Myth Today, Roland Barthes

Now that we’ve examined more of how the dominant ideology is maintained through structural transmissions, Justin Barthes offers a closer look at how these messages are constructed. Barthes, in his writing “Myth Today,” examines the way that discourse and seven rhetorical devices reinforce the power of the system. Of the dominant methods is inoculation, or the critique of the system and pointing out its obvious flaws only to reclaim them as necessary for its function. Other methods of discourse that bolster the use of inoculation are the privation of history, identification, neither-norism, quantification of quality and statement of fact. Although these are all closely related, privation of history might be one of the more visible techniques of shaping what and how people think. In the journalism industry, knowing that some news is more “important” than others is a primary source of bias that organizations must exercise. This selective publishing can be caused by anything from its business model to simply because there’s not enough time in the day, not to mention resources, to present all news information equally. Another form of this selective inclusion of information is a huge point of debate within the textbook industry.

Textbook publishers in Texas have long been at the center of this discussion. Because the Texas public school system represents such a large market for textbook publishers, the state has a huge influence in what is taught in the rest of the country. Of its newsworthy changes to course curriculum include emphasizing the Christian influences of the nation’s founding and highlighting influential conservative leaders while downplaying liberal ones.

The textbook debate resurfaced in the media a few months ago when the Texas Board of Education approved changes to textbook reviews in the state. According to a report from the Associated Press, tighter rules were accepted in considering citizen review panels that scrutinize proposed textbook revisions. The process includes a 15-member board that approves textbooks for school districts to use. However, objections raised by reviewer panels can influence these decisions. These volunteer reviewers are often social conservatives who, historically, have pushed for skepticism of evolution in textbooks in favor of creationism. Particularly in the past 30 years, critics have been concerned about the small number of religious and political activists who have had a large influence in these decisions.

The new changes will instead give teachers and professors priority for serving on textbook review panels in areas of their expertise, especially controversial topics such as science and history. Additionally, outside experts will be in place to check objections raised by the reviewers to ensure they’re based on fact, not ideology.

Putting these practices in place can ensure a greater protection from the privation of history that gives power to the hegemony. However, this particular change in academic textbooks for school is only a small part of the problem. There is still plenty of information left out of history texts, or wording of certain passages, that give rise to Barthes’ American Exceptionalism.

It’s also imperative to note that like the media, the textbook industry is first and foremost a business. Ryan Swanson reminds us of this in his study “A Relationship Analysis: A Professor, 500 Students, and an Assigned Textbook.” Swanson writes about his dilemmas of choosing to have students read from a textbook to for his history class, which he says should encourage analyzing history as a debate rather than championing memorization of dates.

“The unrest stems from that fact that my goals as an instructor — to help students analyze the past — are inevitably commingled with the goals of publishing companies and textbook salespeople during the process f selecting a text,” Swanson writes. “The ‘corporatization’ of history looms as a threat.”

As we see here, the discourse of media and that of textbooks for academic use might not be too far off from each other. Barthes would argue, however, that the key is being aware of the use of rhetorical devices to present information, and that nothing can be taken at face value. Critical thinking and engagement with the discourse is necessary to avoid the pitfall of giving power to the hegemony.

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