History Of Education Essay

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The history of education is the study of the origin and evolution of organized learning in the lives of individuals, groups, institutions, and nations. The field attempts to assess the values and behaviors of systems of education, their achievements and dysfunctions. In this sense, the field is akin to other social scientific approaches to education, such as sociology, anthropology, economics, and political science. It is not too much of an overstatement to say that the field is concerned with the vast cultural terrain between theories about how education should work and what children and adults actually do with what they have learned. Rather than recounting the history of education, this entry looks at the field of study and its principal scholars.

Describing The Subject

How and why did education arrive at this contemporary set of conditions, structures, and policies? This is the driving question of History of Education. To make sense of the present, historians of education research questions about the grand plans, events, and controversies of the past. The point is to describe and explain how those educational heritages have shaped contemporary assumptions and practices.

Historians ask, for example: Who and what have exerted the most influence on the way we currently conceive educational problems and solutions? Which groups have enjoyed access to quality education? Who has been denied equality of educational opportunity and why? How and why have movements to reform schools succeeded or failed? These are the kinds of inquiries that motivate historians to discover the past and organize it into coherent narratives.

A Humanistic Inquiry

But historians are not focused exclusively on contemporary educational problems. A second important aspect of the field is less related to the social sciences and is a kind of humanistic inquiry. In this frame of mind, historians of education ask questions about educational traditions—attempting to address the past on its own terms and for its own sake. The human condition presupposes intergenerational communication and training for the young. The humanistic study of the educational past takes this intergenerational encounter as its starting point. Connecting the past to the present becomes, therefore, a secondary consideration, a minor concern.

This humanistic purpose is served by investigating the unfamiliar educational worlds of the past. The point is to better understand the circumstances educators have faced and the cultural forms they have adopted to prepare their children for an uncertain future. Bernard Bailyn believes that historians should not apologize for these humanistic and at times antiquarian inclinations. For Bailyn, the study of history begins with the idea that the past was essentially different from the present.

What all of these historians assume is that education was and remains a complicated, mediating, moral, and political human invention. Education is complicated by the fact that historically it has taken many forms and served many purposes. It is a mediating institution, shaped by assumptions about what makes for good lives within the context of a good and evolving society.

Education is a moral enterprise in that its justification proceeds from elders’ desire for a better future in an improved world for “favored” members of a younger generation. Education is political in the sense that educational resources are not distributed in isolation from a political process. Political interests define who is favored and who is neglected in the conflicted allocation of financial, social, and intellectual capital to communities, schools, and students. Historians begin their work, therefore, with the assumption that education cannot be researched in isolation from the visions of preferred ways of living, model communities, and idealized futures that are embedded in educational theory and political realities.

Admittedly, this agenda is grand and perhaps grandiose. Historians of education alternate between granular, empirical analysis of single high schools and rarefied interpretations of national reform movements. They ask about the connective tissues among a single community’s students, textbooks, teachers, and schools. They inquire about systems of thought and institutional arrangements at an expansive societal level. They do their work on unwieldy, multileveled stages, hoping to understand the many functions education has served.

Historians of education operate with theoretical premises that inform their choices of researchable questions and influence how they categorize data and reach conclusions. Carl Kaestle argues that these premises usually occupy a “middle ground” between overarching social theories and antitheoretical narratives that purport to stick to the facts for the purpose of telling a good story.

No Single Version

The expression “the history of education” is misleading, since the manifold circumstances of time and place, to say nothing of the daunting archives of evidence, have made comprehensive narratives virtually impossible. The most encompassing single interpretation is James Bowen’s exceptional A History of Western Education (three volumes). Bowen offers a transcontinental tour of educational ideas and institutions from ancient Mesopotamia to Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock.

A single, definitive narrative of education in a nation as old and diverse as the United States has been difficult to conceive and implement. What exists are histories of education, analytic chronicles that are thematically organized and set in a national or regional context. Historians value both the majestic synthesis and the revelatory case study, and the lack of the latter is cause for concern.

Historians worry about “presentism” in their work, the fallacy of mining the past to justify a desired version of the present or imagined model of the future. The historian’s dilemma is a real one. Isolate oneself too far from the present and the field becomes anachronistic. Adhere too closely to the issues of the month, and the field’s well-earned temporal detachment and hard-earned perspectives are compromised.

Ruminating on this dilemma in 1978, Warren Button foresaw no easy way out. The dilemma, in Button’s view, is a historian’s professional fate. He argued that historians could not extricate themselves from the dual responsibility of understanding the past on its own terms and using their expertise to provide better ways to think about current educational problems.

Problematics Of The Field

Academic fields are defined and bedeviled by their “problematics,” and the history of education is no exception. “Problematics” are those core questions, disciplinary boundaries, methodologies, and instances of “specified ignorance” that guide the research agendas of practicing scholars.

When there is substantial agreement among practitioners about core problematics, a field can mature by generating knowledge, resolving important questions, renewing its research agenda, and gaining the regard of scholars outside of the field. If there is substantial disagreement, then a field may be absorbed by other fields, fail to train a next generation of researchers, or become irrelevant to contemporary scholarly exchange.

The history of education is a field in which there is both significant agreement and disagreement about problematics. A consequence is that the field occupies an ambiguous position in the larger conversation about the exasperating intergenerational challenge known as education. As the educational historian John Rury has argued, the field is somewhat odd and isolated, not entirely embraced by either the professional world of teaching or academic history departments and their major professional organizations.

On the one hand, there has been a rough consensus that the history of education is a project focused on schooling within nations, although some attention has been paid to cross-national comparisons. It is commonly assumed that historians of education will publish their work in traditional genres: biographies, case studies, scholarly articles, thematic monographs, institutional histories, grand narratives, and documentary histories. Periodization, at least in the context of the United States, has not been a cause of significant contention.

But there have been sharp disagreements over core disciplinary issues. The publication of Lawrence Cremin’s American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, 1876–1980, the third and final volume of his grand narrative on the history of American education, provided the occasion for an intense and unsettling exchange. In a History of Education Quarterly Forum on The Metropolitan Experience, Robert Church criticized Cremin’s work, recognizing it as the most comprehensive existing history of American education but voicing chagrin that it expressed ambivalence and distaste for the political project of providing equal education opportunity. British historian Harold Silver concurred with Church, calling Cremin the “ultimate de-schooler,” and concluding that The Metropolitan Experience looked to the future more than the past.

Cremin vigorously defended his interpretation and the definition of education that he had steadfastly employed throughout his career. Cremin offered a broad view of education as the systematic and ongoing effort to communicate knowledge, skills, and values, as well as its results. This formulation is only slightly narrower than that of Bernard Bailyn, who had defined education as the process in which a culture reproduces itself into the future.

Cremin’s definition gave him wide latitude to connect people, events, and institutions to the intellectual and cultural climate of their times. He argued that the field of the history of education needed to liberate itself from the narrow institutionalism, anachronism, and moralism of teacher training institutions. Cremin rejected the laudatory “lives of the saints” approach to history of education. Concerned about the field’s isolation, he demonstrated one strategy for connecting the field to a larger landscape of European and American ideas, ideals, and institutional arrangements. In the end, Michael B. Katz posed the most serious challenge to Cremin, arguing that Cremin’s broad definition actually impeded research and had brought the field to a state of crisis. Its broadness posed an impossible challenge for historians.

Cremin and his critics had reached a stalemate. School curricula and soap operas both engage in the deliberate transmission of attitudes, values, and sensibilities. Which of the two is more important to study and why? Without a clear and compelling answer to these questions, what was to prevent the history of education from dissolving into cultural studies? On the other hand, if school agendas expressed the political agendas of dominant groups writ small and camouflaged with manipulative rhetoric, then what else was there to understand?

Given these issues, it is reasonable to ask: What is the payoff for undertaking this research, for studying this field? What value can the history of education deliver to other disciplinary investigations and scholarly exchanges about education? The answers to these questions require elaboration but can be stated concisely. Historians can describe and explain the influential, the significant, change and structure, and contradictory trends and offer a detached and reasoned perspective.

Historians disentangle complicated, cross-cutting historical trends. They sort out events that seem to contradict each other and establish distinctions and contexts in which the contradictions can coexist and be connected by a new historical logic. In a nation such as the United States, a climate of national crisis overlaps with local moods of relative contentment about public education. Historians can therefore provide valuable perspectives on the nature of educational criticism itself. When is it on target and fair? When is it misinformed and excessive?

What Merton calls strategic research materials (SRMs) are also an important aspect of problematics. A field’s evidence makes up the most significant part of what it brings forward for public and professional consideration. These discovered and organized data are what scholars present in support of their claims, arguments, and conclusions.

The Future Of The Field

To speculate about the future of the field is to ask whether it consists of a disorganized mass of case studies, institutional histories, and single-issue, regional monographs or whether it provides some depth of knowledge or breadth of understanding that might engage the interest of scholarly or public audiences. The history of the field suggests that no single structure or perspective unites the diverse field. Historians will continue to work in areas where their talents and their intellectual interests merge. The questions are these: Can those talents and interests be better directed at defining and enriching the field, and can historians negotiate a more central role in scholarly and public debates about the future of education?

It is important for the professional credibility of historians to participate in scholarly and public deliberations about how current educational problems are framed and which solutions are being considered. Without these engagements, historians’ valuable perspectives on influence, significance, and contradictory trends and criticism will be lost.

But the quality of historians’ participation will depend on the quality of the field’s problematics: the core questions, the specified ignorance, the definitions, explanatory models, and the strategic research materials. Energetic attention to and some degree of consensus about these foundational issues can yield useful directions for the history of education.

It will continue to be important for scholars and the public to understand the various ambitions, implementations, and results of educational reform. Historians are uniquely positioned to engage scholars and the public in discussions of how and why change has proceeded well and badly. Diane Ravitch’s Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms is a cautionary tale. She emphasizes how often reforms have become paths of least resistance, lowering academic standards, embracing social problems and passing along underprepared students to the next tier in the system.

Larry Cuban and David Tyack’s Tinkering Toward Utopia is insightful about the stages of reform—policy talk, policy action, and implementation. And it details how schools change reforms, sticking to the plan without taking care of unintended outcomes. In American education there will be continuing tensions between systems and reforms, and historians have the expertise to ask whether schools have the capacity, the focus, and the commitment to avoid faddish programs where durable solutions are needed.

Historians who employ a developmental framework will find that their work dovetails with the longitudinal studies of social scientists interested in questions of when and how education matters over the life course. Sociologist Katherine Newman, for example, has completed a third set of follow-up studies of Harlem’s working poor, Chutes and Ladders, which provides multiple perspectives on how some students succeeded while others did not.

Similarly, the work of David Lavin and David Hyllegard suggests that educational interventions later in the life course of adults, such as those offered by the City University of New York (CUNY) in its open admissions programs of the early 1970s, can have an impact on a city or region’s social structure by increasing the number of people in minority communities who have a college degree. Henry Drewry and Humphrey Doermann’s Stand and Prosper documents the role that historically Black colleges and universities have played in building a civic leadership class in urban centers such as Atlanta and Charlotte.

Finally, it will be important for historians to develop ways of understanding the emerging interplay between globalization and education. Thomas Friedman’s “flat world” envisions a future in which anyone can take part in communications, both creative and not. If brick and mortar institutions lose their hold on future generations of students, how will the history of that dramatic change be researched and written?


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  2. Bowen, J. (2000). A history of Western education (3 vols.). London: Methuen.
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  20. Ravitch, D. (1983). The troubled crusade: American education, 1945–1980. New York: Basic Books.
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  25. Vinovskis, M. A. (1996). An analysis of the concept and uses of systemic educational reform. American Educational Research Journal, 33(1), 53–85.
  26. Vinovskis, M. A. (1999). Do federal compensatory education programs really work? A brief historical analysis of Title I and Head Start. American Journal of Education, 107(3), 187–209.
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