The Struggle for the History of Education: more glossing

[Glossing is actually the process of commenting on a text, like annotation. This isn’t exactly what I’ve been doing, since I’m combining summaries of useful chapters of books I’m reading with that commentary.]

I have been reading Gary McCulloch’s The Struggle for the History of Education (Routledge 2011) to understand theory and method using education as the central point, so this will build on my reading in Writing History: Theory and Practice.

So it turns out I was right about educationists practicing history, and historians looking at education — it’s been a big part of the struggle. Gary McCulloch should know: he has a BA in Educational Studies, an MA in History of Education (I didn’t know you could do that), and a PhD in History (from Cambridge). In the introduction, he states his purpose, not only of this book but of the others he’s written over the last ten years: to “codify the field in such a way that would provide scope for a wide range of researchers with different interests to discover connections with it and to develop it further. ” (p8)  That makes my work part of a wider development of the history of education as a sub-discipline, which I suppose is better than being outside any sub-discipline at all. It would be nice to be in a club that would consider having me as a member.

According to McCulloch, the result of the many changes in social theory (and, I’d say, practice) has been new directions of study, including “inquiry into patterns of social disadvantage and the exclusion and marginalization of particular groups in society, which has gone beyond the previous emphasis on social class to address issues concerning gender, sexuality and disability…” (p10). Hmmm. H.G. Wells was male, sexually inclined toward females, and his only disability was a recurring lung problem that forced him into different areas of endeavor (he quit two jobs and was accommodated in one). I wonder whether there’s a problem because he was classically lower middle-class? Is he historiographically uninteresting?

Then it got worse as I read on. Unfortunately, in the historiography of the 19th century in this book, my new hero fared badly. Leopold von Ranke’s “scientific” method of history was discredited in the 1970s by Gareth Stedman Jones, who claimed that even though positivism/Whiggism has been disclaimed, historians like Ranke continued to practice it in the guise of collecting all the “facts” before they’d engage any theory (p12). It began to look like my whole approach ended in the 1950s.

The British path went like this: in the first half of the 20th century, the Whig interpretation dominated, with national narratives of progress in expanding education, all very self-congratulatory and encouraging. Beginning in the 1930s this approach was debated, and Fred Clarke based his work in sociology as well as history. He wanted people to understand the historical determinants of the English educational system to assess its ability to adapt to change, world wars in particular. He noted that the routes to education were different depending on your social standing, and was frustrated that no one had studied this. Histories of particular institutions and biographies of reformers were common, but nothing had been done with education in the same way as was taking place in economic and social history. Devoted to the idea of adapting to the times, he felt it was necessary to know the history of education in relation to social changes. These ideas helped support reform, and after the war more scholars began to study education. New journals appeared. A.H. Halsey documented the expansion of grammar schools as gateways to university, and published a work about the impact of social reforms on social mobility called Origins and Destinations (1980).

Sociology then took a leading role in the UK following World War II. Michael Young was mentioned here, and I know a little about him because of his connection with the National Extension College, the modern-day version of the University Correspondence College. In The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), he traced the conflict between those who wanted a meritocracy versus those wanting equality. Apparently this book had an imaginative bent (Young was a sociologist). Other works of sociology are mentioned in the chapter. Olive Banks studied ways in which educational institutions, especially secondary schools, trained occupational groups, and demonstrated connections between school programs, examinations, and the push to get ahead. Even better for my work, she used Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) to show the desire for “personal comfort and decent livelihood”, which is basically why many people wanted to get university degrees. Her Sociology of Education (1968) countered the old trend, which was essentially a new version of the liberal-progressive approach: that education helped create a more stable and prosperous society. She also apparently refused to consider class or gender as pertinent to her analysis (p38), which might be helpful to me too. Raymond Williams, however, writing about the same time, argued that the 19th century education was based firmly on social class.

Gareth Stedman Jones also criticized the liberal-progressive approach in the 1970s as lacking theory, and the perspective as being top-down. Gordon and Szreter in 1989 introduced a three-prong criticism of the old approach: it emphasized individual thinkers with little reference to what happened to their schemes, it was overly concerned with legislation instead of the questions within the legislation (vested interests, for example), and it had too much emphasis to formal education (p27). The old view was also concerned with the descriptive, rather than analytical, nature of the field. McCulloch does point out the some of these “old method” books were quite good, but they were still “of the national textbook variety” (p30).

An entire chapter is dedicated to Brian Simon (1915-2002), “the most significant historian of education produced in Britian over the past century” (p41). (This makes sense, since McCulloch notes in the introduction that he is the Brian Simon chair at the Institute of Education at University College London, and promised to promote his memory — Simon’s works take up almost a full page of the bibliography, and he’s posted even more stuff here.) Simon built on the idea from the 1940s and 50s about connecting education and social change, and wrote a four-volume history that I hope I never have to read. He was a classical Marxist, though, so it might be OK.

The aim was not only to discredit the traditional liberal-progressive historiography, but to encourage broad support for an argument that would actively promote the attainment of social equality for all. (p41).

His intellectual guide was Fred Clarke, and he argued beginning in the 1930s that schools should be adaptable to changing society, and educational policy be the subject of continual questioning (p43). He saw education as where society’s issues are worked out, and even though he was Marxist he didn’t require the continual process toward a classless society as a goal. The comprehensive school, however, was a primary challenge to elitist education, and he opposed testing young students to determine their educational future. Marxism was helpful in providing critique, an analysis rather than an acceptance of the current educational system. The Education Act of 1870 (which I like because it created free elementary education) he saw as securing the domination of the beourgoisie over the form and content of education (p44). He credited the working classes themselves for getting the system to change when it did, which I like because it attributes agency (I guess I’m not much into impersonal forces causing things). He believed that this agency would triumph over both government and beourgeois efforts to retain class structure. He was not concerned, however, with “social inequality”, by which McCulloch seems to mean modern issues of gender and ethnic minority inequality. So the new focus on these things has left Simon behind. Which is a shame, because I like him.

The American path was a little different. Cubberly put education into some historical context, showing uneven progress but with a clear focus on the state’s responsibility to educate children. Then Bernard Bailyn criticized this approach for not considering broader cultural history, and Cremin criticized it for not including elements like mass media and non-school entities (private educational foundations, for example). Then the Marxists came along in the 1960s and 70s, saying that not only was the idea of progress ridiculous, but that schools deliberately enforced social and economic hierarchies, and political economists agreed. Others, however, tried to balance the two views (progress versus anti-progress) during the culture wars of the 1960s, and by the 1980s the history of education was as conservative as the country’s political turn.

I have to gloss the section on “The struggle for theory and methodology”, of course. In 1999, historian of education Jurgen Herbst complained that the sub-discipline had gone stale, repeating “old mantras” of class, race, and gender as “empty formulae” rather than theory or method (p71). McCulloch argues that “the field can benefit” from “critical engagement with the theories and methodologies in the broader humanities and social sciences”, something which is already happening (p72). But first, we get to do empiricism and postmodernism again, this time as challenges to the history of education. Yippee!

Sociologist C. Wright Mills is frequently cited, I’m noticing, in work about historical theory. Here he criticized historians being unaware of social theory, which he thought bizarre considering that history itself is a theoretical discipline. (It is? I must think about that.) Postmodernists, as we know, criticize any “positivistic or quasi-scientific” elements in historical writing, and like to proclaim the death of causation. McCulloch considers relativism as the opposite of the view that we cannot know anything, because it says that all evidence is equally valid. Both views have pushed historians to be more explicit about how they do history.

(Having read a bit about this now, I’ve decided that this is the beneficial role of postmodernism/post-structuralism: it pushes traditional historians to explain what they’re doing, and what theoretical constructs they use. It seems to me this is the same with democracy and liberal traditions today. The elements of society that are opposed to liberalism have mounted a highly successful, if anti-intellectual, opposition. The only way to deal with that is to articulate more clearly, and more loudly, why democracy is good, why liberal values matter, why we should treat people fairly, etc. It will, I hope, force liberalism to defend itself properly, instead of wrestling the opposition in the mud.)

Although efforts have been made to “bridge the gap” between history and theory in education, it seems to have remained empiricist (p74). There have, however been some influences. Sol Cohen, in studying the “linguistic turn” in the hsitory of education, noted that history and literature may be closer than we think. (In fact, I’m just now reading an article on how historians begin their writing, in which Trevor Dean claims that the opening dramatic narrative to a history paper is not seen before 1955, and is becoming increasingly more common.) McCulloch believes we need to engage these theories, not ignore them, as he wrote about in a paper with Ruth Watts. However, as Richard Aldrich notes, historians also shouldn’t give up on the idea of truth.

The last couple of chapters of the book focus on now and the future, but don’t provide anything I’d call a theoretical model. Instead, there are calls for more models, all of them opposing postmodernism in method but acknowledging it in theory. Educational theory itself, however, is noted in a couple of places, and this is another “line of inquiry” for my own work. Pierce, James and Dewey can all be repositories of theory, and the last part of the book mentions “teaching and learning” as a “new” area of inquiry, so I’ve copied those pages for later, after I deal with Mr Wells in his own context.

[Last note: in seeking another book to illustrate this text-heavy post, I came upon this one by S.J. Curtis, who is not mentioned in McCulloch’s book. But what caught my eye was the publisher: University Tutorial Press. Briggs and the University Correspondence College are sneaking into this post after all…]

 

 

Aldrich, Richard. History of Education. Mar2003, Vol. 32 Issue 2, p133-143 (EBSCO)
Banks, Olive. Parity and Prestige in English Secondary Education: A Study in Educational Sociology, London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1955.
Clarke, F. The Study of Education in England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943
Cohen, Sol. Challenging Orthodoxies: Toward a New Cultural History of Education, New York: Peter Lang, 1999
McCulloch, Gary; Watts, Ruth. History of Education. Mar2003, Vol. 32 Issue 2, p129-132. (EBSCO)
Mills, C. W. The Sociological Imagination, London: Oxford University Press, 1959.
Young, Michael. The Rise of the Meritocracy: An Essay on Education and Equality, London: Chatto and Windus, 1958.

 

 

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