On 5 July 2017, Eric Weiskott’s “Millennial Bashing in Medieval Times” appeared in The Conversation online. In the article, Weiskott situates himself and his students as the Millennials often focused upon by derogatory opinion pieces and contests the commonplace descriptions of Millennials as shiftless and feckless amid noting their major cultural touchstones before arriving at the crux of his piece: complaints about youth are nothing new. He then references a series of examples of medieval English authors’ complaints about the youths of their own times, moving from Chaucer through an anonymous poet to Langland and Malory. The article concludes with the comment that complaints about youth are symptomatic of continual underlying social change–and that they are not likely to end anytime soon.
I’ve been fortunate enough to read Weiskott’s work on occasion, as well as to hear him speak, and I know him for an excellent scholar. (I also confess to being jealous of him, since he got a position for which I had also applied–but that is another matter entirely.) And his scholarly predilection emerges in the article, wherein he makes several mentions of meter; Weiskott identifies as a metricist (among a few others), so it makes sense that comments about meter would attract his attention. Similarly, his focus on later Middle English literature is evident from the dates of his references; most are in the latter 14th century, with Malory the outlier at the “end” of Middle English. (Indeed, one of the things I could wish to see addressed in the piece, had space allowed, is older responses; what do the Anglo-Saxon scops, for example, make of the youths of their time?) Both were comforts, of course; seeing scholarly focus deployed for a broad audience is a hopeful thing, and my own formal studies tend to focus on Malory, so seeing other Malorian work is emboldening (even if I see it relatively late).
I am also gratified that a point I make often with my classes echoes one made by a more powerful scholar than I. Although I’ve not often been in a position to teach medieval English literature as a primary focus (and will likely never be so again), I work to integrate my medievalist tendencies into my teaching (as I discuss at some length in a chapter I have in the upcoming Ballad of the Lone Medievalist–if I may be forgiven for self-promotion). One of the ways in which I do so is to point out the continuity of language change–something Weiskott reports doing in his classes. And one of the ways I point out that continuity is by noting that the writers of the past complain about the youths of their time as certainly as do the writers of today–as Weiskott points out. So I am in good company, which is always a pleasure.
One of the reasons I feel compelled to point out the changes in language and the complaints of the past about the language of the slightly-more-recent past is that many of my students have internalized the idea that their “nonstandard” usage marks them as unintelligent and unworthy. (I’ve noted it at least obliquely before.) Since those I teach now are non-traditional, having been away from formal schooling for some time and, in many cases, underserved academically when they were in schooling before, they tend to be more convinced than traditional undergraduates that there is something wrong with them because they speak and write in particular ways that are not “what was taught in school.” I face more of a challenge to get them to the idea that the “standards” in place now are wholly arbitrary and reflect the soft power deployed by moneyed interests to keep those without as much money (and the access to resources represented by that money) in their place–and convincing people that they are stupid does much to keep them from looking to change things. The words of the past help me to do so, more than just acting as a salve for the wounds the words of many of my elders inflict. I expect that Weiskott’s students–or those who need it, since he works at Boston College, a situation far removed from my own and those of my students–benefit in such a way, as well.