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date: 22 March 2019

Health and Illness as Bases for Understanding Curriculum Embodiment

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. Please check back later for the full article.

Curriculum means complex relations between teachers and students. Discourse on health and illness involves these relations. Health and illness are phenomenological states of being that can be fragile. Health might mean longevity, while illness could mean finality. It is not so clear, though, where health slips into illness. Illness can return in a circular fashion. So the line between health and illness is not entirely clear.

When illness strikes, people’s narratives get interrupted; these narratives embody our identities. Narratives are stories that we tell ourselves. Narratives such as autobiography and biography have a long history in curriculum studies. In this field, autobiographies and biographies of teachers have historically been about happy occasions, occasions of triumph, and happy endings.

Narratives of critical illness—which few curriculum scholars have dealt with—are without happy endings. Critical illness narratives concern grief, loss, and unhappy endings. Grief, bereavement, and melancholy have no timeline, no frame of reference, and sometimes no ending at all. Curriculum scholars have written about melancholy in mental illness but have not written much about it in the face of physical illness.

During times of illness, some turn to the spiritual, some turn away. The spiritual can be put to use either to better understand endings or to avoid endings and deny what is happening. For some, avoidance helps the journey along. For others, facing head-on the catastrophe at hand becomes necessary.

For those who slip from health into illness, radical Otherness is at hand. Being very sick isolates. Alterity, then, is key when thinking about such experiences. A phenomenology of alterity is key when thinking about health and illness.

Chronic illness differs from a sudden onset of illness. People can be relatively healthy and yet suffer from chronic illness. People can be, on the other hand, very sick with chronic illness for many years. Some chronic illnesses are invisible. Grief over invisible illnesses tends not to be taken seriously by others because the illness is not visible. On the other hand, if there are physical symptoms that others can see, grief over that illness tends to be taken more seriously by others than illnesses which are invisible.

Curriculum, or lived experience, is about health and illness because this is life’s trajectory. One cannot become educated in a disembodied way. Education happens in bodies that exist on a continuum between health and illness.