Category Archives: Yore

“These instances show that the past was not always an easy task.”

Of all the sweeping generalizations about history students have treated me to over the years, this is probably my favorite.

Unlike my other examples, this one was not the opening of an essay or even of a paragraph. Obviously, it follows and gathers a number of examples. I wish I had saved the examples, because the concept of past-as-task is almost impossible for me to grasp and those examples might have clarified what my student meant.

On the other hand, the sentence is wonderfully opaque in its simplicity; efforts to clarify it would leave, I think, a murky smear at best.

Here’s your task list for today, dear:

  1. brush your teeth
  2. do the dishes
  3. fold the laundry
  4. do the past
  5. take out the garbage…

The sentence would probably have slid by if the student had written “the past was not always easy”—although I can’t imagine anyone thinking the past was easy, so phrased that way the sentence would be pretty pointless.

I can see her now, typing the beginning of the sentence with confidence and a bit of academic panache, then typing “a” and racking her brain for the right noun to follow it. After all, she’d gone to all that trouble typing the “a”: why waste it? The line of thought that led her down the mental garden path to “easy task” I cannot imagine: I leave it to you to either spend a few merry moments trying to trace such a journey, or simply sit back and contemplate the sentence as it stands, pure and impassable.

“Hotel receptionist who takes the journey with them.”

No, this is not some new job opportunity or luxury-tour feature.

This is part three of the response to a short-answer exam question.

The question (or, more accurately, the “challenge”): Name three of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales.

This student’s answer: “The Wife of Bath, the Miller, and the hotel receptionist who takes the journey with them.”

Yes, the pilgrims did gather at the Tabard Inn. Yes, Harry Bailey was the Host of the Tabard Inn. Yes, the medieval Inn was more or less the equivalent of today’s Holiday Inn (etc.).

But no, Harry did not stand behind a counter, consult bookings on a computer, hand out room keys, mention the Continental Breakfast, or provide travel brochures. He mixed with the guests, made sure they were drinking their ale, actively presided over the comings and goings, kept an eye on the cook and tapster and hostler and other staff…and owned the inn. On the pilgrimage he served as judge and moderator in the story-telling competition, and in his own establishment too he was the boss.

The Wife of Bath, from the Ellesmere ms.

No matter how many pictures the texts offer, how many sites we refer students to for background, how often (in this case) I pass around my Ellesmere Manuscript pamphlet with its centerfold of the manuscript’s illustrations of the pilgrims, the actuality and completeness of life in an earlier time never quite gets through. The Middle Ages are not the only times my students don’t seem to be able to imagine; I’ve had students wonder why Desirée, of Kate Chopin’s “Desirée’s Baby” (set in antebellum Louisiana), would not simply drive up North and get a secretarial job instead of drowning herself and her infant son when her husband accuses her of having Negro blood. Someone will inevitably wonder why characters insist on driving around in horse-drawn carriages instead of using their cars. This kind of dyschronicity coexists with a cartoon version of the past where, as we all know, NO women had ANY rights and ALL women felt oppressed by their husbands, NO women could read or write, and in the U.S before 1865 ALL Africans and their descendants were slaves. Lest anyone think I’m claiming that ALL my students are like this, let me hasten to say that some do have a more informed and nuanced view of the past and many are capable of imagining lives that differ from their own. But just when I begin to let myself think that one year’s students are all of this latter type, along comes another remark in a paper or on an exam or in classroom discussion that shatters my illusions yet again.

Could my “hotel receptionist” student really have imagined the pilgrims to Canterbury traveling along the road, some on foot and some on horseback, some roughly clad and some more elegantly got up, and jogging along in their midst someone like the hotel receptionist who greeted me at the Omni Shoreham last summer, an elegant and sleekly coiffed young woman in a dark-blue business suit (with short pencil skirt and very high heels, I discovered when she stepped from behind the counter to speak with a porter), speaking with warm politeness and an Indian accent?

Harry Bailey of the Tabard Inn . . . or the receptionist at the Swiss hotel in "The Bourne Identity"?

“Since 1992 it seems as though children and young adults have been losing respect for their elders.”

Another sentence that suggests students have NO sense of history!

To be fair, if I require students to actually know what they’re talking about when they talk about the past, I really can’t criticize a 19-year-old who attests to a phenomenon “since” the year she was born—although how good a witness she is of the years 1992-1996 is questionable.

But for those of us who are older than 19, this sentence is a howler. Sure, children and young adults really respected their elders…until one fateful day in 1992, when…what happened? What caused the erosion of respect to begin?

I’ve just spent a  browsy hour on Greg Duncan’s site “Gregsite,” and then a few more minutes on Wikipedia, looking at the events of 1992. The usual wars, earthquakes, assassinations, celebrity marriages and divorces: plenty to make people lose heart generally. Maybe the loss of respect for elders was begun by the death of an important elder—Alex Hailey, Hailie Selassie, Allan Bloom, Eric Sevareid, Lee Salk, S.I. Hayakawa, the Marlboro Man, Gorgeous George, Superman? maybe by bad behavior by an elder—the beating of Rodney King; the Ruby Ridge shootings; the siege of Sarajevo; the separation of Prince Charles and Diana; the Iraq disarmament crisis; the crimes of Leona Helmsly, John Gotti, Mike Tyson; Sinéad O’Connor’s ripping up Pope John Paul II’s picture on television; NYC’s installation of the first public pay toilet in the U.S.; the moment when President George H.W. Bush vomited into the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister?  maybe by the change or loss of an important icon—Golden Girls going off the air, Punch ending publication, Lucy hiking her fee for Pyshiatric Help? or maybe, if your orientation is different from mine, the election of Bill Clinton, the decision of the Church of England to admit women to the priesthood, John Paul II’s apology to Galileo, or the one-day job-swap between Imus in the Morning and Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker?

Okay, that paragraph was really fun to put together. But I don’t see anything that would make that year more likely than any other to mark the beginning of American young people’s loss of respect for their elders. We always lose valuable individuals to death, grown-ups always do awful things, idols always stagger into the sunset on their clay feet.

I know when my loss of respect for elders began: when I saw the televised footage of police turning fire hoses on people trying to register to vote, and of mounted police bearing down on the marchers in Selma. And when I then tried to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which my elders had taught me to believe. So as an individual I can put my finger on the moment. I wouldn’t generalize that to the history of the world, though.

But every generation complains that the young no longer respect their elders (except Gwendolen Fairfax of The Importance of Being Earnest, who laments that “the old-fashioned respect for the young is fast dying out,” one of Oscar Wilde’s wonderful cliché reversals).

And so every generation would laugh at my earnest student, speaking only for the time she knows and therefore sounding as if she thinks everything was just hunky-dory before then—in other words, as if she is totally ignorant of history. And here, I guess, we come full circle.

“The women played an important part in settling North America…”

Here’s a bold and reassuring beginning. Most of the names that have come down to us as original settlers, movers, and shakers (not necessarily Shakers) have been male, but women played an important part. Here’s how:

“They were an encouragement for the men to live there.”

What was he thinking? Surely he wasn’t picturing a street in Amsterdam with ladies of pleasure sitting in windows as an attraction to come inside (sorry for the double entendre), or sending broadsheets (sorry again) with Lonely Hearts pictures home. Perhaps he thought the men of the time were more than normally timid, and knowing that women were living in North America and doing all right encouraged them to buck up (sorry again!) and ship out to come over?

Forget all the work in the fields, all the cooking and food-preservation work, all the child-bearing and child-rearing, all the patient counsel and planning, all the full participation in the teamwork necessary to establish and maintain households and communities. In none of that, evidently, was women’s participation particularly important. No, they were the man-magnets.

Now, there’s a calling in life!

Of course this was all Back Then, in the days of Yore. Time has passed.

Work is obviously still needed, though, in the consciousness-raising part of the Feminist movement. Must we leave it to the men, while we apply makeup and don sexy underwear to keep them around long enough to raise some consciousnesses? But if that’s our approach, what consciousness will there be to raise?

“In early Christian times…”

This is perhaps the ultimate “history,” or “back then,” statement. It leaves me speechless every time I read it. Certain current political figures might not be surprised by the fusion of religion and sex. Our sex-obsessed media would do well to note the attitude then about jobs and gossip.

“In early Christian times, sex, as we see it today, wasn’t always like this. The people  back then knew that it was their job to multiply but there wasn’t much to talk about. This was the life of Jesus.”

See? Speechless.