Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Things more people should do: historical battle re-enactments

The American Government class I'm TAing this semester was cancelled for Patriot's Day this Monday, which is an extremely important national holiday, FYI, although it is aggressively celebrated only in New England. So, given this reprieve from work, I convinced a friend with a car that we cannot rightfully leave New England before seeing a Revolutionary War re-enactment. So we set out at 4 AM for the re-enactment of the Battle of Lexington, held annually at the crack of dawn on Patriot's Day. I had also encouraged all my students to attend this event the previous week since Lexington is not far from Cambridge--biking distance, really--and the American Revolution is obviously relevant to the subject of American Government, but none of them seemed to be interested when I mentioned the start time. I do not understand this. I mean, it's the shot heard 'round the world! And it's not like they have anything better to do at dawn! Well, they were unpersuaded.

But the re-enactment was actually pretty great, although we were evidently not the target audience for the event. We waited for two hours in the dark as a growing horde of seven year-olds surrounded us with various height-enhancing equipment like milk crates and step-ladders to elevate their midget selves above me. Then the battle was re-enacted, and that was actually a surprisingly good production. The re-enactors claim that they do this as an annual memorial to the Lexington dead, but this seems like a strange motivation, or at least one that would lead them to memorialize--and so re-enact--more recent battle deaths than those from the Revolutionary War. (Well, I guess who knows if these people aren't also re-enacting Iwo Jima in their free time?) Incidentally, how can I become a re-enactor? It looks like the women just have to stand around in bonnets and pretty dresses looking concerned, which I think I am highly qualified to do.

I offer this extremely amateurish video to tempt you into future support for your local historical battle re-enactment circuit. In it, you will see the puzzling sight of kids in period costume standing behind a tree five feet from supposed gunfire, as well as a soldier being "bayoneted":


Sunday, April 08, 2012

Department of Bad Ideas: Old-New Spelling

Following up on a long-ago post about Noah Webster's orthographical reform efforts, here is something to be filed under "good ideas that never took off":
The principal alterations, necessary to render our orthography sufficiently regular and easy, are these:
1. The omission of all superfluous or silent letters; as in bread. Thus bread, head, give, breast, built, meant, realm, friend, would be spelt, bred, hed, giv, brest, bilt, ment, relm, frend. Would this alteration produce any inconvenience, any embarrassment or expense? By no means. On the other hand, it would lessen the trouble of writing, and much more, of learning the language; it would reduce the true pronunciation to a certainty; and while it would assist foreigners and our own children in acquiring the language, it would render the pronunciation uniform, in different parts of the country, and almost prevent the possibility of changes.
2. A substitution of a character that has a certain definite sound, for one that is more vague and indeterminate. Thus by putting ee instead of ea or ie, the words mean, near, speak grieve, zeal, would become meen, neer, speek, greev, zeel. This alteration could not occasion a moments trouble; at the same time it would prevent a doubt respecting the pronunciation; whereas the ea and ie having different sounds, may give a learner much difficulty. Thus greef should be substituted for griefkee for keybeleev for believelaf for laughdawter for daughterplow for plough; tuf for tough; proov for proveblud for blood; and draft for draught. In this manner ch in Greek derivatives, should be changed into k; for the English ch has a soft sound, as in cherish; but k always a hard sound. Therefore character, chorus, cholic, architecture, should be written karacter, korus, kolic, arkitecture; and were they thus written, no person could mistake their true pronunciation.
3. Thus ch in French derivatives should be changed into shmachine, chaise, chevalier, should be written masheen, shaze, shevaleer; and pique, tour, oblique, should be written peek, toor, obleek.
4. A trifling alteration in a character, or the addition of a point would distinguish different sounds, without the substitution of a new character. Thus a very small stroke across th would distinguish its two sounds. A point over a vowel, in this manner, aor รป, or might answer all the purposes of different letters. And for the dipthong ow, let the two letters be united by a small stroke, or both engraven on the same piece of metal, with the left hand line of the w united to the o.
Peepl! Just imajin hou [imagine the proposed "ow" dipthong letter here] much eezier skool wud bee nou if wee had onlee folloued Webster's adviz. Wee cud rit lik this all the tim and never hav to lern fonix or probablee even hol langwaj. I am at leest convinced that this wud produs soshul yunitee and level class distinkshuns much mor quicklee than our obnoxushlee hibridized Breetish spelling did, aren't yu?

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The regressive effects of evolving standards of scholarship

Is it possible that one day in the near future, someone will write a vast study showing that mid-century American historiography (except Perry Miller's) was wrong about everything? This book will consist of two parts: one detailing outright errors obscured by a wholesale failure to cite sources, and the second mocking the tendency towards ungrounded generalization for the sake of moral condemnation. (Among the victims of the latter volume will necessarily be Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style," which will subsequently drop off of all the dozens of college syllabi which it currently graces.) I'm not saying I will write this thing, but perhaps you will.

I'm reading this second-rate but mainstream history of American education, and have found some difficulties. In his "survey" of 17th century thought, the author attributes (without citation) a claim that children are "young vipers" to Cotton Mather that was actually made in the 18th century by Jonathan Edwards, helpfully instructs us that, "the fruits of [the Puritans'] labors in government are more to be avoided than imitated," and offers the following incisive analyses of the main elements in the socio/cultural/intellectual shift from the 17th to the 18th centuries: "Man's concept of himself also changes" and "Man also adds to his stature." And then he informs us that Locke "denied the existence of inborn tendencies to think, feel, and act in ways predetermined and unrelated to the experiences of individuals." John Locke: surprisingly indistinguishable from B.F. Skinner. And now I am putting this book back on the shelf.

Allowances can be made for the fact that, writing in 1964, Professor Thayer didn't have access to the great modern conveniences like central air conditioning and the online-searchable text of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, but he could at least have tried to read the things he thought he was citing in order to make sure they existed. Anyway, the point is not to pile on Thayer, whom no one has ever heard of, although they have heard of Vernon Parrington, from whom Thayer has cribbed the entire structure and argument of his own book (The inevitable result of a unified intellectual culture, you might say, is that you get 20 books a year pointing out that the Puritans had like a theocracy, which is like antithetical to our open, progressive, cold-warring democratic society of 1964 so we are obliged to continuously remind you to oppose it.)

The point is to wonder what I, in 2012, am supposed to do when I receive reviewer comments that all say entirely contradictory things about an article, and all demand that I deal more extensively with the secondary literature in the field and also that I espouse their own general conclusions about things (Locke was not important for American educational thought; William Godwin was)? What if the established secondary lit is wrong and it's the primary sources that require reconsideration (or even a reading in the first place)? What if the reviewers' conclusions are not espousable because the purpose of my article is to argue against them?

Also, why is my entire life plagued by the one person in a group who always pipes up to say, "But what about the women? You're not sufficiently accounting for the women." Maybe I will create a permanent headnote to all my files that will read, "Pre-emption: The women will be discussed in a separate, forthcoming study" and this study will simply never come forth.