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On Diversity and Inclusion in Medieval Studies for the Social Studies Classroom

by Adam Attwood - August 07, 2017

This commentary explores interdisciplinary discussion of inclusivity in the study of the European Middle Ages and how medieval studies might be reconsidered for a new, inclusive middle school and high school social studies curricula.

Cord Whitaker (2015) recently highlighted the importance of generating an inclusive curriculum when teaching about the European Middle Ages. Whitaker (2015) recounts an incident when he was in graduate school: “A visiting prospective student looked me up and down and asked, ‘You’re a medievalist?’ I knew what this fellow person of color meant” (p. 3, emphasis in original). He was inferring several things, not least of which was an obscuring of a group of people’s place in the medieval narrative and his place personally in the study of medieval narrative. There was a sadness in this incident on multiple levels, and that sadness went to Whitaker’s childhood when he says that his “interest in chivalry” went as far back as when he was five years old (Whitaker, 2015, p. 3). This prompts a refocusing on a teacher’s role in demonstrating a reverence for student perception. With reverence for multiple points of view, teachers may be more likely to listen so that they design a more inclusive curriculum (Rud & Garrison, 2010). In this essay, I explore the concept of inclusivity in the study of the European Middle Ages and how it might be reconsidered for middle school and high school social studies curricula.

The concept of justice is important to consider when discussing issues of representation in social studies curriculum in the United States. Joyce King (2017) stated that “dismantling epistemological nihilation is a moral task that requires recovering liberating heritage knowledge, cultural memory, and historical consciousness” (p. 212). Whitaker’s (2015) discussion of medieval studies is part of that process. Lucey and Laney (2010) suggested that teachers must overcome discomfort when addressing issues of historical inequality so as not to replicate the very thing they seek to overcome. Likewise, Maude (2014) addressed issues of gender representation in medieval studies narratives. Teachers will need to search and read more sources to include multiple voices and viewpoints in a curriculum unit on the European Middle Ages. According to Whitaker (2015), “Race weighs so heavy that it forms a foundational layer, consisting of history as past and history as an active participant in the present” (p. 9). In an interesting corollary, one way to address this outside of traditional primary sources is through video games. Maguth, List, and Wunderle (2015) suggest that they successfully integrated the video game Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings into a high school world history curriculum to encourage students to creatively interact with historical narratives. Their study further suggests that this allows students to dialogue individually so that they make personal connections with the past.

Students tend to interact with the past today more through mediating technology than ever before (Maguth, et al., 2015). Television and movies are intricately tied into that mediation. Bertram van Munster et al.’s (2014) television series The Quest is an example. The Quest was summarized on the ABC website:

Great fantasy is filled with adventure, challenges, discovery, fish out of water and good vs. evil — turns out, another modern genre shares these exact same traits. Announcing ‘The Quest,’ a reality show that will literally take contestants and audiences to an amazing, imaginative realm, where the ogres are advancing in the woods, the dragons are stirring, agents of a dark lord are infiltrating the keep, and the only thing that stands between peace and chaos are 12 very unlikely heroes. From the producers of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, paired with the producers of ‘The Amazing Race,’ ‘The Quest’ will be a fully immersive experience. In and around this castle, our fantasy realm will come to life with state-of-the art projections, animatronics, prosthetics, real-time motion capture and art direction. The narrative and mythology of ‘The Quest’ is deep and fully imagined, and it has been designed to incorporate seamlessly with the unexpected actions and decisions of our contestants – fantasy comes alive as it never has before in this genre-bending series. (“The Quest,” 2014)

Van Munster, et al.’s (2014) The Quest series is itself an example of placing people into a participant-observer mode even more than a video game, because The Quest was immersive. The contestants are immersed in a neo-medievalist aesthetic fantasy competition featuring a fully realized castle with neo-medievalist artwork including aesthetically unified architecture, clothing, and decorative arts that adorn the village and castle in the show. Even the language used by the interactive characters employs neo-medievalist linguistic style. The show incorporates the chivalric persona through ritual and language. The participants in The Quest were diverse and generally a cross-section of American society. The visualization of diversity in the immersive medievalist fantasy show suggested to viewers an inherent inclusivity that tended to be missing from older literature. The obscuring of ethnic differences in medieval Mediterranean/European cultures by much of the dominant literature was common for centuries (Schiff, 2015).

The Walt Disney Company has a role to play in this discussion of the perception of medieval studies today. Disney tends to encourage children to play-act in the stylized “Magic Kingdom” of Disneyland in California, as well as Disney World in Florida. According to Suskind (2014), many parents tend to express the refrain: “We can’t help indulging in fantasy.” Today’s interest in artful interpretations of prehistory and history seems to be growing and inspiring retro-cultural syncretism rooted in a reimagined past, which emphasizes those aspects or characteristics considered good or beneficial for contemporary culture, and could perhaps signal a new variant of “post-historical” history (see Carrier, 1987). Even some of the restaurant industry has grafted Disney’s portrayal of medieval entertainment into their model—the most notable example of this is Medieval Times Restaurant chain, which features an immersive Disney-style chivalry. It has romanticized décor, heraldry, and jousting field in the center of the restaurant with tables arrayed in echelon. This is all part of what Ashton and Kline (2012) recently called the interest in a “strangely medieval” syncretism that appears to be a “contemporary phenomenon” (p. 2). The Disney version of chivalry continues to be an enduring artifact. Disney’s popular portrayals of the Middle Ages and apparent persistence in subliminal messaging in American popular culture seem to be additional reason to intentionally consider the ways in which the Middle Ages are taught in social studies classrooms. Finding diverse sources related to the study of the Middle Ages is of pressing concern in the twenty-first century classroom.

Teachers should include a combination of a multiple-narratives approach to social studies education that includes a measure of student-led dialogue with the past to move toward immersive narrative exploration. This approach helps foster what Saye (2013) called “authentic pedagogy” that does not rely on pen-and-paper tests or mono-ethnic portrayals of a historical period and place. Whitaker’s (2015) suggestion of the importance of race in medieval studies is echoed in Dean and Andrew’s (2016) discussion of “Afrofuturism.” Despite its name, futurism is rooted in the past subconsciously, if not consciously. Religion is a central topic to the study of the Middle Ages, so it is unsurprising that theology would be tied to a more inclusive discussion of medieval histories. Futurism tends to be an activist approach to history almost by definition as it asks the reader to envision certain continuities and how to change those continuances as an act of political self-fulfillment.

History is not hermetically sealed; rather, history is fluid and always subject to adaptive reuse. Jamie Lewis (2013) suggests that this type of understanding should be addressed directly in teacher education programs. If teacher candidates do not engage in these discussions, then curricular change is less likely (King, 2017; Lewis, 2013). Teachers should consider primary and secondary sources with a goal to include multiple perspectives. For example, Cecilia Penifader’s writings could be a primary source to help elucidate conversation about gender in fourteenth century England (Bennett, 1999). Teachers and teacher educators might consider utilizing the work of Davis (2000) and Hahn (2001) on racial complexity in Mediterranean cultures as part of their considerations for curriculum development. Likewise, Ancient Rome and early medieval Mediterranean regions were diverse (Goldsworthy, 2006).

As a teacher educator, teacher, and individual interested in medieval studies, Cord Whitaker’s (2015) statement of tragic displacement resonated with me. Whitaker (2015) stated: “I can trace my interest in chivalry and the Middle Ages to a dream I had when I was five years old . . . Little black boys from Philadelphia are not supposed to concern themselves with knights and ladies” (p. 3). I want to immediately reply: You should concern yourself with knights and ladies and fantasy if that is what you are interested in. Medieval studies is a field for everyone. Whitaker’s memory is indicative of the tragedy of displaced personal agency in a structurally myopic narrative that has pervaded the field of medieval studies and been reinforced in social studies education. Together, teacher educators and teachers can change this and generate an inclusive study of the Middle Ages for all students to see themselves as having voice and connection to their study of history.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 07, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22123, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 5:53:40 PM

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