Of course, there’s also always the Monty Python approach:

    “We’re an autonomous collective!”

  4. FWIW, our five year old would probably really dig a role playing simulation of the plague and serfdom.

    Actually, I would imagine that a really productive way of introducing more complex understanding about history would be through play and simulation–especially with computer gaming. Many students of a particular time period remember with fondness the educational classic “The Oregon Trail.” I’m not going to make the case about how accurate a representation of American westward migration it was, but it was fairly complex, forced difficult decisions, and provided a general exposure to an experience about the American West that wasn’t all about cowboys-n-Indians.

    See the Oregon Trail Shrine. I can wait to try out “Plague: the game.”

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    The Oregon Trail, I agree, was and is a simply awesome bit of pedagogy, and you’re right, it does suggest you could use a medieval theme for grade schoolers to do a bit more than have them play at being knights and ladies.

  6. Gavin Weaire says:

    In primary school in Dublin we built a model of the medieval city of Dublin. (With the cathedral in the middle; not subject to church-state restrictions, obviously – but would they really apply to a purely historical reconstruction in context in a whole settlement? I’d naively have assumed that American schoolchildren build models of colonial settlements with churches.)

    You wouldn’t have the same local-history appeal in the US, but one could presumably build a model of a medieval settlement of some sort. (Unless the church thing really is a problem.) And it was both fun and informative about the lives of ordinary people in a “Fishamble St. was where they sold…fish” sort of way.

  7. We know enough about medieval peasant life for the kids to learn about agriculture and food, working on Lords’ lands, religion (maybe this won’t work?)… and to compare those to what went on elsewhere.

    The whole “medieval faire” thing (my son’s school does one of those, but at least it’s a Halloween fundraiser, not a serious educational experience) is deeply ingrained, though: all those fairy tales are monarchical and feudal (except for a few that are medieval urban).

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    “Stone Soup” is more early modern than medieval in its visual references, etc., but it does suggest some of the folkloric possibilities. The subtext to that story is pretty potent: peasants hiding what they’ve grown from soldiers out of fear of having it stolen from them–and there’s nary a hint of nationalist sentiment about the peasants needing to feel loyalty towards the soldiers. (It’s not even clear if the soldiers are from where the peasants are from.)

    I’m warming up to some of the potential here and feeling less guilty about my pedantic impulses.

  9. CJColucci says:

    Reminds me of people who claimed to have recovered past lives. Far too many princesses and warriors. Not enough peasants dying after short, miserable lives. And on the odds, wouldn’t it be likely that you were formerly Chinese?

  10. Bill McNeill says:

    At least misconceptions about medieval Europe are held of people many centuries dead, as opposed to misconceptions about Africa, a still-existing place full of real live walking around Africans…The pedagogical inroad to the middle ages that would have worked for me as a kid would have been military history. I would have enjoyed a responsible and scholarly presentation of that time’s history as long as at some point it involved trebuchets.

  11. Kieran says:

    “building a mini-cathedral” would be a great kind of fun project for grade-school kids

    I imagine the little tykes building the thing, getting 75 percent done, and then having the roof authentically fall in on their heads, and having to start all over again, and the teacher saying “It’s OK, allowing for the scale differences, we’ll be done by 2011!”

  12. k8 says:

    I probably would have enjoyed playing plague, but then I come from a family of morticians and have something of a morbid streak.

    The role-playing can be educational in unexpected ways. After my niece told me about how her class played “pilgrims” at school (grade 3), I asked her what she learned. She told me that the girls had to do all of the work while the boys got to play. It seems the girls had to role-play cleaning, making soap, cooking, etc., while the boys role-played learning to hunt and fish. Needless to say, my niece was more than a little disgruntled. Of course, as I started to smirk my now ex-brother-in-law the anti-feminist told me not to encourage her (apparently assuming that I would corrupt his child and turn her into some anti-American, ant-Thanksgiving super-feminist*). Fortunately, grandma spoke up to say that she had made a very smart observation. It really is amazing, though, how kids can make unexpected and interesting observations in these types of educational experiences.

    *It should probably be noted that this wasn’t long after I gave her Pam Munoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising, a historical novel about a mother and daughter forced into becoming migrant farmers. It has a fairytale feel and is very age appropriate.

  13. Sisyphus says:

    Well out here in California, kids all have to build models of the missions in 4th grade. I don’t know how much teachers push the ideas of forced labor and conversion and class differences though, and I know from my niece’s experience that the kids can get so anxious about having the “best” mission and the logistics of constructing them that they don’t pay a whit of attention to anything they should be learning _content_-wise.

    Still I would think that doing something on medieval agriculture or crafts and barter would work for helping them think about the peasantry, and could be slanted in a more positive way to think about cooperation and sharing, if people were scared off by presenting the blood-and-destruction parts of the middle ages.

    Oh, and to tie my two comment sections together, the guy who wrote _The Island of the Blue Dolphins_ (a young adult novel about the mission Indians and coming of the colonists) also wrote a book (I forget the title) about St Francis of Assisi and the children’s crusade. I’m actually really fuzzy on the plot, and I think it was focused on aristocrats, but it was more dark and realistic.

  14. Zenia says:

    Last summer, I was the Head Counselor for a girls camp (ages 6-13) for three weeks. I chose the medieval theme. I stipulated that all the groups of girls had to pick names for their groups that represented something that women were able to do in the Middle Ages. After some research, we ended up with five groups – jesters, goldsmiths, apothecaries, nurses, and beggars.

    We also had a “leper” stumble into camp one day. She told them about her condition and mentioned that she had lost some body parts in the woods. This turned into a treasure hunt to find the body parts (googly eyes, yarn “hair”, sequin “fingernails”, etc.). Once the teams of girls found all the body parts, they had to draw a body on a large sheet of construction paper and glue all the parts onto the right spots in their drawings. The girls LOVED the game. Later on, all the girls dressed up as lepers and we put on a “haunted house” for the rest of the campers.

    So I think that there are definitely ways that younger kids can learn more historically accurate views of life in the Middle Ages. As long as you keep it in fun and don’t get too gruesome/bloody. It’s not any worse than Hansel and Gretel shoving a witch in the oven or Simba’s father dying!

  15. PreachyPreach says:

    One of the few times that I can recall my primary school ever actually teaching me something (as opposed to acting as a kind of glorified day care centre for the children of middle-class IT managers) was the day they got us to reenact the Industrial Revolution and the flight of the peasantry to the cities. By establishing a fairly simple model, where all the pupils had an independent and autonomous role (as peasants/workers, farmers, merchants, factory owners), there was a steady flight from the countryside to the city. Looking back with an adult eye, there were some fairly dodgy assumptions made, and the political implications were laden on a bit heavy-handedly, but it certainly really illuminated the whole process for me.

    (Of course, the cynical will not be surprised to learn that in this experiment in market simulation, fraud and corruption was rampant. I recall that the merchants (like me) who were obviously supposed to prosper, rapidly lost out to some of the more quick-thinking and talking peasants.)

  16. Doug says:

    Of course if kids still play “ring around a rosies…” they’re re-enacting the plague without even realizing it.

  17. abstractart says:

    I remember a dumb online quiz that illustrated this problem really obviously — someone, probably loosely inspired by a history book talking about the distribution of power in medieval times, made a “Who Would You Be In Medieval Times?” survey, which loosely pegged you by personality type into King/Queen, Lord/Lady, Priest/Nun, or Scholar.

    Which, as I pointed out in an e-mail, is really like saying “Who Would You Be In 20th-Century America?” and making the choices The President, a Senator, a CEO or a Professor.

    Unless the analogy you’re drawing is with, I dunno, some specific instance of Cold War politicking rather than actual 20th-century America, it’s pointless, and actually kind of disturbing. It’s bad enough that we spend so much of our lives right now pretending the lower classes in our society don’t exist — doing it for other time periods just underscores it.

  18. Steve Dallas says:

    It’s a perpetual temptation for me… at least I’d rather resist this temptation than the one to correct my daughter’s principal when she typed “too” instead of “two” in an email. I mostly reserve my ire not for the content (which I’ve had no serious problems with so far), but for “special projects” that couldn’t possibly be completed without significant parental over-involvement.

  19. Rebel Girl says:

    Inspired to register also just to say that you’ve put me in the mood for our upcoming Back-to-School night, though our tyke is just in kindergarten…still, this morning, as I type, he is attending the school’s Patriot’s Day assembly…

  20. Chris Clarke says:

    Well out here in California, kids all have to build models of the missions in 4th grade. I don’t know how much teachers push the ideas of forced labor and conversion and class differences though,

    My wife Becky does in her 4th grade class. As evidenced by this student comment about a film that failed to list the two Native Californians killed and eaten by members of the Donner Party as casualties of that episode:

    “It’s like… it’s like they didn’t even matter!

    She teaches in Berkeley, so make of that what you will.

    Also, so as to make Tim feel better about his pedantry, I’ll note that the “Ring Around The Rosie refers to the Great Plague” notion is not particularlly supported by fact. (I was surprised to learn that, myself.)

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