Illustration by Anna Seibæk Torp-Pedersen
For the better part of my primary education our school trips would, invariably, be to the George Stephenson Memorial Hall. It was ideal. Just a half hour away, we’d spend the morning doing crafts before marching into the only room of the museum. Activities of note included ogling the great man’s baby bonnet and wondering at his less known invention, the cucumber-straightener*. Year after year we’d traipse back to Chesterfield to celebrate George Stephenson’s achievements and engage with our area’s local heritage… all five cabinets worth.
In anticipation of our visit, we’d spend classes pouring over pictures of his engines. Teachers would regale us with stories of ‘The Rocket’, which disappointingly was not the first steam locomotive, but was famously the first to work reliably. And, as prolonged as my acquaintance with his work is… that’s pretty much all I can recall. In fact, I seemed to know even less about the man than I thought. It turns out the term ‘local’ had been somewhat generously applied, and Stephenson was born and raised in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, some hundred-and-fifty miles away from where I went to school. It was only in his retirement and the last decade of life that he found himself in South Yorkshire. In fact, the more I read in preparation of this article, the more I was stunned how little I actually knew about ‘the father of railways’.
Stephenson’s life makes an incredibly compelling narrative. Born into poverty, he began working at the age of eight. As a teenager, he paid his way through night school, slowly working his way up the colliery hierarchy, until he became an expert in steam and pumping machinery. It was when he won a competition for steam engine design with ‘The Rocket’ that he shot to fame. The very embodiment of Victorian self-improvement, while his personal life had enough unexpected twists and tragic turns to satisfy the most melodramatic of tastes. That teachers managed to make his biography seem dull is almost impressive.
It’s widely acknowledged that narratives are more engaging than dates, and it’s usual for teachers to apply a dramatic structure to famous biographies. By exaggerating obstacles, you can build a narrative tension in the hopes of holding students’ attention. After all, everyone loves an underdog. Yet, in British education, it’s not the struggle but the end result which is given precedence. The struggle is passed over in favour of a positive resolution. George Stephenson’s narrative is limited to his development of a faster, more reliable steam engine. John Snow’s entire biography, another classroom staple, limited to the discovery that cholera was waterborne. Perhaps this is justifiable when one considers the end result is the reason these narratives make it onto the curriculum. But, it’s worth stopping to ask why we learn about these inventions and innovations in the first place. Why are some narratives chosen over others, and more importantly, to what end?
To explore this further, I will employ Louis Althusser’s theory of Ideological State Apparatuses. Althusser argues that ‘apparatuses’ such as propaganda, religion and education, are designed to help perpetuate current class relations without relying on physical violence. In short, one class can keep another subjugated through ideas and beliefs alone. He argues that our educational system is at its heart, a means of oppression.
If one was to apply his thinking to our consideration of narratives, one could argue that the stories we’re taught in schools – the biographies of exceptional innovators – preform two key roles. Firstly, they aim to demonstrate that the current status quo works. No matter what your background, it is possible to make a contribution to society for which you will be well rewarded. The implication is that you too should work hard and contribute to society. Mr. Stephenson’s ‘rags to riches’ story is the perfect example, in which hard work is rewarded by both personal wealth by posthumous fame. In school, we never discussed the terrible conditions he and his family faced in his early life and the social causes of these conditions, but rather his success and later ‘gentleman gardener’ lifestyle. This pursuit saw his engineering mind turn to the foremost horticultural problems of the day, namely bendy cucumbers. This story of hard work and a subsequently leisurely life emphasises the individual’s role in their own success, overlooking the very real restrictions of poverty and class.
Expanding on the Althusserian model, the second function of stories we tell children would be to instil a sense of national pride. Though this is certainly truer of older generations’ education, the idea of a curriculum, divides the world into things that are important to teach young people, and those that are not. The select historical events which we are taught form a canon that dictates what is considered relevant to a student’s identity. Arguably, I have little in common with a nineteenth-century British man, certainly less so than my contemporaries in many countries today. Yet, in my education the relevance of locality and nationality was emphasised over class, gender and race.
Education institutions and methods are slow to adapt to changing public opinion. Any moral stance is complicated if one couches it in with a slightly different discourse. Nationalistic indoctrination has much the same basis as giving children a sense of social responsibility and community; both causes would see Ideological State Apparatuses used in the same way. However, in both cases, it is important for us to be critical of the narratives we tell children, and to understand as much as possible the consequence of the way in which we tell them.
Looking back, it appears that my school’s preoccupation with our local heritage and George Stephenson was wholly ineffective. It was not particularly informative, fun, or helpful in building a sense of community. The school encouraged us to access heritage in a way that held no appeal for children. Here one begins to see the disjoint between what I’d been told was my local heritage, and what the people around me considered our shared history. It is this de facto cultural heritage, shared within communities and family units, that appears to have most effectively told stories that shaped my identity.
Compare the version of George Stephenson’s life we were taught at school, to stories shared in the home. Robin Hood, always a personal favourite of mine, is an excellent example. Gustav Freytag’s dramatic structure, which consists of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and dénouement, is useful in distinguishing where the two approaches differ. In Robin Hood, while there is an overarching plot, there are lots of short stories and adventures can be inserted within the period designated as rising action and climax. As a child, my friends and I would constantly request retellings and elaboration on the stories that take place in the forest. It is this period that has undoubtedly captured the popular imagination, with the outlaw Robin Hood and his Merry Men trapped in a battle of cunning with the Sherriff of Nottingham. It is difficult to imagine a child being enrapt with the return of King Richard or Robin’s marriage in the same way. This eventual dénouement cuts off the possibility of being the hero. In wrapping up the main storylines, you preclude a child’s involvement in the continuing narrative. Exactly the same model can be applied to other famous folk tales such as King Arthur and the knights of the round table. Both have an overarching structure that can be embellished with shorter stories added by individuals. But, this structure isn’t necessarily constrained to fantastical or legendary events.
Memories are able to be passed down families in much the same way. As a child, ‘a long time ago’, ‘back in my day’, and ‘before you were born’ all took on the same magical tone as ‘once upon a time’. They harked back to some mysterious ‘before’ that was difficult to conceive of when your own life was still in single digits. The arching narrative could take the form of a series of events, or a family member’s life, which then gather nuance and detail as one grows up. As more and more anecdotes are gradually added, the story never fully. Like the folk tales of past, our collective oral memories have a fluidity lost in formal systems of education. Though there is an ending, the possibility for further elaboration engages the listener and creates a participatory practice.
This oral heritage and process of participation seems an important part of how history is co-opted into identity. Certainly, more recent historical events, such as elections and miners’ strikes were learnt about not through school, but through the people who surrounded me. Most strikingly, for the vast majority of my life, they were consciously told as stories; all of them abiding by the same structure found in popular folktales. Consequently, it is in the narrative structure of oral histories that an individual is given greater agency. Myself and my surrounding community were able to decide what was relevant to me, not a nationally dictated syllabus. With this method of storytelling, there remains an element of discovery and potential, something that is absent in schooling until a student reaches higher education.
The difference in narratives found in the curriculum and stories shared in the home, are found in their form, rather than their content. Our localities do play a vital part in our identity, but it has more to do with living communities than the achievements of select historical forebears.
* I can’t say I’m in the habit of yelling at the TV, but its appearance as a mystery object on QI prompted a notable exception.