Please comment/ discuss below. Or send longer responses directly to me and I'll be happy to add to the ongoing forum.
Explaining why you care so deeply about your particular academic specialty tends to be an awkward question, I think. When I say that I study medieval history, and especially issues of gender and spirituality in the tenth through twelfth centuries in northwestern Europe, people usually look at me with pity, confusion, or total incomprehension. Part of the reason for this, I know, is that most people were not taught history in a way that was engaging and involving and seemed relevant to contemporary concerns. Another part of the reason is that whatever pre-digested pablum passing for history they were fed in high school and/or college taught them a completely incorrect story of European history that goes something like this:
First there were the Greeks, and they were totally awesome because a tiny fraction of them practiced a form of government that sort of vaguely resembles representative democracy, like we have in the glorious old U.S. of A. And they had some nice art. Then, there were the Romans, who were pretty great because they created this really big empire, conquering lots of people and imposing their language and culture on a huge swath of the known world. And they built some really nice buildings. Then Jesus was born and lots of people became Christians and the Romans persecuted them, but they won out anyway and the Roman emperors became Christian. Then the Romans were conquered by a bunch of smelly, hairy German barbarians and European culture went to hell in a handbasket for a thousand years. During the Dark Ages, some rich people lived in castles and beat the hell out of each other, the Catholic Church pushed everyone around, and the poor people lived and died in squalor when they weren't getting the hell beat out of them or being pushed around by the Church. Art, culture, and science were suppressed by these ignorant, benighted people. Then, there was the Renaissance, hurray! Reason, enlightenment, and education returned to Europe, the arts flourished once more, and science was born. They "discovered" the (inconveniently inhabited) Americas. These people were like us! They were individuals with free intellects, unfettered by primitive superstition and engaged in a free search for Truth and Beauty. During their time, Europe becomes the Europe we know and understand, and their enlightened and rational descendants eventually went on to found the glorious U.S. of A.
Hopefully, some of you got a version of history that isn't quite this much of a caricature, but I know damned well this is pretty close to what most of you heard. Well, those of you who bothered to stay awake anyhow. The problem is, it's basically a load of horse pucky. This story of history is influenced by many different elements including American triumphalism and manifest destiny, Victorian anti-Catholicism, and fifteenth-century Italian snobbery. If there is any period that can be rightfully called the "Dark Ages" at all, it's only the couple of centuries after the Roman political order finally dissolved, replaced by the emerging kingdoms of the Germanic peoples the Romans hired to defend them from other "barbarians." It might, I repeat, MIGHT be appropriate to call that period a Dark Age simply because the details of how it all happened are quite murky on account of the fact that the Huns, Goths, Franks, Saxons, etc. were people of energy and action who did not spend a lot of time penning propaganda accounts of their activities like the Romans did.
The story of the Middle Ages, so called by relatively modern historians because they regarded it as an inferior period between the Roman Empire and the "Renaissance," is really the story of how people of very different languages and cultures created a new and unified political, social, cultural, and religious order from a startling diversity of elements. This story is, of course, full of missed opportunities, false starts, and roads not taken as well as of soaring achievements that continue to be vital elements of our modern culture. One could point out, for instance, that the book, the university, and the concept of romantic love were invented in this period. It's also a story of the ongoing tension between cultural unity and cultural diversity. Equally fascinating are the things that could have happened in this period and for various reasons didn't. An issue that interests me particularly is the existence of multiple understandings of womanhood in the earlier part of the period, and how and why some models that proposed a much more equal status for women failed to make the cut in the long term.
Despite what you probably learned in school, the story of the middle ages is as much the story of Western civilization, the story of "us" if you will, as any other part of history. The story of how these people, great and small, created an entirely new society out of such diverse elements, and of the ongoing tension between unity and diversity, has obvious and continuing relevance to the diverse society and world we live in today. I hope that when I myself begin to teach, in another couple of years, I will be able to communicate this story of the middle ages to students.