History of Education: finding out about a sub-field

For the subjects I’m researching, in addition to knowing more about Victorian Studies, I also need to look into the sub-field of the History of Education. Victorian Studies is arguably a sub-field of Literature (see previous post), and I thought History of Education would be a sub-field of History. But after looking around, I’m starting to suspect it’s more a sub-field of Education.

First I looked at the organizations that study this sub-field. There are two groups of scholars that call themselves the History of Education Society. One is in the U.S. It publishes the History of Education Quarterly, and belongs to the International Standing Conference for the History of Education (ISCHE). To find out more about their perspective, I looked at the current list of officers. Their degrees are primarily in Education and Educational Leadership, although a couple have History B.A.s or M.A.s.

The other History of Education Society is in the U.K., out of the University of Glasgow. Their committee has full biographies posted at their website, so finding out about them was easier, but unlike the Americans they don’t tend to list their degrees. For those I could find, the pattern seemed similar: History first or second degrees, Education for the PhD. They publish History of Education (making it difficult to separate from the American History of Education Quarterly in a database search) and History of Education Researcher.

Then I looked at the journals themselves. For the British contingent, History of Education journal is published by Taylor and Francis, one of those publishers who does not provide open access. I am, however, able to access most articles through the EBSCO database at my college library. 

The American History of Education Quarterly is published by Cambridge University Press, and also available through EBSCO. 

More information is revealed by the content and focus of the actual articles, of course. In addition to seeing articles from such journals pop up when doing subject searches, I like to browse the contents of journal issues. It is usually possible to read the titles of all articles at the website of the journal publisher, even if it’s hard to access the articles themselves. I could tell that for the British History of Education, there are a number of articles focused on British educational history, some on adult education, and several on methodology, which is helpful. So I’m subscribing to the new content announcements so I can keep up (many journal publishers let you do this). The History of Education Quarterly seems mainly focused on American educational history.

Any articles I cannot get through the library’s subscription databases, I can often acquire through our wonderful interlibrary loan librarian, who can get me almost anything! I can often discover in WorldCat who might have a particular item (there are two universities within an hour’s drive). I recently spoke with a student who didn’t realize that students may use interlibrary loan, but they can — that’s what it’s for, whether at community college or university. When I was an undergraduate, I used it all the time. Books came to me at the library after about a week, and photocopied articles came in the mail (nowadays you can often get emailed an electronic copy). I needed some pretty strange stuff back then, as I do now, often from British articles. But the brilliant librarians at Cal State Bakersfield got me those too — they printed them out on the teletype machine. In graduate school at UCSB, these old tomes would arrive at the ILL desk and I would lug them over to the photocopy machine. These days I can walk a few steps to the scanning machine at the college library. But I do miss the sound of the teletype…

 

Sidenote: Teaching students to do research is a daunting task at a community college. There are few History majors and no methodology classes. We also need to teach the many other skills required for basic historical thinking and analysis. Part of my sabbatical is to create posts that detail my historical research work as a way of demonstrating the process. I’m still working on how to index all this…

Victorian Studies

To begin my work on Victorian England, I need to examine the field of Victorian Studies. Unlike History, area studies of all kinds are newer disciplines, and I often have difficulty figuring out what they’re trying to do. Every discipline has its own methodology and its own literature – that’s what makes it a discipline. Now that I’m moving away from working with online pedagogy and educational technology, it’s necessary to make sure I am aware of the milieu in which I’m operating.

Although by no means intended as an introduction to the subject, Martin Hewitt’s “Victorian Studies; problems and prospects?” from 2001 has nevertheless provided me a good entrée. Noting the expansion of books and graduate programs in Victorian Studies, the article nevertheless critiques the lack of interdisciplinarity on which the field is supposedly based. Hewitt notes several other concerns, including historians uncomfortable with the word “Victorian” and the dominance of presentist topics (gender, women, imperialism) that use the Victorian era just for examples. But a bigger issue is the fact that historians and literary studies have not really combined in an interdisciplinary way, even while conference panels may be multi-disciplinary. Apparently the most comfortable and useful pathway for Victorian Studies has been the “cultural history” of the 1980s and 90s, although it took awhile to shake off the perception that it was elitist. This was interdisciplinary because it used methods like Foucault’s analysis of culture (p. 141). 

But cultural history does not create a disciplinary field that is consistent and has an “agreed focus” (p. 142). The result is that there is no common scholarship, and Hewitt notes a lack of “key texts” (p. 144). This helps me because I couldn’t figure out what those key texts were when I was looking for a way into the historiography of Victorian Studies. Hewitt sees the historiography as fragmented, limiting the impact of important works. Previous historical works also tend to limit biography to a few “semi-canonical” men, such as Carlyle, Mill, and Ruskin (p. 145).

In literary studies, Victorian Studies has become a “sub-field”, and the many journals of Victorian Studies tend to be dominated by literary analysis . When I subscribed to Victorian Studies journal and Nineteenth-Century Studies, I noticed immediately that the editors were almost all from university English departments. As I read the articles, I kept rolling my eyes as the authors seem to plumb the text of Victorian novels for meanings that were obscure, presentist, imaginative, or all three. I found most striking Hewitt’s point that such studies focus on the reading as it takes place in the current reader’s timeframe (ours). The articles use the present tense, as if the characters in the novels are here with us now, while a historical article would use past tense (p. 148).

History, Hewitt notes, is constructive and materialistic, while literary and cultural studies are idealistic and interpretive (p. 149) – I would say “imaginative”. Focusing on the text ignores the history. This is why I dissuade students from constructing theses that seem to show the text as possessing causation (“propaganda led people to hate the enemy”) – we cannot prove such a thesis historically, although it is possible to prove that the text might have been meant to do something, or that something might have caused (or influenced, more likely) a work to be written.  

Hewitt’s agenda includes developing a solid historiography, and creating new research based on larger ideas. His prescription for historians (he’s one too) is to broaden the field to include more ideas and their production, combining more approaches. Since the context and environment of the era is embedded in the text, the process is one of sense-making. At least, I think that’s what he’s saying – he loses me when he talks about “syncretic hermenuetics” (p. 153). His focus seems to be on creating intertwinings of text and practices to create something truly interdisciplinary, where the “text becomes means rather than object” and the focus is on the impact (and reproduction) of the text (p. 154).

In determining which texts have been underutilized, Hewitt notes many that I am engaged with, including essays, lectures, and newspapers – forms of communication not intended to be high culture. His ideal Victorianist study combines elements from history, anthropology, ethnography, literary criticism, sociology, and art history (p. 155).

I believe that the goal here is to provide a more well-rounded, thorough, and (by implication) realistic understanding of the Victorian era. I am at a loss, however, to explain why it is necessary to do this through the methodologies of disciplines other than history. I don’t think I realized that I am a history snob until I began reading Victorian Studies journal, and finding myself enjoying it while at the same time becoming exasperated with the lack of evidence beyond popular texts. The field strikes me as similar to steampunk: an enjoyable romp through Victoriana to fulfill present (and presentist) needs by drawing imaginative connections. (I feel the same way about the new genre of “creative non-fiction”, about which I will write more later.) I in no way believe that the historical method can provide as accurate a portrayal as going back in a time machine, but history is adaptable enough to take on the perspectives, if not the methods, of other disciplines and use them effectively. I think I would have understood a plan for a new Victorian History better than I understand a plan for a more cogent Victorian Studies. 

  

Hewitt, M. (2001). “Victorian Studies: problems and prospects?” Journal of Victorian Culture6(1), 137–161.

History of education: classics vs science

Because my work on distance education in the 19th century is so closely connected to the History of Education, I’ve been working on understanding that sub-discipline a little better. I have also been thinking about whether working in the History of Education for the late 19th century overlaps with Victorian Studies (another discipline) in a meaningful way.

My research took me to Alice Jenkins – Mathematics and Liberal Education in Victorian Cambridge  (2009), a paper delivered at the CRASSH conference ‘Changing the Humanities/the Humanities Changing’ (July 2009).

Victorian Studies is considered an interdisciplinary field, and I’ll cover that in a later post. From this video, it’s clear that there are hazards to looking at Victorians themselves for examples of interdisciplinarity, because they excelled in a range of disciplines but didn’t use what we would call an interdisciplinary approach. 

The talk focuses on the argument about curricula in Victorian universities, which I’ve been studying for a paper I just submitted to a journal.  In that article, I briefly discussed what C.P. Snow later called the Two Cultures Debate between classical curriculum and the newer science/mathematical curriculum (see The Rede Lecture, 1959). Classics and mathematics were the original Cambridge Bachelors Degrees, and were seen as combined into a common culture that represented a foundation of knowledge. But rather than representing a common culture, these degrees may have represented Cambridge justifying its own creating, using a narrow method to discipline the mind for future duties. Was it really necessary for stuents studying classics to sit exams in maths, and vice versa?

Tripos exam 1842

Some people criticized the focus on Tripos maths as “partial and inadequate”, but Cambridge defended it as broad. Jenkins uses one controversy to illuminate the issue: the “Slaughter of 1841”, where 25 of 130 students failed the maths exams and had to leave without a degree. The Senate House crowd booed the examiners, and the controversy became public. Half the students had been forced to take the Maths Honours exam just so they could study Classics (a nod to educational reformers), and two examiners that year had decided to raise the Maths standard without notice. Colleges became angry because they lost good Classics students.  Only one letter in The Times supported the examiners’ efforts to keep standards high – newspapers in general deplored it, and questioned the condition to pass Maths in order to study Classics.

By April The Times had changed its view. Did it mean the end of a unified culture? There is no evidence that those passing both classics and maths were culturally rounded anyway: the exam results show students only took Firsts at one or the other, although some were bad at both, and one was exempted from the maths tests because he was a peer. Students from both curricula did mix, and benefited from knowing each other, which might have created a common literary or interdisciplinary culture regardless of the curriculum. Cambridge (Trinity especially) remained the defender of maths in a liberal education long after others had abandoned this idea. The conflict did force universities to defend their curricular objectives, and may have encouraged Parliamentary intervention. It certainly encouraged public debate. 

 Jenkins notes that the scholars involved did not acknowledge that the entire curriculum perpetuated class and gender distinctions. I am disturbed by this comment. It seems to be necessary to acknowledge the fuzzy thinking of people in the past when it comes to class and gender, as if these issues were ignored during the Victorian era. Just because we now frame everything through gender and class does not mean that others did — it’s a form of presentism I think is distracting to historical studies. Besides, Victorians not only questioned gender and class norms but often worked against them, even if particular individual Victorians did not. That’s the same situation we have today, so I’m not in favor of woke-shaming.

Ghosts, urban identities, and evidence

Many people enjoy the Victorian era because there are ghosts and other supernatural phenomenon as part of the popular culture. There’s a reason why “haunted houses” are in the Victorian style, and the popularity of public lectures on psychic phenomenon and supposed practice of post-mortem photography (which could be bogus) indicate a fascination with the other world. 

So how do historians handle such subjects?

I took a look at a presentation from last year by Dr Karl Bell of the University of Portsmouth called Urban Mindscapes: Exploring Supernatural Cartographies and Victorian Urban IdentitiesIt was a paper given at a workshop: ‘Approaching Inner Lives: Thinking, Feeling, Believing, 1300-1900’ (University of East Anglia, 28 March 2017).

Dr Bell began with a ghost story of sorts: in 1869, the Feathers Hotel in Manchester drew crowds when it was rumored to be haunted. His theory is that ghost tales like this represent a narrative re-mapping of the urban environment. A story of a ghostly haunting fills in the blanks, imagines activity in places where there is no activity (one expects continual activity in a city), and rebels against urban planning. Ghosts, of course, do not recognize modern developments, and won’t abide by spatial orderings (data, maps). It’s as if ghosts live in a different space that is superimposed on our space.

So the thesis is that a nebulous imaginary city co-exists with the real city. But this thesis has holes: ghost stories don’t create an actual alternate meaning. So how can historians probe interiority without evidence? We can find reports of Victorian hauntings, but how can we prove a thesis about this theory of imaginary cities? Dr Bell has drawn upon non-historians like deSoto and deFevre. These thinkers would say that people re-walking the city (knowing their own shortcuts, for example) may not have been conscious that they were re-mapping the space, but that doesn’t mean the alternate city isn’t there.

For historians, this lack of evidence draws fire in the same way as fields like psychogeography – are wanderers really re-mapping the city? Psycho-anything is based on internal feelings, not verifiable events. Historians are accustomed to looking at society, and large groups of people, but looking at individual experiences turns us into either biographers or psychiatrists. But we can study activity: communal ghost hunting, like with the Feathers Hotel incident in Manchester, or 2000 people showing up hoping to view Bermondsey ghost, are verifiable events.

So stories of ghost sightings are difficult to use as evidence, but people’s response to the stories is explicit and can be studied. It’s often only through external manifestations that one can see the internal anyway (it’s not like biographers actually get inside the mind of their subjects). Instead of doing interdisciplinary work with sociologists and psychologists, one can focus on historical method as one would with any other topic.

As a historian, I have no problem with studying the reactions of people to any sort of event, when that can be documented. Sometimes, though, evidence of reactions is hard to find. Often I have students who want to work with propaganda, particularly war-time posters, as evidence. They’re great sources, but they cannot be used to prove that people did what the posters wanted them to do (buy war bonds) or feel the way they were encouraged to feel (hatred toward the enemy). That would have to be proven with other sources, and it would be very difficult to show that a particular poster generated a particular effect.

With cause and effect in general in disrepute (thanks partly to post-modernism), it becomes necessary for historians to divide what can be documented from what cannot, or at least what sort of evidence can be used to prove something. Ghost stories show this particular difficulty, and the historians’ solution, very well.