Sunday, May 26, 2013

A good week for medievalism, and thoughts on education

I've been remiss in posting, dear friends, but the world still turns whether or not I issue forth a new article every week. This week is especially good for the medievally minded, and here's why:

1.) J.R.R. Tolkien published a new book. The mastermind behind middle-Earth is starting to rival Tupac in posthumous contributions; this time, it's The Fall of Arthur, an unfinished epic poem giving us Tolkien's spin on the matter of Britain. I've not yet read it myself, but from what I know, Tolkien has dispensed with the Grail and the courtly love traditions, opting instead to give his audience a raw, more "English" approach to the legend of King Arthur and his war against the Saxon invaders of the early Middle Ages. I have full faith that his style won't bear any resemblance to that abortion starring Clive Owen. However, buyer beware: the poem only occupies a small portion of the book. The bulk is filled by notes and essays written by his son Christopher on "The Poem in Arthurian Tradition" and other such subjects. You'll be disappointed if you were hoping to pick up a fully-fleshed, or even half-fleshed work.

2.) Sir Christopher Lee will release his next metal album tomorrow on his 91st birthday. Talk about a prolific career: Lee, who is old enough to have fought in World War II (and did), already holds the record for the biggest filmography of any major actor ever. Aside from reprising his role as Saruman in the Hobbit films, he can also boast of being the oldest metal performer of all time. Tomorrow will usher the arrival of Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, a sequel to Lee's previous album (Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross).

A music video from Lee's previous album:

3.) For those of you who are fans of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga, HBO's Game of Thrones next episode (the following Sunday, as there is no episode scheduled tonight) is titled "The Rains of Castamere". If you've read the books, then you already know what's about to happen. If you've only been following the TV series...... well, gird your loins. Winter is coming.

"And so he spoke, and so he spoke, that Lord of Castamere but now the rains weep o'er his hall with no one there to hear."

In other news, I've been dwelling a lot on what really matters to the average American, and how to gain their attention. I never expected this blog to go viral, but my goal from the beginning has been to reach a relatively broad audience. If I can't go beyond the tweed jacket and pipe smoking crowd, then I've failed. The trouble is that I often feel completely out of touch myself. In my column a couple months ago, I already outlined how Pope Francis and I seemingly exist on two different planets, despite being of the same religion. Not long ago, I had the unpleasant experience of feeling like a dinosaur in my mid-20's when I was substituting for a high school class and the given assignment was to watch The Empire Strikes Back. No one in any of the classes that day had ever seen a Star Wars movie before, not even a nerdy kid in the back of the room to play the exception to the rule. It makes sense now, but at the time, it took me a while to wrap my head around the idea that an entire generation could miss out on what I took for granted to be a staple of pop culture. 

Now, obviously there's nothing to gain from being able to distinguish the various kinds of TIE fighters or AT walkers, but I learned a valuable lesson that day: the things which I assumed were part of a commonly shared American culture don't actually exist. I routinely ask students what sorts of movies they watch or games they play, and find that despite the fact that I'm not much older than them, my interests and theirs rarely ever coincide. The same can probably be said for the entire faculty at innumerable inner-city schools across the nation. Google for accounts from inner-city public school teachers and you'll find the same story everywhere: white, middle-class do-gooder seeks to change the lives of disadvantaged kids in poor areas, then experiences severe culture shock on his first day when he realizes it was nothing like his own school. All of a sudden, yesterday's bickering over the effects of Harry Potter on our kids seems ludicrous when you come across a whole classroom of high schoolers who are incapable of reading any of those books, even if they wanted to (they probably don't). Worried about helicopter parents intruding into every aspect of their adult children's lives? Instead, be thankful they have the time and energy to bother in the first place. There are countless schools where parental involvement is almost nonexistent because the parents have to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. The children who have been saddled by generational poverty go on to have more children, and the cycle perpetuates itself. And since lower-class families reproduce at a higher rate than the affluent middle classes, it doesn't take a genius to figure out who will be inheriting America in 20 or 30 years.

The above statement, to be clear, is not a preamble to a racist or eugenicist rant about the direction our nation is going. Nor does it precede a patented 7-step solution based on what the medievals would have done, because (as members of a subsistence economy) they wouldn't have done anything. Public education is an entirely modern construct which requires a modern solution, if it can be fixed at all. I'm merely raising a question: in 30 years, what will be the ties that bind our western, American culture? Certainly not the civic religion of the Founding Fathers, those ancient dead white men who owned slaves and whose descendants stole half of Mexico. (It's already a usual sight for entire classrooms to remain seated and gab through the Pledge of Allegiance. I don't know why schools still bother with it.) Nor will it be Christianity, which continues its endless fracturing and commercialization at the hands of hack preachers. Shakespeare? He's already been the bane of high school students for generations, but I've spoken to students who were seniors and never exposed to the Bard at all because it wasn't relevant to achieving acceptable standardized test scores. (I was amused when one student thought I was British because of the way I speak, though I assure you my dialect is your average newscaster American.) To those certain "conservatives" who think education is useless if it doesn't gear people toward being a cog in the industrial workforce, I hope you're happy. At any rate, despite the current over-saturation of liberal arts graduates, the future doesn't bode well for the humanities, much less medieval studies in particular. Ironic that as we lose sight of our past, we're bound to resemble the world as Saint Gregory of Tours saw it, when in describing 6th century Gaul in The History of the Franks he said,

"With liberal culture on the wane, or rather perishing in the Gallic cities there were many deeds being done both good and evil: the heathen were raging fiercely; kings were growing more cruel; the church. attacked by heretics, was defended by Catholics; while the Christian faith was in general devoutly cherished, among some it was growing cold; the churches also were enriched by the faithful or plundered by traitors-and no grammarian skilled in the dialectic art could be found to describe these matters either in prose or verse; and many were lamenting and saying: 'Woe to our day, since the pursuit of letters has perished from among us and no one can be found among the people who can set forth the deeds of the present on the written page.'"

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