Paper cut of children read a book under tree of bulb

by Fergus Selsdon Games

The story of Robin Hood is among the most familiar in British folklore. Set against the backdrop of twelfth-century English forestry, the cunning Robin wins back riches hoarded by a greedy Sheriff of Nottingham and gifts them to the local poor, while wooing the beautiful Maid Marian. With a cast of easily identifiable heroes and villains, it’s childish, innocuous fun. 

Or is it? Those who grew up in parts of the American South during the 1950s heard a very different telling of the story – or perhaps none at all. As a result of several State of Indiana Board of Education rulings, the story was deemed a ‘straight communist line’ and barred from classrooms, with the authors of textbooks citing the tale forced either to re-write their books or face erasure from the curriculum. In Texas, the history of school textbook battles is even more chequered with fights over curriculum content dating back generations and often pitting professional educators against Christian Right advocates (who themselves were often parents, albeit highly organised ones).

 

Such conflicts are fascinating because they highlight the ways in which…the question of ‘what knowledge is most important’ is always adjacent to the question of ‘whose knowledge is most important’.

 

Such conflicts are fascinating because they highlight the ways in which, as the theorist and educator Michael W. Apple has put it, the question of ‘what knowledge is most important’ is always adjacent to the question of ‘whose knowledge is most important’. The assembling of a curriculum (or a ‘canon’ in the language of higher education) is necessarily selective. Due to the limitations of resources and time in the academic calendar, not everything can be included. Apple goes on to point out that the decisions governing curricular inclusions are irrevocably affected by the ‘political and economic constraints of markets, resources and power’. In other words, the subject material that does earn inclusion reflects and, to some extent, reshapes the assumptions, attitudes and outlooks that guide societies.

 

…the decisions governing curricular inclusions are irrevocably affected by the ‘political and economic constraints of markets, resources and power’.

It is particularly useful to interrogate the teaching of history because, ‘…so often, history becomes the mask worn by ideology, when it wants to be mistaken for experience.’

 

It is particularly useful to interrogate the teaching of history, because, as Robert Saunders recently pointed out in the New Statesman, ‘…so often, history becomes the mask worn by ideology, when it wants to be mistaken for experience.’ Politicians and leaders use the past to help their prospective constituents imagine the future. Claims about a country’s ‘natural allies, markets or place in the world’ and invocations about ‘the achievements of former generations’ help to guide the public imagination, drumming up support for one reconfigured model of society or another. 

 

Claims about a country’s ‘natural allies, markets or place in the world’ and invocations about ‘the achievements of former generations’ help to guide the public imagination, drumming up support for one reconfigured model of society or another. 

 

Thus, ideologies – masked as historical events – can be powerful marshalling forces. And in some sense, they have to be this way. The influential political theorist David Miller has suggested that ‘myths’ function as a kind of societal glue, by providing common ambitions and helping populations make sense of their place in the world. The Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon (in conversation with essayist and critic Teju Cole) explains how, in Bosnian, there are ‘no words that are equivalent to “fiction” and “nonfiction”… This is not to say that there is no truth or falsehood. Rather, the stress is on storytelling. The closest translation of “nonfiction” would be “true stories”’. Hemon understands that written accounts are subject to the all-too-familiar frailties of human subjectivity. Writing history has always been, and will always be, to some extent, a task of the imagination. This only makes it all the more imperative to handle the task with care and consideration; when mishandled, the consequences can be devastating.

School textbooks are – to come full circle – no exception. A generation of American school-children, socialised on a diet of strict anti-Communism, racialised segregation and resistance to the idea of a welfare belt, might never have encountered the story of Robin Hood, who epitomises a kind of gallivanting, redistributive justice. That is not necessarily a problem. Who’s to say that Robin Hood is a ‘more important’ story than that of, say, Mary Poppins? Indeed, to some extent, we all need stories to give light and direction to our common lives. It is important, however, to start by recognising that we are all the products of an editorialising school environment. Any narrative or curriculum which claims to resemble some ‘natural’ course is, rather, embodying an ideology – one which potentially helps to maintain mechanisms of unequally distributed power or, worse still, accentuate them.

 

Any narrative or curriculum which claims to resemble some ‘natural’ course is, rather, embodying an ideology – one which potentially helps to maintain mechanisms of unequally distributed power or, worse still, accentuate them.

 

So, putting some of these ideas into practice, perhaps take a moment to reflect on the texts and stories that you received as part of your school-age education. How might these objects of inquiry subscribed to, or been warped by, broader ideological frameworks? What broader lessons about our place in society might we have, consequently, internalised? Were any texts glaringly omitted, perhaps in editorial defence against ideas deemed intolerable? To be clear, my suggestion is neither that it is always helpful to treat one’s curriculum with unrelenting scepticism, nor that are firm answers to any of these questions. Instead, the suggestion is that by taking a moment to reflect thoughtfully and inquisitively, you might well find that larger truths and judgements lie within the grounds of Sherwood Forest.

Fergus Selsdon Games is OICD Intern


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