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David Labaree on Schooling, History, and Writing: Why We Need Histories of Education

This is a piece I wrote a year ago, which had been rattling around in my head for years.  The issue is to figure out what role histories of education should play in the formation of educational policy. My short answer is that we should produce the histories we need rather than the histories we want.

See what you think.

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Why We Need Histories of Education

History of education, like history more generally, continually struggles to inform  contemporary policy without simply become its tool.  We need to mine history in order to speak to important educational issues in our own time; if we didn’t we would be guilty of aimless antiquarianism.  But we need to be careful not to reconstruct history simply to score a convenient point in the politics of education in our own day.  There is too much of the latter going on already, as zealous partisans for every new educational reform slap together their own revisionist history to make the case for a particular political agenda. 

So how can we, as historians of education, address the educational issues that matter today without being unduly partisan?  Not by avoiding partisanship, since as citizens we all have our own visions of what education can be and what it can do for our society.  After all, education is less a technical field (analyzing what works) than a normative field (debating what goals we want education to pursue).  So as historians we choose to focus on issues that matter most to us politically and then apply our historical skills to those issues with the greatest rigor that we can.  This argues for a history that is both politically motivated and analytically validated.

And how can we mine history selectively in order to meet our current needs without doing history a gross injustice?  We should aim to construct the history of education that we need at this historical moment, but we should not construct the history that we and our contemporaries want.  This means providing what we need to know and not what we want to hear – a history that is relevant but not necessarily convenient.  Such a history will make all parties to the debate both more informed and less confident – and that includes the historians themselves.

It means being a relentless critic of bad history (read: bad research).  This is easy when these histories support policies you detest, but it’s a lot harder when the studies support policies you favor.  For example, the current movement for raising the standards for student learning is framed as an effort to return to a golden age in the early 20th century when such standards were higher.  But this ignores the histories that show these earlier schools were focused on increasing student attainment more than student achievement, which they never really tried to measure systematically.  Or consider the current push for antiracist education, which depicts racism as the prime cause of educational inequities, while choosing to discount the histories that show considerable improvement in both educational opportunity and achievement for students of color in the past 50 years.

It means being an iconoclast – seeking to shatter the convenient fictions and reigning metaphors of the day in light of a more complex and interesting reading of the past.  A case in point is school choice.  In current policy discourse this term refers for consumer choice, giving families the right to select the school product that best benefits their children.  But in the previous 150 years of US history, choice has been framed as political choice, in which the public establishes schools for the benefit of the whole community.  Framed this way, schooling as a private good is threatening to displace schooling as a public good.  In the process, the connotation of public has also shifted.  Public schools were once seen as models of democracy and community but have now come to emit the odor of bureaucracy and mediocrity.

It means being a realist – showing what actually happened in past efforts at school reform.  Today’s policy initiatives promise school improvement, but so did the policies of earlier generations of reformers.  Histories of reform often show a sharp divergence between intentions and outcomes.  More often than not, unintended consequences swamp intended consequences, leaving new problems for the next group of reformers to address.  At the start of the 20th century, schools introduced curriculum tracking and social promotion to deal with the problems of growing student diversity and growing retention in grade.  And in the latter part of the century reformers reversed course, introducing core curriculum and high stakes testing to reduce achievement gaps and increase rigor.  Histories show the dynamic complexity of the educational system and how it reacts to reform efforts.

And it means being a resurrectionist – picking up fallen idols and buffing them up for reconsideration in light of the problems of the day.  Take the case of the common school, which has lurched in and out of favor over the years.  It was the ideal behind the desegregation and inclusion movements in the 1960s and 70s, which sought to create schools that for the first time incorporated the entire community – regardless of race, gender, or handicap, groups that were excluded from the original common school of the early 19th century.  But the school choice movement that began in the 1980s pushed for a system that was differentiated by the market preferences of consumers and by disdain for the deficiencies of comprehensive government schools.  This was thus an ideal time for historians to revisit the social benefits of the common school model, recalling a system that was organized around democratic principles and shared outcomes over market principles and individualized outcomes.

The ideal is to have a history of education that seeks inform the issues of the day by complicating and disconcerting the debate rather than by offering simplicity and comfort.  In the end this will provide the kind of historical research we need rather the research we want.

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David Labaree

David F. Labaree is Lee L. Jacks Professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and a professor (by courtesy) in history. His research focuses ...