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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Can Historians Help School Reformers?

Historians are divided over what can be learned from history. Some find that knowing the past can inform the present. Others say that the past has no lessons to teach those living now but it is nonetheless worthwhile to recapture what occurred and their consequences.

But when policymakers, practitioners, parents, and public school students ask about the usefulness of history they want guidance from the past to avoid making mistakes now. And some even want predictions.

Historians who believe that the past can inform policy argue that even if “lessons” cannot be extracted from the past, policymakers can surely profit from looking backward. They say scholars can aid contemporary policymakers by pointing out similarities and differences between previous and current situations.

Or, of even more help to policymakers, historians can redefine existing problems and solutions by observing how similar situations were viewed by a previous generation. Finally, without stooping to offer “lessons,” historians can alert policymakers to what did not work, what might be preferable and what to avoid under certain conditions.

Other historians reject the notion that history can, or even should, serve the present. These historians point to their obligations as professionals to be disinterested in contemporary policies. Scholars must bring to bear their knowledge of the past and their craft in handling documents without paying attention to the present moment. Not to do so can corrupt their professional impartiality. Moreover, these historians point to the uniqueness of a past event—say, the war in Vietnam–that is seldom identical or even sufficiently similar for policy makers to compare with explosive situations such as the invasion of Iraq or nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan.

More specifically, there are contemporary situations for which no historical analogy can be drawn: To what, for example, can the collapse of Soviet communism in the early 1990s be compared?

Historians bothered about reading the present into the past also argue that policy-driven colleagues ask questions that are too tightly tethered to contemporary issues and heavily influenced by the scholars’ values and experiences. Some policy-oriented historians, for example, ask: Why do public schools seemingly fail to improve student achievement? They then search the past for answers to a question that few educators, parents, or policymakers ever asked in 1880, 1920, and 1950,

Historians uninterested in connecting the past to current policy issues call scholars who seek to influence reformers presentists, researchers who read the present into the past, and, in doing so, distort history to fit contemporary situations. Historians should write history for history’s sake.

At times, I have leaned toward those who claim that scholars must disengage from contemporary policy issues when investigating the past because history seldom teaches explicit lessons. Still, more often than not, I find myself in the camp of policy-relevant historians. As a teacher, superintendent, and policymaker for a quarter-century before becoming a professor, my values and experiences shaped the questions that I have asked over the last two decades–many of which connect policy to practice.

The path I have chosen, however, has been troublesome. The tug of reading the present into the past is strong and unyielding even when I scrutinize high school yearbooks from the 1920s in the dank basement of a district office building. Resisting the temptation to select only those historical records and incidents that fit the contemporary scene or bolster a bias is a constant struggle. I have to constantly remind myself to take the past on its own terms, to welcome the document that challenges my beliefs or to spend more time investigating an event that undermines thoroughly what I had found. Juggling professional duties to the craft and discipline with insistent impulses to shape stories that fit particular contemporary policies consistent with my values is–in a trite phrase–hard work.

None of this would surprise colleagues deeply committed to both scholarship and improving schools. It is unsurprising because the public school, a core institution in a market-driven democratic society, has had a checkered history of being drafted again and again to uplift the lives of individual students and improve a society blessed by prosperity and freedom yet wracked by social ills and inequities. Historians of education, perhaps more so than other historians, particularly if their formative experiences included working in schools, have had to contend with this dilemma of hewing to scholarly obligations while seeking improved schools.

The compromise I have worked out draws from historian David Tyack’s conclusion that contemporary decision-makers already have a picture in their minds of what the past was like. Accurate or not, they will formulate policy based on those blurred images of the past.*

Like Tyack, I believe that more accurate renderings of the past than currently exist can inform the present not by prescribing particular policies but in helping educational decision makers and reformers, again in Tyack’s words: “not only to use a sense of the past (which they do willy-nilly) but also to make sense of it.” And that is how I believe historians can help school reformers. **


*David Tyack was my doctoral adviser at Stanford University (1972-1974).  He was also a close friend after I joined the faculty in 1981. Besides team teaching courses, I also joined him in his passion for biking up mountains and riding to the ocean for over three decades. David Tyack died in 2016.

**David Tyack, “The High School as a Social Service Agency: Historical Perspectives on Current Policy Issues,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, vol. 1 (no.5), p. 56, 1979.


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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...