Magic Without the Wand: The Curriculum Meanings in Disney’s The Sword in The Stone A Curriculum Artifact Analysis Essay by Alyssa Doucet

Magic Without the Wand: The Curriculum Meanings in Disney’s The Sword in The Stone A  Curriculum Artifact Analysis Essay  by  Alyssa Doucet

And below the hilt in letters of gold were written these words, ‘Who so pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightful king born of England’, Though many tried for the  sword with all their strength, none could move the sword nor stir it, so the miracle had  not worked, and England was still without a king, and in time, the marvelous sword was forgotten. This was a dark age…   (Disney & Reitherman, 1963)

In this medieval race to nowhere, brave knight upon brave knight try to pull the sword out of the stone using his acclaimed physical strength, yet all come up empty. Similarly, Pinar (2011) recounts the race to nowhere of the current educational state, students trying to produce the expected results, and like the knights, coming up empty. Although a fictional interpretation of the mythic King Arthur’s rise to fame, Walt Disney’s 1963 classic, The Sword in the Stone, serves as an allegory for today’s educational world. The child Arthur, nicknamed Wart, tries hopelessly to fit into the expected mold of a brave knight, battling between the experience and identity driven education preached by the Wizard Merlin, invoking the notion of currere and critically reflective classroom, and the mechanical, solidified path of the ‘right’ education forced upon him by Archimedes. Yet, as he journeys the curriculum and runs the course, forced to question the knowledge deemed most valuable, and teeters in between academic and self-knowledge, Wart’s detailed educational path wavers, and instead of failing, as predicted, he pulls out his most shining accomplishment.

After the death of their beloved King, medieval England finds itself without an heir to throne and with nothing more than the prophecy of the sword in the stone to guide them. With the failure of many knights to pull out the sword and take the throne, the country becomes hopeless and desperate, falling into a dark state, the dark ages. Like students in their classroom, living through the “dark side of curriculum” (Smits, 2011, p. 67) the scrawny and clumsy Arthur, or Wart, living in the dark ages of medieval times, unquestioningly follows the prescribed curriculum of his guardian. With the arrival of Merlin the Wizard and his sidekick owl, Archimedes, Arthur’s education takes a new direction as Merlin seeks to “guide him to his rightful place in the world,” telling his young pupil: “you can’t grow up without a decent education” (Disney & Reitherman, 1963). Although Merlin, Archimedes, and the medieval majority may disagree on the definition of a decent education, as scholars such as William Pinar and current educational governments may disagree on this subject as well, the movie centers around Wart’s educational experience, both formally and informally. Merlin transforms Wart into a bird when he wants to learn how to fly, and turns him into a fish to teach him how to swim, creating “classroom learning…that is significant to [his student’s] lived [experience]” (Ng-A-Fook, 2011, p. 325). Archimedes teaches him how to read and write. In the end, Merlin, becoming frustrated with Wart’s difficulty accepting his form of education over the traditional form, flies to the future for a vacation in Bermuda, and Wart becomes a squire. Forgetting a sword before his knight’s competition, Wart runs into the city of London and picks up the first sword he sees, unknowingly pulling out the sword in the stone. Once his ‘mistake’ is realized, Wart is hailed as the new King of England, and although he tries to escape this role as it deterred from his planned curriculum path, Merlin returns and reassures him of his capabilities as he returns to his throne, prepared to pull England out of the ‘dark age’ (Disney & Reitherman, 1963).

Merlin: “Use your head, an education lad!” [taps Wart on the head]

Wart: “What good will that do?”

Merlin: “Get it first, then who knows!” (Disney & Reitherman, 1963).

My initial reaction to this scene was a snicker at the joke, the quintessential student questioning the relevancy of the curriculum and the quintessential teacher giving a non-reply merely to end the conversation. Yet, a second watch took a new spin on the scene as Merlin’s response was no longer one of avoidance, but perhaps the best advice Wart could receive: run the course. Pinar’s (2011) conception of currere draws upon the Latin derivative of curriculum, meaning to run the course, transforming the noun curriculum—the documents mandated by the government—to the verb curriculum—the educational experience lived through the learning of the curriculum. In fact, Merlin’s seemingly avoidant answer actually benefits Wart’s curricular path, as he does not prescribe a specific end, or goal. In the world of standardization, the mandated tests mean more than the individual (Riley & Rich, 2011), but Merlin’s refusal to tell Wart the ultimate goal of his education signifies his placing of the individual over the test, acknowledging that “the curricular question is a call to individuality” (Pinar, 2011, p. 57). Merlin acknowledges that the curriculum cannot merely be contained within prescribed and detailed plans, but must come from individual student himself. He cannot tell Wart the good an education will do for him because Wart’s ultimate use of his education will come from his personal reaction and experience with the curriculum, something that cannot be foretold in a ministry document.

When I was a kid, I never wanted to speak French. The problem was not that I could not,  but I was nervous to come out of the comfort zone of my native English language. And,  besides, learning French, what good would that do? Everyone I knew, even if they could speak French, also spoke English. Television shows and movies were in English, I went  to school mostly in English. How would this skill help me? Get it first, then who knows!

As an elementary student, I had my own personal Merlin in the person of my father. Although he never preached this lesson to me as Merlin preaches to Wart, his support and encouragement of my education and experience in the French immersion program echoed the mythical wizard’s words. As a certified teacher with the qualification to teach French as a second language, my running of the course of the French curriculum, my interaction and dialogue with the curricular lessons, may turn into a meaningful career. Although helpful in this endeavour, the actual grammatical lessons of the French language come in second to the self-knowledge gained throughout this journey. Even at the beginning of my French as a Second Language additional qualification course, I was scared of becoming a French teacher rather than falling back to my comfort zone of English. But, by the end, after having a “complicated conversation,” a dialogue with myself “and with others threaded through academic knowledge, an ongoing project of self-understanding in which one becomes mobilized for engagement in the world,” many of those fears subsided (Pinar, 2011, p. 47). Somehow the experience of the French course curriculum, the interaction with documents and other teachers, created a comfort, a desire even, to provide my future students with a French education.

Although Wart still has doubts about his abilities as King by the end of the film, his confidence and understanding of himself grows throughout his curricular journey with Merlin. At the beginning of his journey, the timid small boy would blindly follow his guardian and the knights in the castle, believing in their ultimate and absolute knowledge and his inferiority, but in defense of Merlin, he tells them: “just because you can’t understand something, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong…you make all the rules and nobody else can say anything” (Disney & Reitherman, 1963). In his first defiance of his master’s orders, Wart begins to accept the existence of a knowledge outside of the traditional knowledge prescribed to him from infancy. He begins to ponder the question, “what knowledge is of most worth?”  (Pinar, 2011/ Chambers, 1999). Furthermore, similar to my experience with my French course, he begins to see himself as an equal contributor in this quest for knowledge, a participant in this complicated conversation of curriculum, rather than a bystander. As a household servant, a passive student, Wart never questions the authority of his guardian, the accepted expert. Contrastingly, Merlin as a teacher allows Wart to have freedom and agency over his own learning and consequently, his own identity and individuality. For example, at the end of the film, after Wart has discovered his inner power and pulled the sword from the stone with his power as a leader rather than his physical strength, Merlin tells his pupil of his future, the legacy of King Arthur and the Round Table. Confused, Wart asks, “Round Table?” and Merlin responds, “Oh, would you rather have a square one?” (Disney & Reitherman, 1963). In Merlin’s critically reflective classroom, where teachers and students share the role of the expert and negotiate the curriculum on equal terms (Riley & Rich, 2011), he acknowledges that he may not always know the best answer and is “open to the absences on [his] own understanding (Smits, 2011, p. 57). Thus, when Merlin relays the future of Wart, or the newly crowned King Arthur, and his knights of the round table, he does not reassert his claim when his pupil questions him, but acknowledges Wart’s own ability to make choices, to be an expert himself, guiding his own story and education. Even though the legend tells of round table, Merlin is open to a square table, even if it means rewriting the documents. He has given his student control over his own knowledge, his own education; thus, he accepts that the student also has the ability to shape the form of the curriculum.

The film also presents the other teacher, the expert holder of knowledge, unwilling to relinquish his power to the student. As previously mentioned, Wart’s guardians from the castle are unwilling to share their absolute knowledge, or let Wart have any influence in his own education. Before Wart talks back to them in defense of Merlin’s practices, he represents a wholly obedient student, merely accepting the information given to him without thinking for himself. This teacher identity is also represented in the figure of Archimedes, Merlin’s pet owl. After scoffing at Merlin’s ‘confusing’ curricular approaches, Merlin relinquishes his teaching control to Archimedes and allows the owl to teach Wart:

Archimedes: So from now on boy, you do as I say

Wart: Yes, Sir

Archimedes: Alright, now to start off, I want you to read these books [points to a mountain of hard cover books in the corner]

Wart: All of them?

Archimedes: That my boy, is a mountain of knowledge

Wart: But I can’t read

Archimedes: What? What? What? And I don’t suppose you know how to write?

Wart: No, Sir

Archimedes: Then what do you know?

Wart: Well, I, I…

Archimedes: Well nevermind, nevermind, we’ll start at the bottom, the ABC’s…

(Disney & Rietherman, 1963).

From the offset, Wart knows Archimedes’ teaching style varies greatly from Merlin’s methods as he immediately sits up straighter and beings calling Archimedes ‘sir,’ setting up the teacher/learner, or expert/novice, relationship rather than one of co-learning (Riley & Rich, 2011). Although Pinar (2011) may agree with Archimedes’ reliance on textbooks rather than newer technologies, or the magic Merlin performs, Archimedes teaching practices exemplify his concept of school deform, where schooling is autocratic instead of pedagogic and students become consumers of knowledge rather than participants in a conversation. Archimedes sees Wart as an empty vessel which he, as the expert, must fill with the ‘right’ knowledge, the teachings he deems of most worth. In contrast, Nicholas Ng-A-Fook (2007) shares a story about approaching the leaders of an indigenous community and expressing interest in listening to their stories. When asked, “What kind of stories?” he responded, “What kind of stories are you willing to share?” (p. 76). Ng-A-Fook’s conversation signifies his acceptance of the indigenous’ communities ability to hold expert knowledge and understanding; they get to choose which stories are important to their culture, their education, and their lives. When Archimedes asks Wart about his prior knowledge, he cuts him off before he has the change to respond and gives him a lesson on the ABC’s, the knowledge Archimedes, with his expert judgement, deems worthy. Unlike Ng-A-Fook, he denies his acquaintances ability to hold knowledge and to participate in a complicated conversation. Instead, he dictates Wart’s curricular journey, his running of the course, thus creating a robot, merely repeating the words and identities rather than creating and shaping them for himself.

In grade one or two, I never seem to remember the exact year, I was asked to write my  parents’ names on a piece of paper to give to the teacher. After writing ‘Michel and  Susan,’ my teacher, without a doubt in her mind, told me I forgot the ‘a’ in my father’s  name. I quietly insisted there was no ‘a’ in his name. Well, what do you know? Due to her   position as teacher, the expert and bearer of all knowledge, and my position as the  student, the novice, the consumer of all knowledge, my voice was quickly silenced in this attempt at conversation. I….I…/ Well nevermind, nevermind.

I can now confidently assert that my father’s name is Michel, the French form of Michael, thus truly does not contain an ‘a.’ But, at the time, my ‘inferior’ position as a student took away my opportunity, or rather, my sense that I had an opportunity, to share my expert knowledge with my teacher about the correct spelling of my father’s name. Like Archimedes, my teacher assumed her own knowledge ultimately superior to mine due to her position, never giving me the appropriate chance to share my knowledge with her. Although my story is a miniscule example, many students in today’s educational settings are similarly being silenced by the ‘expert’ voice of their teacher. The autocratic business-model of schools shown through Pinar’s (2011) notion of school deform, expects rehearsed responses which fit into an accepted category of ‘right’ answers. My spelling of my Dad’s name did not fit into this category. Neither did Wart’s knowledge—the ones he never even had the chance to share. With the representation of Merlin in the allegorical script, our focus literally shifts “from what we see to what we can imagine” (Pinar, 2011, p. 61) as Merlin seeks to prepare Wart for the changing world, rather than the present moment which will no longer be present once Wart leaves Merlin’s tutelage (O’Sullivan, 1999). Although, unlike Merlin, most teachers cannot travel back and forth between the present and the future, teachers, through the method of currere, can still imagine the future in relation to the past to make meaning for the present (Pinar, 2011). Merlin’s teaching strategies, his use of a critically reflective classroom, and his acceptance of Wart’s equal ability to possess knowledge and be an active learner, a participant in the complicated conversation all lead to Wart’s confidence in his abilities, drawing on his inner strength despite his scrawny appearance. Although not a true story from history, I believe allegory can still apply in this situation, as the meaning [of the lessons in the film] is not confined to the past [or storybook] where they occurred; they spill into our experience of the present” (Pinar, 2011, p. 54). The world of school deform, of standardized tests is akin to Archimedes’ ‘medieval’ whereas Merlin’s ‘modern’ style presents an alternative to the status quo. Perhaps the allegory through The Sword in the Stone can teach us to follow Merlin’s example. Not all of our students will become King of England one day, but they will do something and whether we choose to be Merlin or Archimedes can have an impact on their futures.

As a child, The Sword in the Stone (1963) was always one of my favourite Disney films. Perhaps it was the whimsy of Merlin’s magic, or the comical Wizard’s dual between Merlin and Madam Mim, or even the romantic story of Wart’s rags to riches journey—I never could quite explain why I was so attracted to this film. But, after re-watching it as an adult, having gained more life experiences and having progressed further on my ongoing running of the course of curriculum, the educational allegory in the film and its message of hope became evident, as well as my previously unknown reasons for liking the film. As Wart’s act of pulling the sword out of the stone signifies England’s attempts at pulling out of the dark ages, Merlin’s methods of teaching signify the possibility to pull the educational system out of the “dark side of curriculum” (Smits, 2011, p. 67). Through his use of curriculum as a complicated conversation, his acknowledgment of Wart’s ability to hold and use knowledge as an equal, rather than an inferior, and the stark contrast made between the teaching styles of Merlin and his owl, Archimedes, the film allows viewers a glimpse, or a chance to imagine, the future of education. We may not possess the same magical powers as Merlin, but we do possess opportunities to employ many of Merlin’s methods even without owning a magic wand. So, as Merlin asks: “Are you willing to try?” (Disney & Reitherman, 1963).

Bibliography

Chambers, C. (1999). A topography for Canadian curriculum theory. Journal of Curriculum  Inquiry, 24(2), pp. 137-150

Disney, W., & Reitherman, W. (1963). The Sword in the Stone. United States: Walt Disney  Productions.

Ng-A-Fook, N. (2007). An Indigenous Curriculum of Place. New York, New York: Peter Lang.

Ng-A-Fook, N. (2011). Decolonizing native strands of our eco-civic responsibilities: Curriculum, social action, and Indigenous communities. In Darren Stanley & Kelly Young, Eds., Contemporary Studies in Canadian Curriculum: Principles, Portraits, and Practices. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd.

O’Sullivan, B. (1999). Global change and educational reform in Ontario and Canada. Canadian Journal of Education, 24(3), pp.311-325

Pinar, W. (2011). What is curriculum theory? Second edition. New York and London: Routledge.

Riley, T., & Rich, S. (2011). No more boundaries: Narrative pedagogies, curriculum and imagining who we might become. In Darren Stanley & Kelly Young, Eds., Contemporary Studies in Canadian Curriculum: Principles, Portraits, and Practices. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd.

Smits, H. (2011). Nocturne and fugue. In Darren Stanley & Kelly Young, Eds., Contemporary Studies in Canadian Curriculum: Principles, Portraits, and Practices. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd.