This semester I am teaching Theory of History. Which means I will spend all semester convincing students that history matters and affects their lives. I must admit this isn’t as impossible as it sounds. They are mostly history majors and tend to be excited about the course. I find more opposition in my everyday life. Especially when I meet new people. After asking what I do, people usually respond with “oh history was so boring, I never liked it.” It’s frustrating.
The other day a friend was watching The Devil Wears Prada and relayed her favorite scene to me, you know the one where Meryl Streep, as Miranda, goes off on Anne Hathaway, aka Andy, about her cerulean sweater:
(FYI: her rampage begins at the 1 minute mark)
I started thinking that this scene is how I wish I could respond to people who scoff at history! I shared this thought with my officemate and she agreed. So, while procrastinating in the office, we decide to re-write the scene to fulfill our Meryl Streep fantasies. Obviously we should have been grading papers or, I don’t know, writing our dissertations, but this was too much fun!
Warning: We were trying to be as snarky about History as Miranda was about fashion! We don’t really take ourselves this seriously! Also if you haven’t already, you really should watch the scene above first!
Me: I am sorry did my lecture disturb your nap?
Student: No, no, nothing. You know, it’s just that history is boring. It’s just a bunch of dates and names, it seems all the same to me. Y’know, I’m just trying to get through school.
Me: Just… dates and names? Oh… ok. I see, you think that the past has nothing to do with you. You go to school and decide, oh I don’t know, to take a class on the Renaissance, for instance, because you dream of going to Italy one day, because you are trying to tell the world that you are educated and cultured. But what you don’t know is that the Renaissance is not a revolutionary moment in history, it’s not the product of famous artists, it’s not the birthplace of republican ideals, it’s actually a product of a later generation that invented the archetypes of the “Renaissance” and linked them to “modern” and American ideals. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in the 18th century, Voltaire proclaimed the Italian Renaissance the apex of artistic expression. And then I think it was Edward Gibbon, wasn’t it, who published a book that argued the Renaissance was the foundation of civic society and marked the emergence of the individual modern man? I think we need a jacket here. Then the Renaissance showed up in American textbooks. Then it filtered down through popular culture, where you, no doubt, bought into these ideas. However, your decision to seek the intellectual riches of Italy are not your own, when, in fact, this drive is the product of centuries of history and intellectual thought, which created the notion that Italy represents the origins of modernity and “western civilization” and thus told you, to visit the place where your ideals and values were born. From a pile of dates and names.
A special thanks to my officemate for her help writing this/avoiding work. Visit her blog!