Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Humanities are Important

The academic blogs I read have been blowing up lately with the talk of budget cutbacks and how they are affecting the humanities at schools and universities in Britain and in the US. Here is a letter to the president of SUNY Albany who cut 5 whole programs of study, almost all in humanities. The letter is really quite clever, and addresses all the reasons for the cuts using examples from literature found commonly in classes in the departments that have been cut. Meaning: your reasons are faulty as you would have known, had you actually taken any of the classes in departments that you’re cutting.

I found that link on a blog that also has an article on the value of learning history that says the value of learning history is critical thinking skills, learning to question what you are told, and learning to look for the bias in all sources. At least, that is what I took out of the rather long entry. You’ve got to get past the first couple paragraphs to get to the good stuff (which is a lot like my blog posts, actually.)

I am not an academic, but I think that teaching is important, and I think that the humanities are very very important. Yes to help us make decisions, yes to think critically, but for me the important thing that the humanities do is give meaning to everything that we do. I look to history to answer the eternal why.
Why are food and meals important?
Why are families structured the way they are?
Why are there different forms of government all around the world?
Why do I get up and go to work every morning?

Some people find these answers in the study of biology and animal and human behavior, some people find them in religion or any number of other places. Some people do not ask these questions, and those I think are the saddest of all. When I ask those questions I see a long horizon of history stretching out in front of me where all the possible answers for all the possible whys can be found, if only I look hard enough.

Last night on the way home from work I was listening to Fresh Air, to Terry Gross interview Carlos Eire about his new memoir. Terry was talking to Eire about how he became a historian and about his studies of religious iconography. All my thinking about the importance of history, about education, about the humanities gelled when he said:

"You know, symbols encode, deep deep truths and allow us to perceive them in a non-rational way. And by non-rational, I don't mean irrational. I actually mean that these symbols speak to us at a level that is deeper, and affects us and shapes our personality much more than any logical discourse could. You know, the United States is a very symbolically impoverished culture. So most Americans have trouble understanding symbols and how symbols affect them. But people who are in advertising have it all figured out."

Especially the part about the US being a symbolically impoverished culture. To me it was the same as saying we are a historically impoverished culture, because the history that we claim as ours only goes back a couple hundred years. I’m sure Eire might explain it differently, but to me a symbol is anything that one can draw meaning from, and I look for meaning in everything! I find meaning by looking at history, and not just American history, not just European history.

Because I am asking why and am actively searching for meaning and because I think others out there might be too; that is why I spend so much of my time on Living History. Sure, there is the escapism, and the social circle, but I could get the escapism from novels, and the social circle from any number of other geeky pastimes. I’ve talked here on the blog about the fact that I do living history in order to educate myself and educate others, but I don’t think I’ve answered completely the question: why is education important? There are so many answers to that one, but the important one to me, the one that I think might need to be pointed out to those making important budgetary decisions, is that history helps bring meaning to our lives and helps us answer the whys we might encounter in our daily lives.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Where Are You From?

I have spent a lot of the past two years reenacting a geographical area that does not conform to today’s geo-political rules. When someone asks me where I am from when I am in character the answer is: “the Barony of Reischach in Bavaria, that is a part of the Holy Roman Empire.” If I’m not in costume in character and someone asks me what I’ve been spending my time on lately I’ll tell them Renaissance Germany. Today, there is no Holy Roman Empire, and technically, there is no Germany during the time of the European Renaissance. This makes for all sorts of challenges, but presents a pretty good lesson too.
When in costume, in character, we’ve got to find unique ways of telling people we’re from the area that they think of as Germany. We talk about the German speaking lands, we mention Bavaria hoping that some adults will recognize it as a region in Germany, We talk about being north of the Italian city-states and south of the Low-Countries. Some make jokes when people ask if we are from Germany and say stuff like: “What a preposterous notion that all the German-speaking lands would be united. Next you will be saying that all the Italian speaking lands are under one government!”

It doesn’t always work the way we want it to. We set up at a school last spring. We had different stations focusing on different aspects of military and daily life in 1528, and as the students shuffled around we tried to give them things to see, things to do, opportunities to ask questions, and tons of knowledge. But in the bathroom after the event was over I heard a group of girls talking (they did not know I was in there) saying how they loved our Russian accents and wondered how hard the accent was to learn. They then did horrible fake Russian accents until I came out in my huge dress and hat with my Bavarian accent (it is different from a Swiss German, or Austrian, or northern German accent) and shocked them all into silence. I did not really feel like explaining while washing my hands, the context was just too weird and they were probably too embarrassed to hear me as they pushed each other out of the restroom.

The opportunity in presenting a past from a place that today has a very different identity is we are letting people know that our modern nation-states are inventions. Many would like us to believe that our current countries are almost inevitable. But by reenacting times when most of our modern countries did not exist, when the definition of a nation and one’s sense of place were far different, we can bring to life the concept of a paradigm shift. We can show that people thought differently about the places they lived in how we react, in what we say, in how we define ourselves. And that is a discussion worth having, an idea worth exploring.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hitting the Wall

Our house is draped in canvas right now.  It rained on the Sunday of our last reenacting weekend of the season, so we had to pack up all the tents wet. In fact, we transported all of the tents back to our house, because Stephen and I had the only vehicle that could accommodate all the tents and poles, so even the ones that are owned by other people ended up at our house. Wet canvas is subject to mildew and mold which can completely ruin a tent, so as soon as it stopped raining (almost a week after we packed them up) Stephen took all the tents back out and laid them all over our yard. In the evening when I’d look up the hill they’d look positively ghostly, their indistinct forms were so amazingly white against the greys and blacks of twilight. Once the tents were on the lawn it rained at least a little every other day, and it is cold enough at night that there is frost. The things just were not drying. When we heard the weather report threaten snow on Sunday night Stephen and I dragged all the canvas inside: 1 large wedge tent, 1 dining fly, 2 pavillion roofs, 2 very long walls and 4 shorter walls. The ground cloths and rugs are still out on the lawn. We draped tents in the garage (one over the band saw and workbench, one over the motorcycles), one in the guest bedroom, one in the sewing room, one in the den, one in the upstairs office, one over the bannister, 3 in the downstairs bathroom. Stephen has already put out the word that next year the only tents coming home with us will either belong to us or to the guild, but not to any individuals; unless those individuals are willing to pay rent, prices not negotiable.

The canvas is such an apt image of the way I feel about reenacting right now. It is the end of the season and I am exhausted by all the reenacting, though we still have cleanup to do and podcasts to record, and blog entries to write, not to mention all the projects that I started during the season and never managed to finish!

In fact, we skipped our last event of the year. After 5 weekends of faire we were going to spend last weekend in the Pocconos with other people who reenact the same time that we do. But by the middle of last week two of the folks going on the trip had bailed out, and we were burnt out and not recovered from Faire. The thought of unpacking and re-packing just to un-pack again was heartbreaking, and the thought of camping in temperatures that were threatening below freezing had me really scared. We tendered our regrets, and I’ve felt relieved and guilty ever since. I still think it was the right decision, but it is really too bad we missed the chance to hang out and network with other folks who are interested in the same stuff we’re interested in!

A few weekends ago I did a bunch of interviews at a Colonial event for the Podcast and I asked one of the folks who agreed to talk to me if he was involved in other reenacting groups. He told me that he was, that he probably was involved in too many groups, that he participated in too many events, and had probably taken the hobby too far. It struck me that that is totally an end-of-the-season sort of answer. That I’m not the only one looking back and wishing I’d had a few more days at home, that I’m not the only one who is tired, and looking forward to a slow-down if not an absolute break.

During the last few weeks of faire, Stephen valiantly carried on the podcast without me. I was tired and the thought of talking for a half an hour or more about Living History on top of doing it every weekend (and our normal jobs and lives on top of that) was just too much for me. When faire ended even Stephen seemed reluctant to head up to the “studio” and talk about Living History. We both love it, but I think we’ve hit a wall.

Don’t worry, all you listeners, all you blog readers, this is only temporary. Already I’m planning all the projects to do over the slower months. We’ve got spring events marked in our calendars. We’re putting together some new workshops and discussions to have at Reenactorfest in February. Tonight I am glad that reenacting follows the earth cycles. It may seem like we’ve slowed down for a bit, but we’ve just got to do a little re-charging. We’ll do a little historical research, read some books, maybe sleep in. And we’ll get through the winter, then emerge in the spring ready to jump back in to history with both feet.

At some point we’ll probably even fold up all those tents.

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