1. 1.
    traveling from place to place, especially working or based in various places for relatively short periods.
    "the peripatetic nature of military life"
    synonyms:nomadic, itinerant, traveling, wandering, roving, roaming, migrant,migratory, unsettled
    "I could never get used to her peripatetic lifestyle"
  2. 2.
  1. 1.
    a person who travels from place to place.
  2. 2.
    an Aristotelian philosopher.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Reading Civics in a Modern Novel and Trying to Solve a Whodunnit

 'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed
When not to be receives reproach of being
And the just pleasure lost which is so deemed
Not by our feeling but by others' seeing.
For why should others' false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?...

(Shakespeare's Sonnet 121)

Listening to various pundits on television and radio worry about the ability of Americans to hold their own in a global economy, I have to wonder. When and where did public education here begin its unhealthy decline? Whodunnit? And can anyone change its course this late in the game? A few weeks ago, I watched Richard Dreyfuss, the actor of Jaws and Mr. Holland's Opus fame, speak on Fox News about his dreams for America. They aren't farfetched or unrealistic. He has launched something he calls The Dreyfuss Initiative to get Americans interested in civics again. Civics? What's that? "The study or science of the privileges and obligations of citizens." Obligations. Hmm. That sounds like I gotta do somethin'. Somebody makin' me and my kids do it. Not sure I like it. Think I'll call a lawyer or my congress-person. Eureka! The trail of blood (money) is much easier to follow now.

Back when I was a freshman in high school--don't even think about asking how long ago that was--I opted for a sort-of civics class in lieu of U.S. History. (Note: by the time I was a senior we had moved to another school district, and guess what? I had to take that history class anyway.) At that time, I thought learning history was just a waste of time, memorizing a bunch of dates, famous names, and battles. Yawn! Apparently, some educators thought the same thing and came up with an alternative class. It was called "Contemporary World" or some such thing. We got to play board games like Guns or Butter and learned stuff like what Lieutenant Calley had done in Vietnam. Fun, huh? According to this PBS account of Calley's folly, his actions may have contributed a great deal to the notion that the draft (involuntary military service) wasn't such a neat idea.

The draft or military conscription actually ended in 1973 at the beginning of President Nixon's second term. He and his Republican backers pushed for it. Interesting. There was some talk last summer that the draft might be reinstated. Apparently, Rep. Charles Rangel (Democrat) from New York introduced a bill that would make military service mandatory once again. (It didn't pass, by the way). He considers that there is a disproportionate burden of military service falling on the backs of the poor people in this country. I tend to agree. Somewhat. With decent paying jobs so hard to find and the skyrocketing cost of higher education putting it out of reach for most people, there aren't many good alternatives anymore.

Military service guarantees food on the table, clothes on the back, a roof over the head, free healthcare, and a ticket (courtesy of the GI Bill) to earn a college degree. I should know. My family certainly received those goodies because of my dad's military service. Besides, the pay isn't so shabby anymore. The federal pay freeze being proposed does not apply to service members. And in December of 2010, the GI Bill education benefits were expanded. Remember the one side of the civics coin? Privileges. It's not often that we hear about the other side of the coin. Obligations. It's obviously a dirty word. No one wants to think about the cost of those privileges.

So what does all of that (above) have to do with a certain novel, pictured above? Whether I read nonfiction or fiction, I want to know what or who informs the characters and maybe even the author(s). What are they reading? Taking to heart? Immersing their thoughts in? Sharing ideals and dreams with? In the case of C. W. Gortner's The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, the MC and narrator of the novel takes her cues from a variety of philosophers, ancient as well as more recent. Plutarch and Machiavelli, for example.

Catherine de Medici, dispatched by her uncle, Pope Clement VII, to marry the heir to France's throne is still a child when she takes her wedding vows. Immature, yes, but not ignorant by any stretch of the imagination. The aunt who raises this orphan makes sure that the girl not only learns to keep her hands occupied with the art of embroidery but also engages her brain with academics. And what an education that was. It continued when Catherine was sent to become a royal French bride: "We spent six hours every day, adhering to a regimen of mathematics, history, languages, and music..." Private tutors, extensive gardens to walk in, lavish dinners to feed a growing body so the brain could do its work. Privileges.

What about obligations? In the MC's own words: "I realized being a princess of France was much like being a Medici; the king's daughters [her new sisters-in-law] dwelled always under the expectations of their rank. One day, they too would wed, leave for distant courts, where they would be strangers representing their nation..." A new world order was beginning to take shape even then in the sixteenth century, when alliances were being forged among nations. Wouldn't you know that women, as usual, bore the brunt of the burden for making it happen and the blame for when it didn't? Literally. The children born to those royal marriages of mixed heritage were expected to cement relationships between rulers and guarantee trade and understanding among their subjects. Sometimes that cement didn't hold, especially when differences of opinion respecting religion got in the way.

Strange, how that happens even now. And those conflicts don't always have to involve the major religions. Fascism, communism, radical environmentalism...You name it, there's a fanatic-"ism" ready to fly its banner over people who are ready and willing to listen. History and civics lessons fly out the window in those cases. Books get shoved aside and forgotten. Important ideas to be studied, remembered, and discussed are removed from curricula.

Take Machiavelli's The Prince, for example. It shows up in Gortner's novel not once but twice. The first time it appears, Catherine shows it off to a young man who will one day figure prominently in her struggle to maintain her family's control of France. He is Gaspard de Coligny, and when she shows it to him, proud of the fact that it was written for and dedicated to her great-grandfather, Lorenzo the Magnificent, he quotes from it. Takes it to heart, he does. Maybe. Sort of. 

The book's second appearance occurs many years later. She gives one of her grandsons his own copy, inscribed with his name:

I handed it to him. "The Prince by Machiavelli," I told him. "My favorite book. I think you are of age now to appreciate its wisdom."

He fingered the book as if it were a jewel. "Thank you," he breathed, his eyes glowing just as my own late son's, his namesake, had when given a new falcon or pet hound. Only this Charles was clearly a scholar; the veneration with which he retreated to the window to open the book demonstrated he would never find satisfaction in swords or armor.

Maybe not swords beaten into plowshares but certainly a hope for future peace. In books, of all places.

Before you sail away from this post, consider taking a look at one of those places where this writer informs herself. It's a blog called Cruising Altitude, and there's a golden opportunity in the air up there. Mr. Hammons has a contest going, and he's provided us with a mystery to be solved. Try your hand at it. I'm going to. In blogs, of all places. Clues abound. 


  1. Clues sure do show up in blogs. And in one's blog who writes so well on such thought provoking subjects as you do. Have you ever read A Cuban In London's blog? He writes like you and on thought provoking debates too. I personally think every person has obligations. It is just a fact of life. We are obligated to more than just our society too. Glad you mentioned the new updated GI Bill. I just found out it affects me positively! So happy especially since hubby is retiring soon.

  2. While reading this, I immediately thought of Jack Kennedy's famous quote, "Ask not what your country can do for you..." When President Obama was inaugurated, I thought he inspired the same kind of feeling with his call for volunteerism, but it seems we've quickly forgotten that. Civics at our high school is only for honors students...I don't remember how that came about, but it seems everyone could use a few civics lessons. Our society has become too filled with an attitude of being owed something.

    Thanks for your kind words on my last post, W2W; it's been a very up and down week here.

  3. I think if you have parents who set the example of participating in civics, it makes all the difference.
    My Mom was not one to volunteer at school a lot but she did do her share in the community. I find myself full of neglect when it comes to this. Thanks for the reminder and thanks for commenting on my post.

  4. For a moment I thought you were going to wander off into a George Will rant but then turned to one of my heroines.... Catherine herself. It gave me an idea for a post and also to read this book. A beautiful chateau in France, Chenonceau, is where she spent much time "socializing" her children. Called the cheateau of the "Three Women" she was the last of the three to design and rebuild this most charming of homes from the medieval period. Upon her husband the Kings death, she expelled his mistriss, Dianne de Poiters, (the most beautiful woman in France) from it. And there lies a tale I wonder if this story is mentioned in the book?
    Troutbirder (a former Civics teacher) :)

  5. Dear Walk2Write,
    I think most people like to give back. But they have to learn that too, and now even advertisement (in Germany at least) is concentrating on the Ego. I complained (!) to the post bank's advertisement - they have a lot of posters ending with "ich"= "i" instead of "ig" - if I try to translate: they write "luckili" - and the line underneath runs: "The result of the sum must be I".
    Not we! So they a) teach wrong spelling to the children, and, worse, send a message that is absolutely not ok.
    PS: They told me that a lot of people have complained. But the posters remain.

  6. What an interesting post. Thanks for providing the links as well.

  7. wow. This is a great wake up call.. I know when I was in HS we had the option of a year or a half-year of civics... natch I opted for the half. There are so many courses that are undervalued... World History also being one--wink! :D <3

  8. I graduated from high school in 1969. Even at that time, although I had heard of "Civics", it was a class that was no longer offered where I went to school. I felt like you did about history--a drudgery of a class that was unneccessary. Now history books are among my favorite to read and history is one of my favorite subjects.

    the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge 2011

  9. Great posting, W2W!
    As for civics, we don't have such courses to study it in high school. I think it is a matter of regret that most of us, including me haven't been concerned about it. We have to learn about it!!
    And thanks so much for your mention of Catherine de Médicis. What I knew about her is just the outline of her life. This post has provoked a lot of interest in her!!

  10. Hey, nice to meet you! Wow, I have a lot to chew on....I love history and the politics of bygone times. Now, however, I have much too cynical an attitude.

    I agree with your observations about the military, though. A friend of mine's husband is being call for a third or fourth tour in Iraq. She's a mess. Obligations....

    Great post!

  11. Hello fellow crusader! I enjoyed your blog!


  12. Tina, I have read ACIL's postings, but it's been a while since I visited. Thanks for reminding me to return to it. I hope you and Mr. Fix-It enjoy a happy retirement. You've both earned it.

    Rose, I think you're right that we all could use a refresher course on civics, and shame on schools for thinking that only a select few need to learn about it. I hope this week is more up for you.

    Rosey, I had the finest two examples in the world for good citizenship--Mom and Dad. I try my best to follow in their footsteps.

    TB, I do believe Diane makes her mark on this story. It's indelible, and it's not just on the chateau. I'm pretty sure you will enjoy the novel, but you might want to get started on it while it's still cold outside. The story gets a little steamy:)

    Britta, how interesting! Of course, the advertisers are trying to create desire for something and then urge the consumer to satisfy it. A Faustus Phenomenon? You're right about the children. They're very impressionable. Little sponges they are.

  13. Hello and thanks, Sylvia. And you're welcome for the links!

    LTM, it's nice to meet you! You know, I don't remember having any specific World History classes when I was growing up. We had a conglomerate of things lumped into what they called "Social Studies." I don't think the system has improved much over the years. College is where I got my first real dose of WH. It was great!

    Arlee Bird, I'm with you on the subject of history. I love it! Thanks for coming by and commenting.

    I'm glad you liked the post, Sapphire. I had read about the Medici family. They pop up all over the place in Renaissance drama. Their society had a love/hate relationship with them. Catherine was a new one for me to learn about, though. She's fascinating. I want to know more.

    Thanks, Words Crafter, and welcome! Like you and your friend, I am worried for the military personnel and their families having to put up with this protracted "war on terror" or whatever its current name is. How does one ever make up for the sacrifices made? You have to hope the end result of it all really is to preserve freedom.

    Hello, kmullican, and welcome! I'm glad you like the blog.