Education's Histories

methodological grist for the history of education

Archive for the ‘conceptual’ Category

November 17th, 2016 by Benjamin Kelsey Kearl

Of Laggards and Morons: Definitional Fluidity, Borderlinity, and the Theory of Progressive Era Special Education (Part 2)

This entry is part [part not set] of 2 in the series Of Laggard and Morons by Benjamin Kelsey Kearl | November-December 2016

Part 1 of this essay discussed the laggard, an educational subjectivity used to denote students who did not progress through schooling at the pace determined by the modern progressive educational system. Important to the story of the laggard was how definitional fluidity allowed the science of classification to indefinitely collect and detain lagging students until the age of twelve when they could fall out of education. The story of the moron relies on a similar use value of indeterminacy, which is why its discovery in 1910 by Henry H. Goddard did not disprove the science of classification, but only the inaccuracy of a previous classificatory scheme. Similarly, in discrediting the moron, Lewis Terman of Stanford University would not argue against classification as such, but only for the inability of this particular classification to accurately measure intelligence. This part of the essay takes up the classification of the moron and the question of borderlinity as well as education’s tendency toward identifying difference within education. What, then, do borderlands and borderlines reveal about how education defines itself?

Goddard, who also directed the Vineland Training School, discovered the moron by standardizing the Binet intelligence test to include the concept of mental age. This standardization remained prominent until Terman’s revision of the test. The Stanford-Binet revision claimed differentiation from Goddard’s own revision of Binet’s test on the grounds that it was more scientifically accurate. Specifically, Terman, along with fellow Stanford psychologist H. E. Knollin, argued that Goddard’s classificatory scheme was problematic because adults and those with a mental age of twelve or higher tested as morons despite being located along the borderline of “average adult.” The specific problem with Goddard’s scheme was that it resulted in a three year disparity between mental and chronological age, which Terman and Knollin corrected for by extending the age level being measured from twelve to fourteen and measuring intelligence as a ratio between median chronological and median mental age. Under Goddard’s standardization of the Binet intelligence test mental age was understood only in terms of chronological age, thus, the problem of age disparity observed by Terman and Knollin. This error was exponential as a difference of ten months at age five, which became twenty months at age ten and two and half years and age fifteen. Terman and Knollin’s corrected for this error by revising the Binet test so that median chronological age corresponded with median intelligence (mental age). This revision introduced the classification of the average adult, where for Goddard adult was an absolute demarcation of both chronological and mental age.

Greater accuracy, however, did not result in the reclassification of individuals previously identified as morons. As discussed in Part 1, more accurate classifications do not result in individuals falling out of categories due to the belief that those being measured essentially possess the quality being measured. This belief was tested when enlisted men were given the Alpha and Beta intelligence tests in 1917. Comparing these test results with Goddard’s revision of the Binet intelligence test revealed that more than forty percent of enlisted men were morons. Goddard defended his classification against this result by arguing that moronity only applied to individuals who were already obviously feeble-minded beyond other mental or physical signs and by insisting that because enlisted men could manage their own affairs, they were not feeble-minded which meant that definitionally they could not be morons. This defense relied upon a similar circular logic as introduced in Part 1 by Miss E. E. Farrell, Inspector of Ungraded Classes of New York City.

For Goddard to prove the inexactness of the application of his classification, he had to rely on the exactness of the classificatory scheme of feeble-mindedness, an argument that belied his insistence for more classificatory accuracy within the general scheme of feeble-mindedness. This circular logic, common to Progressive Era special education, is also evident in Goddard’s insistence that the feeble-mindedness of immigrants could be identified upon sight. It was as if the classification of the moron was proceeding without any theory and was being capriciously applied to individuals determined, for whatever reason, to be abnormal. While this capriciousness should not be ignored, neither should it detract from how the moron can help education better understand how it defines itself. Indeed, how and why classificatory schemes are defended and revised is as important as the schemes themselves. Thus, although Farrell insisted that New York City public schools were proceeding with special education without a theory, perhaps the theory she was looking for, and what special education continues to seek, was there all along; that is, a theory to generally explain human difference within education. Farrell’s clarification, which began Part 1 of this essay, might be better understood, then, as an attempt to justify an emerging specialized field of education uniquely qualified to deal with the “many and serious problems in truancy and discipline” present in the neighborhood surrounding New York City’s Public School 1.

Of Morons

Education’s tendency toward administering difference found a welcome partner in its tendency toward identifying students within education. This tendency was especially important to Goddard, who argued that extant gradations of feeble-mindedness had misclassified high functioning individuals, who despite appearing normal, were in fact moronic. Goddard’s discovery of this missing classification involved more than adding an additional grade to the existent staircase of mental limits and cognitive plateaus, the very language of the classification itself was imbued with moral meaning. Goddard argued that he derived the neologism moron from the Greek adjective moros, meaning foolish. This did not explain why he chose this adjectival form when there was already a Greek noun, aphron, for a foolish person. Stephen Gelb suggests that Goddard likely chose moros because of its linguistic proximity to moral, which allowed him, through etymological sleight of hand, to link the nineteenth century discourses of moral insanity and moral imbecility with the emerging technology of intelligence testing and to repackage “earlier assumptions about morality, intelligence, and the putative relationship between the two.”

The story of the moron, then, is not one of discovering a missed classification, but of definitionally cohering morality and intelligence together as “all of the essential mental processes in such proportion as to render the processor able to adapt himself to the environment.” The reception of Goddard’s discovering was made possible by inconsistent nineteenth century understandings of moral, which “was sometimes used to refer to all non-physical aspects of human life…at other times it referred more specifically to the emotions, and it was also used in the more modern sense of ‘ethical.’” These fluid definitions facilitated the classification of moral insanity as a term of art that connoted any form of moral subversion and which linked all degenerate types together while allowing their symptoms to remain interchangeable. Moral insanity was discredited towards the end of the nineteenth century and replaced by moral imbecility, which referred broadly to “persons whose behavior was judged socially deviant, in both the presence and absence of other signs of mental or physical disability.”

Intelligence was thus a matter of correct social adaptation and the exhibition of appropriate social responsibility beyond other mental or physical signs, a distinction Goddard utilized to hypothesize that because there were grades of responsibility and intelligence, responsibility varied according to intelligence. Intelligence was thus not fixed, but something that was socially variable and which was called into question by the modern progressive education system. Goddard’s hypothesis followed Alfred Binet’s observations that French peasants do not possess, nor need they possess, the same intelligence as Frenchmen living in Paris. Goddard would argue, however, that the relativity of intelligence was preventing child studiers from seeing the real issue at stake: “[T]he persons who constitute our social problems are of a type that in the past and under simpler environments have seemed responsible and able to function normally;” however, Goddard continued, due to increased social complexity, such persons “are no longer responsible for their actions.” Whereas previously the moron might have been able to hide in rural settings, modernity presented unique challenges of adaptation and responsibility that required a science of classification. Among the new challenges modernity presented to individuals was industrialization, but its processes of production also provided the means by which adaptability could be measured (Fig. 2). Statistics, already used by Ayers to argue for administrative efficiency, warned of an increase in feeble-mindedness within the population based on an increase in the number of individuals being trained by institutions for the feeble-minded.

With this looming threat in mind, Goddard called for a method that divided the population first according to a baseline of intelligence above which there was a second line demarcating persons with sufficient intelligence to function in simple environments from persons capable of functioning in more complex environments. Below this baseline were persons unable to function in any environment. The causal relation between responsibility and intelligence provided Goddard with a rubric for treatment: “Knowing the grade of intelligence we may know the degree of responsibility. Knowing the degree of responsibility we know how to treat.” This rubric was important because morons were “often normal looking with few or no obvious stigma or degeneration [and] frequently able to talk fluently.” Goddard’s insistence on the inability of morons to function normally despite being able to pass as such meant that moronity would have to be prevented eugenically rather than ameliorated educationally because, following Goddard’s application of Mendelian genetics, “one can never be sure that the feebleminded taint is not recessive and only waiting for a proper mating to appear.” Moronity was a genetic and hereditary threat to the population and its prosperity, capable of producing what disability theorists Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell describe as a “subnormal nation.” This was why identifying morons as well as demarcating the borderlands and borderlines of moronity became so important.

There is an insidiousness to the circular logic of Progressive Era special education: While social adaptability was deemed genetic and hereditary and was the evaluative means by which an individual could be classified as moronic, the moron had escaped previous classification by being able to pass as normal, which definitionally is adaptation. This suggests that experts were less interested with social adaptability as such and more concerned with evaluating whether one’s adaptation was appropriate. Behavior, understood as genetic and hereditary, rather than as environmental, was evidentiary proof of one’s essential nature; and given the definitional fluidity of classificatory schemes, there would always be enough behavioral evidence to identify individuals as already abnormal. Thus while the classification of feeble-mindedness could be inexact, its designation could never be arbitrary: “If it is arbitrary, man-made and ‘cerebral,’ how is it that it follows strict biological law, a law as true for ‘homo sapiens’ as for other animals and for plants?”

Borderlines and Borderlands

Goddard’s discovery of the moron allowed experts to determine what tasks children of different mental ages should be expected to perform, but also introduced the problem of borderlinity; that is, of determining whether a child was sufficiently performing those tasks deemed appropriate to their mental age (Fig. 2). But Goddard’s discovery also opened up the science of classification to the possibility that it was inexact and in need of revision. Prior to Goddard’s discovery, the etiology of human difference could be understood through binary classifications, normal/idiot and then normal/feeble-minded, under which all human variations could be explained. Thus, for example, conditions as different as blindness, deafness, epilepsy, syphilis, and cretinism had the same nosography despite presenting differently. This was because visible human differences were only symptomatic expressions of a common feeble-mindedness; inversely, feeble-minded diagnoses led experts to isolate physical abnormalities to empirically evidence their diagnoses. The moron, a special type of feeble-mindedness, was a classification of human difference that proved the human sciences (in this instance, psychology) could discover differences within human variability that had gone previously unnoticed, use science to identify which variations were productive or degenerative, and order institutions according to this baseline distinction.

Figure 2. The industrial and Binet classifications at Vineland, NJ. Taken from Henry H. Goddard, “Four Hundred Feeble-Minded Children Classified by the Binet Method,” Journal of Psycho-Asthenics, 15, no. 1 (1910): 31.

Figure 2. The industrial and Binet classifications at Vineland, NJ. Taken from Henry H. Goddard, “Four Hundred Feeble-Minded Children Classified by the Binet Method,” Journal of Psycho-Asthenics, 15, no. 1 (1910): 31.

Although there are few explicit references to borderlines or borderlands in Progressive Era scientific journals such as the Journal of Psycho-Asthenics, borderlinity nonetheless permeated the Era’s discussions of feeble-mindedness. In taking up the concept of borderlinity, this essay attends to how experts explicitly discussed the borders of feeble-mindedness and argues that in attempting to draw borders around and within feeble-mindedness, experts were at once reasoning the population into classifications and populating the categorical spaces that resulted from these reasoned classifications with subjectivities that were defined in enough abstractable detail so as to remain indeterminate. It would be easy to discount the moron as bad science if it were not for the fact that the inexactness of previous classifications, like the moron, continues to haunt special education.

As used in this essay, the concept of borderlinity as well as term borderlands refers to the space of overlap between normality and abnormality. Borderland cases surfaced when individuals might be classified as either normal or abnormal depending on the evaluative measure employed. Discerning this space was the exclusive purview of experts who worked to varying degrees and sometimes in contradictory directions to define the borderlinity of feeble-mindedness. The case studies which defined the borderlinity of feeble-mindedness were, in turn, used to populate the borderlands of feeble-mindedness. Case studies thus represent not only evidence of borderlands, they also indeterminately defined the subjectivities that gave these categorical spaces meaning and purpose. The borderlands of feeble- mindedness, however well conceptualized, could not exist unless populated.

This essay acknowledges several similarities with the method of borderlands history. Like geographic borderlands, the borderlands of feeble-mindedness were also constructed from removed, specialized locals (i.e., training institutions). Both the borderlands discussed here and those that appear on maps reify the sovereign power of experts to draw lines of inclusion and exclusion that accordingly determine allowed degrees of proximity and allowable movements of ingress and egress. In acknowledging borderlands history, this essay also acknowledges a critical investment in understanding borderlands as having active and contested histories rather than as being passive and transcendental demarcations of separation. Thus, it is not the nation-state as already geographically defined, but the recurrent use of borderlands as spatial and temporal means of national self-definition that interests the borderlands historian. This method gains import for education historians and policymakers due to the propensity of geographic borderlands and those of feeble-mindedness to be mutually reinforcing. Hence, for example, the disproportionate placement of English Language Learners in special education, a present condition of exclusion that finds its historical antecedent in the common school movement’s treatment of immigrants.

Figure 3. Four types of variability between feeble-mindedness and normality with regard to mental age (M. A.). Taken from Samuel C. Kohs, “The Borderlines of Mental Deficiency,” Journal of Psycho-Asthenics 20, nos. 3-4 (1916): 95.

Figure 3. Four types of variability between feeble-mindedness and normality with regard to mental age (M. A.). Taken from Samuel C. Kohs, “The Borderlines of Mental Deficiency,” Journal of Psycho-Asthenics 20, nos. 3-4 (1916): 95.

In addition to specifying which tasks corresponded with what metal age, questions of borderlinity also involved mental age itself; that is, whether the metal age of twelve was a borderline separating normality and feeble-mindedness or the upper limit of a borderland of feeble-mindedness. Looking at Figure 3, the reality of an overlapping borderland of feeble-mindedness can be compared with the idealism of correspondence and independence and the error of conjunction. Discussions of borderlinity positioned conjunctional designations of feeble-mindedness, rather than the classification itself, as arbitrary because there was not “a specific mental age, or a definite intelligence quotient, or a particular mental coefficient or a specified per cent. sic as the point at which normality ends and feeble-mindedness begins.” As progressive as this indeterminability may sound, the relaxing of feeble-minded designations precipitated by Goddard’s discovery of the moron and its subsequent revision by Terman did not lessen the imposition of classificatory schemes, but only increased the demand to populate the borderlands being created by these schemes with indeterminately defined subjectivities.

Efforts to populate the borderlands of abnormality were well under way prior to Goddard’s discovery of the moron. A. C. Rodgers, for example, identified backward children, temperamentally abnormal children, the juvenile insane, and moral imbeciles as “borderland cases,” an ad hoc designation intended to be “comprehensive enough and to include all those cases of abnormal children which do not properly classify with the typical feeble-minded,” but which should still be viewed from “the standpoint of an institution for the feeble-minded.” Rodgers was concerned with how the four borderland cases he identified would interact with training institutions. The backward child was most receptive to training and the moral imbecile was too governed by “selfish desire” to be receptive and thus should be the purview of the courts. Rodgers’ identification of borderland cases is not unique, nor was it uncommon for experts to describe subjectivities as ranging from receptive to incorrigible. Rodgers’ borderland cases are also not particularly interesting in and of themselves except for the fact that, like the moron, which was simply as a feeble-minded person with a mental age between 8-12, they too were empty enough of meaning so as to be made meaningful by experts. What should be of interest to both education historians and policymakers is how indeterminate definitions produce categorical spaces that education leaders and experts must then populate.

The populating of education’s categorical spaces is evident in the numerous case studies that fill the pages of the Journal of Psycho-Asthenics, studies which were ostensibly meant to prove the accuracy of this or that classification, but which materially extended into the world of education where they became placements, empirical pronouncements to justify why particular bodies inhabit particular spaces. Definitional fluidity thus produced categorical spaces that must be populated if the definitions that justified the existence of these spaces were to remain meaningful. Definitional fluidity worked in the other direction as well: Once populated with bodies, education’s categorical spaces produced definitions of human difference reflective of those particular bodies. While there was a risk that this circular process would result in misclassifying the normal as feeble-minded, this risk was significantly less than misclassifying the feeble-minded as normal.

Terman and Knollin, for example, weighed the various risks involved in misclassifying children who were slightly less intelligent as slightly above average, moderately superior as very superior, or high-grade imbecile as low-grade moron and determined that the real danger was incorrectly identifying the borderline of intelligence that separated the feeble-minded from the average adult. Samuel Kohs, a psychologist at the Chicago House of Corrections, explains this danger: “if ‘feeble-mindedness’ were a mere name, just a loose tag, arbitrarily placed upon certain backward individuals, then a thorough, intensive treatment ought to bring them out of that condition. A single authentic case in which that has been accomplished is yet to be presented.”

Not correctly identifying the permanent taint of feeble-mindedness, especially in its moronic form, would always outweigh the risk of incorrectly identifying the normal as feeble-minded. Importantly, borderlands made the latter risk less likely because they could accommodate more bodies either until they could be be classified or until a new classification could be discovered. Borderlands also reduced the risk of misclassification because once a body inhabited the borderland of feeble-mindedness, it was likely their behavior would be interpreted as non-adaptable and thus as empirical evidence of feeble-mindedness. In this way, classificatory science and the categorical spaces this science produced echoed, though with more exacting inflection, the temporal collection and detainment of lagging subjectivities within ominum gatherum settings.

The moron raises the stakes of how to understand the Progressive Era theory of special education. Do more diagnostic techniques and better evaluative technologies help to identify those individuals who previously escaped classification; or do these techniques and technologies produce the empirical evidence they are measuring? This essay has been less interested in answering this constructivist question and more concerned with how education is able to use classifications as an indeterminant means of self-definition because classifications are empty of enough meaning to be made meaningful. It was because the moron classification meant something specific that it could be applied to individuals; however, it was also the case that the application of this classification required it to adapt to those individuals it classified.

Education policies that continue to track students into differentiated placements designed around the empirical evidence that tracking itself produces continue to participate in the circular logic of Progressive Era special education through a fusing of education’s administrative and identificatory tendencies that enables education leaders to utilize the abstractable data of disability labels to justify seemingly race, class, and gender neutral placements. Rather than evaluating the definitions that defined the borderland space of Progressive Era special education for accuracy, this essay has used the laggard and moron as a way of conceptualizing how education defines itself. This essay has also conceptualized special education not along its borderland as questions of inclusion, free and appropriate, or least restrictive environment might do, but upon the categorical spaces education constructs and maintains through its histories and policies.

These spaces are both producers of and are produced by education’s definition of itself. Reading Figure 1 (Part 1) and Figure 3 (above) together, the correspondence and independence images of the relationship between normality and feeble-mindedness resemble the image of special education as a specialized field within “general” education; and the overlapping and conjunction images resemble the image of special and “general” education as a Venn diagram. The former resemblance relies on special and “general” education being either non-interactive (correspondence) or on the possibility of transitioning from special to “general” education (independence). The latter resemblance relies on special and “general” education overlapping, as is the case with inclusion, or adjoining (conjunction), as is the case with students being located in separate educational institutions (i.e., custodial care).

While a larger overlap may result in greater inclusion, it also produces the need to populate the resulting borderland with indeterminately defined subjectivities. Furthermore, given the fluidity of these definitions, borderlands will shrink or grow as new definitions of human difference are discovered. It is for this reason that this essay has advocated for conceptualizing special education as not distinct from “general” education because it is through this understanding that education can better discuss how it uses the categorical spaces of normality and abnormality to define itself. This self-definition is evident whenever education policies articulate human difference. It is not, therefore, only subjectivities that are defined through policies such as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (EHA), but education itself. While the EHA codified specific learning disability (SLD) into law, the indeterminacy of this label has allowed education to use SLD as a means of self-definition through ad hoc determinations of how well students read, write, or do math.

These largely subjective determinations do not constitute tracking per se because they are non-intentional evaluations of specific, objective learning criteria. This specificity should give both education historians and policymakers pause first because it uses the circular logic of classificatory science to congeal a definition of education that includes all students by excluding certain students. Secondly, the SLD label continues to participate in the practice of evaluating intelligence (here, effectively learning to read, write, and do math) according to chronological age. What results is a definition of education made possible by the power to know subjectivities through the use of indeterminate definitions and borderlinity. This, then, was the theory of Progressive Era special education being called for by Ferrell and other experts. As argued here, this theory was there all along and was justified by a circular logic that defined education according to its administrative and identifying tendencies. For education to define itself as something other than what its classificatory schemes readily provide will require at times forgetting the incrementalism of scientific discovery in favor of remembering what these discoveries are contingent upon, a general explanation of human difference within education.

Robert Osgood of St. Norbert College and Donald Warren of Indiana University served as peer reviewers for Parts 1 and 2 of this essay. Education’s Histories is grateful for their careful attention to and thoughtful feedback on this essay.


November 15th, 2016 by Benjamin Kelsey Kearl

Of Laggards and Morons: Definitional Fluidity, Borderlinity, and the Theory of Progressive Era Special Education (Part 1)

This entry is part [part not set] of 2 in the series Of Laggard and Morons by Benjamin Kelsey Kearl | November-December 2016

Of Methods

This essay treats education biographically and uses special education as a way of discussing how education generally defines itself. While education can be variously defined, this essay is less concerned with definitions of education and more interested in how education, through its various classificatory schemes, defines itself. In an essay that treats the school as trickster, Adrea Lawrence discusses the plasticity of education and the ways that Native American schooling made schools themselves into shape shifters, into contradictory spaces that morphed in relation to the Americanized subjects they desired. “General” education is similarly contradictory and likewise shifts and morphs through the use of classificatory schemes. Though scientific in description, special education classifications have a beginning and change over time and thus mark the life history or biography of education. Although biographies are traditionally of people, perhaps also of places, things, or ideas, the biographical approach can also be applied to social institutions.

In employing biography as a method of inquiring, this essay argues that education’s life history is related to how special education classifies the subjects of education. This biography suggests that special education is not something that “general” education does but is what education generally is. To be sure, this methodology reifies education as a persona that acts on its own rather than as something that is enacted by students, teachers, administrators, or policymakers. The language of education defining itself is used here to draw attention to this reification and the ways that classificatory schemes do more than define the subjects of education as this or that label. Classificatory schemes also give education itself coherence as a subject. This methodological implication is important given education’s desire for a theory of special education.

Part 1

A 1908 article published in the Journal of Psycho-Asthenics by Miss E. E. Farrell, Inspector of Ungraded Classes of New York City, begins with a curious clarification:

The special classes in the public schools of the city of New York had their beginning in Public School 1, Manhattan, in 1899. It is interesting to know that this class, which was to demonstrate the need for further classification of children in public schools, was not the result of any theory. It grew out of conditions in a neighborhood which furnished many and serious problems in truancy and discipline. This first class was made up of the odds and ends of a large school.

Farrell’s insistence that while New York City’s special classes were “not the result of any theory,” they would nonetheless demonstrate “the need for further classification of children” involves a circular logic common to Progressive Era special education, a logic which insisted that the science of classification only empirically validated the biological traits of those being classified and was thus “not the result of any theory.” This logic makes Progressive Era special education appear as though it emerged fully formed despite needing constant self-definition.

Figure 1. Three ways of understanding the relationship between special and “general” education. Figure by author. Graphic by Sara Clark.

Figure 1. Three ways of understanding the relationship between special and “general” education. Figure by author. Graphic by Sara Clark.

The ways in which education defines itself through classificatory schemes is evident, for example, in the replacement of the classification of idiocy by feeble-mindedness and the gradation of this latter classification into low, medium, and high grades, each of which corresponded with a limit of intelligence and a plateau of cognitive development. As Image 3 of Figure 1 above illustrates, these limits and plateaus produce categorical spaces within education that work to define education generally. These spaces are categorical both because they rely on classifications (categories) of human difference and because, despite their allure of impermanence, they absolutely segregate students according to indeterminately defined differences. Gradations, of course, require a way of determining which bodies belong to which grades, which introduces the problems of definitional fluidity and borderlinity.

In an effort to resolve these problems, experts established determinations predicated on mental age, a concept newly derived from the cultural epoch conclusions of child studiers like G. Stanley Hall who argued that, despite being adult in appearance, those “savage” populations encountered through Western colonialism were, in fact, cognitively childlike.  This conclusion provided the intellectual undergirding for the science of classification, which sought to make visible through the technology of intelligence testing that which appearance might conceal; that is, experts who advanced the science of classification were concerned with the possibility that individuals with retarded cognitive faculties might pass as normal and thus put the general population at risk of diminished prosperity. It thus became increasingly important to identify which bodies were feeble-minded and to define the categorical spaces of normality and abnormality within education.

Such efforts were, of course, illusory, as definitional fluidity and borderlinity are necessary requirements of any classificatory scheme. As each produces the necessary conditions for classification to exist as a science, and each ensures that the shortcomings of any particular classification do not undermine the science itself, but instead only warrant the need for greater scientific accuracy. A difficulty with this warrant is that more science becomes the only way of redressing bad science, a circular logic that easily allows for previous classifications to be forgotten once they have been replaced by newer, more accurate ones. Contra this tendency, this essay seeks to remember the classificatory schemes of Progressive Era special education as illustrative of how in working to define the categorical spaces of normality and abnormality education itself becomes generally defined.

What is forgotten in this essay’s act of remembrance, then, is the incrementalism of scientific discovery, which because it always already presupposes revisionism can hide how and why classificatory schemes are defended and revised. Also assumed by this process is insularity; that is, scientific discoveries have no influence outside their own epistemic borders. Hence, for example, Henry H. Goddard’s discovery of the moron in 1910 can be understood as a purely scientific discovery that incrementally improved upon the previous discovery of Alfred Binet. Denied by such reasoning is the fact that the moron classification did just define particular subjectivities but also education generally. This was because education was both a location for identifying morons and a procedure qua training for treating moronity. This essay asks that this view of incremental scientific discovery be forgotten and that the contingency of classificatory schemes be remembered instead as a way of imagining an education that is different from the one these schemes readily provide.

Definitional fluidity and borderlinity enabled the science of classification to remain operative throughout the Progressive Era and suggests a lesson about the educational use value of indeterminacy, a lesson that is not about the accuracy of this or that classification but about education’s need to classify difference as a way to define itself. The Progressive Era study of feeble-mindedness, then, was not only about defining educational subjectivities but also about establishing categorical spaces within education designed for bodies determined, for whatever reason, to be abnormal. Understood as a process of constant self-definition, the history of Progressive Era special education emerges as a way of thinking about education generally rather than only about the history of a specialized field. This understanding follows James Trent’s history of feeble-mindedness but also suggests that the desire to order difference was a necessary requirement of education’s self-definition.

The categorical spaces of Progressive Era special education emerged from the purposively indeterminate spaces of intermediate and ungraded classes, spaces that allowed for easy ingress and whose allure was the promise of eventual egress. The movement of students within these spaces suggests that classificatory schemes were the producers, not the result, of a progressive educational order of things. The history of Progressive Era special education is thus a history of an attempt to clarify difference through classificatory schemes designed to determine the allowed proximal distance of special to “general” education. The parameters of this distance would be discussed and debated within the pages of scientific journals like the Journal of Psycho-Asthenics and point to attempts to validate the emerging field of special education. The science of classification qualified this emerging field and its experts as uniquely capable of interpreting human difference and was the expertise that Farrell sought in her request for a theory of special education.

This two-part conceptual inquiry into the theory of Progressive Era special education proceeds from two perspectives. Part 1 takes up the classification of the laggard and the question of definitional fluidity, as well as education’s administrative tendency toward managing difference out of education. Part 2 discusses the classification of the moron and the question of borderlinity, as well as education’s tendency toward identifying difference within education.

Of Laggards

The laggard, like the dullard, was a classification that described students who did not advance at the pace established by the modern progressive educational system or who might have fallen back from earlier advancement. The laggard was especially important to Leonard Ayres’ study of educational efficiency, in which he sought to quantify the numbers of students who were advancing through or dropping out of education. The laggard reflects an administrative tendency within education concerned with students exiting the formal education system. Ayres’ study statistically agreed with Farrell’s clarification that students were being placed in special classes without a theory and sought to counter such “opinion, guess work, and eloquence.” Ayres’ statistical evidence bore out schools with low rates of promotion and high rates of retardation and yet Ayres insisted that retardation “expresse[d] a condition, not a process or explanation,” and was simply a way of referring to students whose advancement was slower than average.

This classification quickly became part of what Joseph Tropea describes as the “backstage social order” of Progressive Era special education, which required “actors’ tacit understandings and interpretations of their organizational situations” as well as the “learning of backstage roles, rules, and definitions.” This backstage social order helped educational leaders deal with the recurrent problem of lagging students through transforming both the organization and rhetoric of education. Educational leaders thus managed students into special classes where they did not count toward general retardation rates. In addition to this administrative tactic, schools also issued work permits that allowed students to be released from compulsory school attendance. Thus, despite Ayres’ insistence on the neutrality of the laggard, the condition of retardation still presented an administrative concern that lagging students would drain educational coffers and that their slow advancement would retard the educational progress of all students.

Omnium Gatherum Settings

This administrative concern has organized special education since it emerged concomitantly with the ideal of a common school system. Boston public schools, for example, were from their beginning organized around “separate instructional settings for certain children whose public school attendance was deemed desirable but whose presence in regular classrooms, for a variety of reasons, was not.” While intermediate and ungraded classes cast doubt about the commonness the common school movement, Roberts v. Boston (1850) had already established legal precedent for not only excluding black children from public education but for also engendering a separate and unequal logic that continues to order special education. The tension between increased school attendance and the concern that not all children were suited for general education led the Boston School Committee to create intermediate schools with the hope that special instruction might enable lagging students to rejoin their common peers.

Despite their rhetoric of amelioration, intermediate schools, which would became ungraded classes within public schools, functioned more like educational Botany Bays than transitional learning spaces. The early history of common schools thus proves to be one of exclusion rather than cohesion, which relied on students who failed to advance to drop out because absent this practice, intermediate and ungraded classes risked becoming omnium gatherun settings. To preclude this possibility, Ayres would argue that twelve was an appropriate age for when lagging students should fall out of education; that is, of course, if these students had not already been passed along into the custodial care of training institutions for the feeble-minded such as the Vineland Training School in New Jersey. Up to twelve, however, ungraded and special classes allowed education to define itself as a common enterprise, as something accessible to all children, despite the administration of separate educational worlds for education’s “odds and ends.”

The tension between intermediate and ungraded classes being spaces of indefinite detention and spaces that would indefinitely collect miscellaneous students would not be resolved by Progressive Era special education. This did not prevent experts like J. E. Wallace Wallin from attempting to resolve this tension through clarifying special education’s classificatory schemes. Noting that “the word special is generic and applies to eight or ten different kinds of special classes,” Wallin argued that special classes should be reserved for “imbeciles, morons, borderline and seriously backward cases,” and that the term ungraded classes “should be applied to classes in which children who are retarded in one or more branches are given individual attention.” Despite Wallin’s attempt to cohere the definition of special education, its spaces remained porous, evident in Wallin’s introduction of a third type of class, “the elementary industrial class,” which was designed for young adolescents who “are appreciably backward or who are over age because of inability to cope with regular curriculum, and who withal are industrially inclined.” That it was possible for students to be placed in these classes for reasons known only to experts like Wallin suggests how definitional fluidity creates categorical spaces. Indeed, with the discovery of the moron, experts would increasingly rely on this use value of indeterminacy as well as their ability to accurately interpret the borderlands and borderlines of feeble-mindedness to validate their expertise.

The laggard testifies to how difference challenged the vision of a common school system, a system which might be better understood as an administrative belief that while all children should be included in general education, purposively indeterminate spaces for certain “special” children were required. Managing students into the categorical spaces of special education was not the only way Progressive Era special education relied on definitional fluidity. While the laggard could be readily identified by slow progression through schooling, the moron was identified against their ability to pass as normal and reflects an educational tendency toward identifying students within education. Relying on a mental age of twelve as a determinacy of high grade functionality, Goddard asserted his discovery of a previously absent classification of feeble-mindedness.

The moron became a standard gradation for educational subjectivities that appeared normal, but who were determined, for whatever reason, to be abnormal and, like the laggard, testify to education’s reliance of the science of classification as a method of self-definition. Goddard’s discovery also challenged the limits of education’s administrative tendency as falling out of education became an insufficient condition for defining education. No longer would the general classification of feeble-mindedness be sufficient; instead, the classification of the moron signals a desire to identify specific subjectivities within education. In addition to reflecting definitional fluidity, the discovery of the moron came to reflect education’s difficulty with borderlinity, which while similar to the omnium gatherum settings of the common school movement, did not so much rely on students aging out of education as being more accurately identified within education. While the moron was ultimately determined to be an inaccurate classification, it still teaches an important lesson about education’s self-definition. Goddard’s discovery was made possible by a perceived lack of classificatory accuracy, from a borderland or borderline within the general classification of feeble-mindedness.


Benjamin Kelsey Kearl is a Philosophy of Education doctoral candidate in the School of Education at Indiana University. Benjamin is currently an Associate Instructor and Future Faculty Teaching Fellow in the College of Education and Public Policy at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne. He can be reached at The author would like to thank Adrea Lawrence and Sara Clark for their helpful and insightful edits and suggestions.

Robert Osgood of St. Norbert College and Donald Warren of Indiana University served as peer reviewers for this essay. Education’s Histories is grateful for their careful attention to and thoughtful feedback.


October 20th, 2016 by Naomi Norquay

Dear Lucy: A Multilogue Response to Lucy E. Bailey’s “Epistolary Hauntings”

Dear Lucy,

I read your paper, “Epistolary Hauntings: Working ‘With’ and ‘On’ Family Letters” with anticipatory excitement. I was curious to learn how the paper had developed since you presented on this topic in April, 2015 at the International Society for Education Biography annual conference in St. Louis. You did not disappoint! I was inspired to craft my review as a letter.

Your key question, “what’s to be done with family letters?” is of interest to social historians, cultural historians, archivists, educators and the (likely) myriad relatives of the letter writers. As you know, I too have an interest in family letters and what it means to be their steward. In my case, my mother’s letters to her family during WWII were sent to an archive as part of her estate, so I started my journey working through the issues surrounding family letters in a different place than you did. I envy you, as you have more options! Like Jonathan Silin, you have become an accidental archivist. Your paper examines the terrain of being an archivist who is very cognizant of the familial relations that produced the letters and the possibly competing demands of the generations which follow. Your “ancestor” was fortunate that the letters fell into your hands.

As a descendant, relative, researcher and educator, your task is layered with both converging and competing expectations and preoccupations. Your paper makes it quite clear that you see your role as possibly more than simply providing safe storage for these family remnants. You carefully lay out a number of trajectories and caveats, and provide inspiration for others facing similar dilemmas.



I was struck by the juxtaposition of your “ancestor” as archivist and yourself as archivist. Your description of the carefully labeled boxes, the copies of responses to letters received, the photos and newspaper clippings suggests that your “ancestor” archived by choice: his actions seem quite deliberate, looking both backwards and forwards. Your archivist status is bequeathed, an inheritance, one might say, not something that you chose.

One small point: I am puzzled as to why you chose the term “ancestor.” Ancestor is defined in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English as “any person from whom one’s father or mother is descended, a forefather.” I think the term is too distant for someone whose “tall frame lean[ed] in to place those initials in black ink.” I sense from your descriptions that you knew this person! I suggest that “relative” might suffice. It locates him as related to you, but it does the work you seem to want done: protecting the identity of this family archivist (and consequently, his siblings.)

Carolyn Steedman reminds us that “the infinite heap of things . . . recorded, the notes and traces . . . left behind, constitute practically nothing at all.” The archive’s content “sits there until it is read, and used, and narrativized.” The content of your archive is “nothing at all,” until it is acknowledged, valued, and engaged. This is where you shift from being an accidental archivist to being an interested and invested researcher. You might reiterate that archivist and researcher, while one and the same person (i.e., you!), are not interchangeable, but rather, distinct roles, that can be in conflict.

I think your acknowledgment of the power the researcher can have upon accessing an archive is important: “To pursue a particular analytic trajectory with historical materials is an act of power, a choice that frames and excludes.” You lay out several possible analytic trajectories: affirming bloodlines; building a narrative inheritance; keeping family history alive; informing the larger domains of social, cultural, and political history; considering aspects of the letters’ materiality. As a point of clarification, your use of Goodall’s “narrative inheritance” falls under the subtitle, “Methodological Choices,” but I do not understand it as a methodology—rather a frame for interpretation. Perhaps “Analytical Choices” might be a better fit. This leads to your final statement, “[t]he methodological complexities I narrate here.” For me, “analytical” or “theoretical” seem a better fit than “methodological.”

Your focus on the materiality of the letters reminds me of Steedman’s chapter entitled, “‘Something she called a fever’: Michelet, Derrida and dust.” In it she explores the dust produced by the leather-bound tomes in the archive. Archived materials are not inert! They continue their slow process to total disintegration. I really like how you imagined the “life-span” (or perhaps, temporality) of the paper, from seed to tree to pulp to paper to stationery to the letters “leaving traces of my ancestors’ bodies on my own before they move through and out on their papyrological journeys.” The letters will not last forever! Your measured urgency to think through the issues surrounding their journey is timely.

As it happened, whilst pondering this review of your paper, I read Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, At the Edge of the Orchard. The story follows the son of a pioneer family in Black Swamp, Ohio, from 1838 to 1856, as he makes his journey into adulthood and across the continent to California. Key parts of the story are told through letters he sends home to his brothers and sisters. He writes sporadically—every couple of years, always on New Year’s Day. In each letter he wistfully mentions that he has not heard from them and he wonders if they are still living. Near the end of the book is a series of letters his sister wrote to him, each one expressing the hope that they might find each other one day. What happened to these letters are important hinges for the turns of the story. Their journeys criss-crossing mid-nineteenth century America, the places where they were kept or hidden, their expressions of desire for connection, and their role as keepsakes and touchstones, resonate with the ways in which you have thought about your collection of letters between siblings in your own family.

I know you will open those boxes with careful curiosity, mindful of the array of choices before you, in all their complexities and fraught-ness. Perhaps in so doing, the feeling that the letters haunt will dissipate, as “what’s been in your blind spot comes into view.”

In solidarity,

Naomi Norquay

Education’s Histories would like to thank Naomi Norquay for her careful review of Lucy E. Bailey’s essay, “Epistolary Hauntings: Working ‘With’ and ‘On’ Family Letters” and for allowing us to publish her review in our experimental multilogue format. If you would like to experiment with the multilogue format, please contact Education’s Histories to respond to a published essay.


October 17th, 2016 by Lucy E. Bailey

Epistolary Hauntings: Working “With” and “On” Family Letters

“Haunting describes those singular yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done with comes alive, when what’s been in your blind spot comes into view.” 

Family Turns

A series of family turns has rendered me steward of an unusual collection of letters which a relative of ours preserved for decades. This epistolarium, this accidental archive, consists of correspondence exchanged among his various siblings, some brothers and a sister, during their adult years. Some bundles of letters span forty years of communication. Strikingly, the writer, at times, nestled carbon—and later photo—copies of his own responses next to their letters. He preserved these epistolary ties to his family in weathered brown boxes, six or seven total, which he labeled neatly with the initials of each writer and recipient. He filed many in chronological order. Also scattered among the slips of fragile paper, yellowed clippings, and handwritten notes were loose photographs cast in grey and milky hues representing a sea of faces gazing out into the space around them or at each other, fleeting life moments—perhaps not of the subjects’ choosing—concretized in film. When I first encountered these boxes, they seemed haunted by my relative’s embodied presence . . . his familiar handwriting, his penchant for order, his investment in quality products that would stand the test of time. Even now, although I never observed the act, I can imagine his tall frame leaning in to place those initials in black ink, carefully, intentionally, across the spines of each of those brown boxes that now inhabit space in my home.

evocative objects

“Evocative Objects.” Photograph and caption by Lucy E. Bailey. Personal collection.

Although these letters are currently in my “possession”—if one could consider such objects possess-able—I have circled around them with little sense of familiarity and ownership and great ambivalence because they seem haunted, as Cvetkovich writes of any archive, “by the specter of death.” Haunting, Gordon suggests, “alters the experience of being in time, the way we separate the past, the present and the future.” I only hold these letters because “he” no longer does, as they were hauled en masse from his shelves when the writing from his siblings stopped and the inevitable time came when he could no longer sort, hold, and savor them. And it was only years after all of the writing stopped that any of us knew the letters existed at all. I don’t think he hid them; but he would not have felt compelled to discuss them widely with others, as these were his own “evocative objects,” his own archive, saturated with his own affective epistemologies, his own webs of relation. Under my gaze, with my own historical, affective and archival preoccupations rooted in non-positivist research approaches in a different period and context, the meanings of these boxes shift.

Analytical and Theoretical Choices

As I have pondered the haunting presence of these boxes and pages and photos that hover in the periphery of my vision, my mind has wandered through the theoretical terrain available for framing such objects and the potential paths I might follow to make sense of them. To pursue a particular analytic trajectory with historical materials is an act of power, a choice that frames and excludes, that “lights” certain things up while leaving others in shadow. And power operates because the researcher/descendant/archivist still lives, however temporarily, with access to such objects while “they” no longer do. The very stuff of history is built from centuries of historians and biographers and family members designating “what ‘counts’ as archival material worthy of study” and grappling with decisions about when to share, what to say and how to frame, and in the end, moving forward with their arsenals of available tools and partial materials to craft some kind of meaning. And inevitably, most will make choices about what to say and how to frame without access to the wishes of those who produced the objects, perhaps embracing such absences with relief, as a convenient form of consent for us to proceed at will with our analytic business, or, considering their wishes as simply less important overall than our lust for archival materials and our hopes and convictions as relatives/historians/biographers that such documents might prove valuable to ourselves or others.

I do not know what “his” wishes were, and I do not know yet what value these documents might have for broader educational matters. Carolyn Steedman suggests that archival materials such as these are “nothing,” Naomi Norquay reminds us, until they are taken up as objects of inquiry, as sites that matter. Certainly, at the very least, the appearance of these objects offers me a role as an “accidental archivist” should I choose to fully embrace it, and materials for cultivating a “narrative inheritance,” should I choose to subject them to a type of analysis that might enhance our inter-generational script of family identity. As Goodall writes of his own quest to understand his father’s mysterious life as a spy in his work, A Need to Know, narrative inheritances are important ways of making sense of self and family. “What we inherit narratively from our forebears,” he writes, “provides us with a framework for understanding our identity through theirs.” Goodall approaches the content of letters and other documents as vehicles to access and craft this inheritance, however partial. He felt he “needed” to do so. This theoretical approach is perhaps the most organic and realist choice I might make—to imagine these boxes as salient objects of a genealogical gaze and potential contributors to a family legacy. I didn’t “know” these relatives, these ancestors, and I could choose to analyze their letters as “windows” into their lives.

Humanist Investments in Objects

Yet this is only one choice one might make with this epistolarium; and the limits of such realist framings are apparent. The recent theoretical turns to affect and materiality that compel new ways of conceptualizing material aspects of the world and of undertaking historical work reminds us that we relentlessly construct such documents and objects in humanist terms: how humans used them, what they reveal about humans, what relationships among humans they fostered. The very hauntings and imaginings with which I introduced this essay are examples of such constructions, and offer particularly powerful framings because such “family” epistles are saturated with the potent cultural and nostalgic weight of bloodlines. They are the stuff from which family histories are constituted. I have written previously about the discursive power of “bloodlines” that shapes inquiries that happen to involve “family” members. As I have suggested elsewhere, “family” and “family histories” are constructed entities borne of discourses of belonging, the politics of representation, and differential racialized, classed, and gendered access to a narrative inheritance; our ability to create them depends on patterns of orality and literacy, privilege and erasure, and the eccentricities and politics of documentary survival: attic trunks and turns in stairwells. The extent to which “family” is a salient concept in such endeavors depends on varied factors including researcher-subject relations, theoretical investments, and project purpose—whether, for example, the particular project is on, with, or simply through the materials family members’ leave behind. My relative’s letters raise similar methodological complexities.

Yet inquiries “with” such documents do not necessitate analysis focused on “family,” or using family methodologies, and affective investments in historical objects, of course, need not depend on constructed “family” connections at all. Scholars have long-noted the ease of “falling in love with their subjects” through the material remnants of their lives and the range of analytic lenses available in making meaning. In the case of letters, scholars have considered their instrumental functions that “we” use or that “they” used in the past to inform, to communicate, to connect. Such objects can connote meaning beyond their denotations, signaling care, commitment, affection, and relational investments through sustaining key linkages with others. Such objects might function as evocative companions accompanying us on our life journeys that serve as touchstones for and storehouses of meaningful life events. They might have functioned this way for my relative, as they have for many others. Or, we might consider letters as intimate objects we feel at “one” with—such as we might with wedding rings, our father’s watch, our pacemakers, our photographs—entities we experience as extensions or fibers of our own bodies.

And, via Foucault we might also consider how the power relations and discourses in which “letters” and “family letters” are situated and which remain from others’ labor and care produce and discipline subjects—in this case—potentially he as a sibling in a web of emotional relations and me as a descendant and accidental and potential archivist. Academic and family discourses shape in powerful ways how we might understand and theorize personal letters and relationships as legitimate objects of knowledge. And, still further, we can consider such objects as commodities which we barter and exchange in particular emotional, political, market and/or academic economies. These rich options for theorizing objects do not exhaust their conceptual potential.

New Materialist Possibilities

Given the common humanist framings that shape our relation to objects, theorists of the new materialisms underscore our struggles to conceptualize or allow objects to have biographies and histories of their own that transcend their supplemental, symbolic, and utilitarian meaning granted through human use. Our anthropocentric orientation conceptualizes the various material objects that we encounter, utilize, embrace, and carry with us on a daily basis in terms of their meaning and function and service for our own lives rather than as having a coherent subjectivity and ontological thingness that exists beyond, alongside, or outside of human use. How might we think differently about objects? How might we consider a world of objects, of matter, without us? Or as matter that, in fact, makes us? And what does such framing mean for theorizing those haunted brown boxes inhabiting, however temporarily, the same space in which I reside?

Biographies of Objects

If I was to write a biography of these objects—not based on their content, their constructed role as epistolary remnants of a life, or as part of a discourse of family “belonging” I might imagine and pursue, but their materiality, the essence and history of their thingness—I would have to begin from a different set of questions and imaginaries. I would have to consider the “origin” of the objects themselves: how they came to be, perhaps, through the growing of seeds, the felling of trees, the processing of lumber, the creation of pulp, the passing through machines, through factories, through nameless men’s hands to become “paper;” then bound, carried, sold or exchanged in local economies, and eventually coming to inhabit space with a man who selected, stored, used, exchanged, and transported them across states and years, where they were imprinted, read, re-read, re-filed, re-shelved, moving through, with, and out of the hands of people who I will never know—and bearing still today the physical traces of their very skin cells. In this journey, the objects shifted and changed as people touched them, handled them, read them, and inscribed elements of their bodies into the ink as they bent over and pressed their pens into the pages. The pages changed form and color, becoming tattered, yellow, and worn. At the same time, the objects chafed and dyed the flesh of the hands that held them, merging the matter of flesh and of fibers together as they moved in and out of spaces and receptacles in their mutual becoming.

In this view, “objects have life roles that are multiple, fluid” beyond their human use. The “worn,” “tattered” objects I call “letters” or an “archive” are still evolving through, with, and beyond me, and my own constructed investments are only partially relevant to their becomings. In such a biography of objects I would have to consider that as these entities rest in the dust and pollen and heat of their environs and move through my hands and mingle with my own skin cells they—and I—change further, shifting, transforming, deteriorating, leaving traces of my ancestors’ bodies on my own before they move through and out on their papyrological journeys to other encounters. I simply serve as an instrumental and temporary steward; one small force in their becoming, and their materiality one small force in my own. If these trees-then paper-then letters-now archives have their own biographies, then they are not and cannot be “mine” despite the weighty presence they have in my pondering; contributing to forming me in passing, and perpetually transforming and becoming.

Ancestral Hauntings and the Politics of Obligation

I wonder what my relative would have thought of this ontological and post-humanist framing; I cannot shake the sense that this archive is haunted by the presence of the dead and my ancestor’s own epistemological investments. Such documents unsettle boundaries among past, present, and future. And here the theory of affect surfaces again in my thinking, as “affect makes a document significant.” Such documents unsettle boundaries among past, present, and future. I wonder whether in deciding which theory of epistolarity or materiality or biography I might choose to make meaning of these objects the ethical imperative arises for me to consider what the man who preserved them might have wanted. How did he theorize and experience these objects? Why did he preserve the collection? Did he hope for it to become a memory bearer? To create a future for the letters beyond his temporal existence? What did he want them to do for “us,” those who came after? I wonder about the careful marking of the boxes, their uniformity, their ordering. Were these careful archival machinations only for his own satisfaction—to care for objects as his parents had taught him? Or, might the preserving and arranging and labeling reflect a form of historical, archival, and pedagogical work—the possibility that he wanted others to read them, learn from them, remember those who came before, and make new meaning? As Cvetkovich writes: “at the heart of the archive are practices of memory.”

This trajectory of thought foregrounds the politics of obligation at work in preserving and sharing and serving as a steward of material objects. In Mauss’s early research on gift exchanges, he insisted that a gift that enters one’s life (in this case a happenstance gift of letters), “imposes obligation in the present . . . the thing received is not inactive. Even when it has been abandoned by the giver, it still possesses something of him . . . there is a succession of rights and duties to consume and reciprocate, corresponding to rights and duties to . . . accept.” In this perspective, gifts are always tied to social relations, to the individuals who give and receive the gift. Indeed, my relative’s intent may haunt the gift. And Norquay reminds me that my “archivist status is bequeathed, an inheritance, one might say, not something that [I] chose.” The politics of obligation may require that these letters remain on a shelf, under theorized, their content read solely by family members, if his archival intent was to prioritize their constitutive nurturing of webs of family relation over their other semiotic and historical potential.

The methodological and interpretive complexities I narrate here shape all such work “with” and “on” “family” documents, both complicated and perhaps nourished by the conflicting roles a researcher/family member/archivist simultaneously inhabits in the endeavor. In this case, I do not yet know the choice I will make—the picture has not yet come fully into view.

Naomi Norquay of York University and Thalia Mulvihill of Ball State University served as peer reviewers for this essay.  Education’s Histories is grateful for their careful attention to and thoughtful feedback on this essay.


September 3rd, 2015 by Barry M. Goldenberg

Youth Historians in Harlem: Exploring the Possibilities in Collaborative History Research Between Local Youth and Scholars (Part 2 of 2)

This entry is part [part not set] of 2 in the series "Youth Historians in Harlem" by Barry M. Goldenberg | February 2015

This is final of a two-part series by Barry M. Goldenberg focusing on methodological questions sparked by the Youth Historians in Harlem project. This Education’s Histories series will continue throughout 2015.

Earlier in the year as I was searching for an accessible text that would push my high school students to think about their relationship with history, I was reminded of Eric Foner’s cogently titled book, Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World. In his preface, Foner hinted at the idea that history is in fact not the province of scholars alone and that many groups of people have claims of ownership on history. Beyond a short exercise for my students, I realized that the Youth Historians project built upon this notion specifically within the context of the Academy: If historians are not the sole “owners” of history, then it becomes troublesome when only some of the many people who “own” history are authorized to produce their historical accounts and others, such as local youth scholars, are seemingly not. To be sure, Foner also understands that there are “commonly accepted professional standards” in the discipline that separate the lay person from the scholar, which remains particularly relevant in today’s era of digital accessibility. I wondered, then, what would happen—and what it would look like in practice—when high school students were trained in historical methodology, “authorizing” them as scholars in a way that recognized them as historians who produce historical knowledge. Apropos to the book’s subtitle, centering students as knowledge producers can change the way historians think about—or more accurately, conduct —our study of the past by challenging notions of hierarchy in the history of education. Currently, a hierarchy of who can write the past exists in historical research, and it seeps into our methodologies to create a hardened set of hierarchical norms that are difficult to disentangle. As scholars, how can we conduct historical studies about a community without their input and then later, invite these same subjects to accept this scholarship when they did not have a genuine role in producing it in the first place?

This is the second essay in a series about the Youth Historians in Harlem (YHH) project. Part 1 outlined the goals of YHH, introducing my collaboration with local high school youth to produce historical research. Relying on the questions put forth in the first installment, Part 2 examines how scholarly norms of hierarchy in methodological processes and authority in narrative-making can be explored and challenged by conducting collaborative oral history interviews with current high school students in a way that promotes shared knowledge-making.

Learning Oral History Methods, Together

Following the walking tour where I hoped students internalized the notion that they could have agency as historians, we moved forward with the project’s agenda: conducting oral history interviews with Harlem Prep alumni. Uncovering the history of Harlem Prep, an independent school that enrolled former high school dropouts and other non-traditional students in New York City from 1967 to 1975, remained my goal that I invited students to partake in. To prepare for interviews, students and I first conducted preliminary research by reading primary source newspaper articles from The New York Times and New York Amsterdam News, viewing the only known archival film on Harlem Prep, and studying secondary sources I gathered from prior research. Next, we spent approximately four and a half weeks learning oral history methods. With Ansley Erickson’s (Teachers College, Columbia University) guidance, I strategically planned a series of workshops about oral history research in incremental steps. We discussed how and why oral histories differ from journalistic interviews, the great opportunity that students had to document the unrecorded “living histories” of community elders, and the potential perils of relying on memory as a historical source.

Next, I sought out strategies of teaching oral history methods to the youth in ways that involved a similar level of rigor and scholarliness as my own training. Students listened to and discussed a sample oral history interview that I had conducted a year prior with a former Harlem Prep student (my only prior interview experience); I led a critical reflexive conversation with students where I reflected on my own nervousness at asking questions, which further helped students understand that we were learning these methods together. Then, I taught students how to operate the professional audio recording equipment. For the final step, students read over various tips for asking questions from the Center for Oral History at Columbia University and thematically prepared a list of potential questions to ask interviewees. Students devised questions both based on what they had learned from the previous Harlem Prep materials and from their own experiences attending school in Harlem, doing so in pairs around a theme that they were most interested in exploring. Our six themes, created collaboratively by students and I, were: Teachers and Teacher Pedagogy, School Policies, Students and Student Life, School Atmosphere and Environment, Historical Context of Harlem, and School Appearance/Physical Appearance. As an example of how our foci differed with regards to the specific questions we wanted to ask, I was most interested in teacher pedagogy, whereas students were very interested—and asked about—the school’s policies. With only about 60 minutes for each interview, I had not considered a topic such as school policies to be high priority. However, the youth interviewers, who are affected by policies every day and find them essential to their feelings about their own school, were very eager to learn about policies that contributed to Harlem Prep’s seemingly positive school atmosphere.

Seeking to expose students to a live interview before having them lead their own in small groups, I first scheduled a full-group interview with a former teacher at Harlem Prep with whom I had recently developed a relationship (but whom I had not interviewed). We had a packed conference room at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College: myself and two students, together, served as lead interviewers who would ask the questions; two other students operated the Tascam audio recording equipment; and the other four students acted as “observers” who took notes on our interactions for later group reflection, accompanied by professor Ansley Erickson and another graduate student.

Admittedly, the interview was a bit unwieldy at first. Finding a rhythm and proper pacing as co-interviewers working together was initially quite challenging. I wanted the youth to start the interview and direct the dialogue as much as possible, with me interjecting only when I felt it was appropriate or needed to ask a particular question. Still, the students and I eventually developed a good cadence as we collectively thought that the interview was successful in both substance and process. Pedagogically, in preparation for future small-group interviews, it also served as a needed experience for students to see that, as Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier explain, interviewing takes supreme focus and is “no simple art.”


Together Barry Goldenberg and Youth Historians conduct a collaborative oral history interview with a Harlem Prep teacher. Photograph by Barry M. Goldenberg. Personal collection.


Breaking Down the Hierarchy: The Key to Collaborative Oral History Interviews

We conducted four subsequent interviews with Harlem Prep alumni, all whom neither I nor the students had met previously. I co-conducted all but one interview alongside three students: one co-lead interviewer, one audio operator, and one additional questioner/note taker. Notably, the co-lead student interviewer always initiated the dialogue, and I encouraged the students to frame the interview as much as possible. Employing this set-up made our goal clear—students were not just present; they were conducting the interviews as young scholars.

Although each interview had a different dynamic, collectively, they all flourished. First, the alumni were unanimously pleased to share their stories, as evidenced by each wanting to know about our future progress. One interviewee even said at the conclusion of her interview that, in response to us asking if she had any final comments: “I’m glad you all asked. I’m glad you came here to ask questions. So thank you for taking me down memory lane a little bit.” Of course, the students were excited to participate—their diligent preparation clearly illustrated that. And of course, the students and I learned novel information about Harlem Prep that will aid our future research (and possibly my later dissertation research).

Particularly noteworthy was how the power dynamics shifted from Ansley Erickson and I to the young people during the interviews. Interviewees seemed to recognize that the youth were also co-experts, and consequently, co-opted the purpose of the interview to speak directly to them in ways that transferred the history-making authority from the university scholars to the students and alumni. For example, one interviewee, over the course of almost one and a half hours, made eye contact almost exclusively with the youth. Although I ended up asking the majority of the questions for this particular interview, the Harlem Prep alumnus continually spoke to the students, as if I was absent from the table. The student operating the audio equipment declared to me after: “I didn’t say anything but he looked at me the whole time!” Another alumnus, who had faced traffic difficulties and arrived at the interview unsure of the setting, noticeably became more comfortable when introduced to the youth, softening the tone of her voice and overall disposition. She also commented appreciatively about student preparation and involvement—it mattered to her that the questions came from the youth, as evidenced in the transcript when she asked for the lead student interviewer’s name before starting the conversation.

After all, this was to be expected; Valerie Yow has argued that “interview dynamics,” such as similarities and differences of race and cultural norms between interviewer and narrator can affect the outcome of oral histories, and in our case, it seemed that the young people’s status as Harlem students mattered. Each of the youth researchers had unique insights and perspectives about schooling and education that significantly differed from mine, a white researcher—and outsider—who grew up in suburban St. Louis. It was important to understand that students’ experiences attending school in Harlem amounted to valuable “cultural capital” that felt synergistic with the experiences of former Harlem Prep students.

Of course, students’ presence not only affected the interviewees’ demeanor, but also the actual substance of the narratives being shared; students’ agency to ask questions altered the trajectory of the interview in unique—and uncharted—ways. Alessando Portelli poignantly notes that, “each person is at a crossroads of many potential stories,” and students’ genuine involvement elicited stories and interactions from the alumni that may have not been expressed in the same way—or at all—if I conducted the interviews alone. For instance, one interviewee spoke intimately about growing up in a “rough” neighborhood in New York City, using language and terminology that described some very intimate experiences that the high school youth could relate to differently than I could. From my vantage point, the resulting exchanges between the student and the Harlem Prep alumnus were rich and vivid, contributing to a transcript that seemed to be more detailed, if not possibly more honest and raw, because of the students’ participation. Taking this into account, I argue that the youth held a key role in producing “new” legitimate knowledge—both by their presence and by their questions—in noteworthy ways that challenged the hierarchical norms of (adult) scholars as sole knowledge producers. Furthermore, the fact that students were operating as researchers within the academy while simultaneously retaining their membership to the Harlem community helped legitimize the interviewees’ personal narratives as scholarship. Although the interviews surely stemmed from my fascination and logistical preparation, the students were the catalysts in this specific instance of oral history knowledge production. In fact, it was because the interviewees recognized students as having at least a co-equal role in the interviews that they seemed to be so open to sharing their stories in the fashion that they did.

An Intergenerational Context: Exploring Authority in the Transmission of Narratives

A further analysis of the nature of the interactions between local youth and their elders raises additional—albeit more speculative and less understood—queries about the transmission of the created narratives themselves. As Robert Perks and Alistair Thompson suggest, “schools are an important context for intergenerational oral history projects,” particularly for a project such as Youth Historians where the young people are positioned as authorizers of knowledge. The students, by virtue of their Harlem membership combined with their status as (novice) scholars part of a university research project, have a unique capacity different than mine to be the “receptors” of these elders’ untold stories.

One expected reason for this is that the narratives conveyed by the Harlem Prep alumni were highly personal, in part because, as the interviewees expressed with frustration, the story of Harlem Prep is relatively unknown. Thus, today’s current Harlem youth researchers can become the heirs of these alumni’s stories on Harlem Prep. They are the group of people who have the greatest “authority” and metaphorical claim on these stories; the interview exchanges between elders and youth were ultimately powerful because they represented something deeper and more ethereal like the passing of intergenerational knowledge in ways that that go beyond instances of sentimentality alone. Put another way, Michael Frisch suggests the term “sharing authority” to explain this rather intrinsically defined commodity; there was certainly something noteworthy and fascinating “about the nature of authority enacted and manifest, shared or sharable or not, within the actual oral histories” of the Harlem Prep alumni.

I sensed this most during one of the interviews that occurred outside Teachers College, Columbia University at an interviewee’s office building in Central Harlem, in which the Harlem Prep alumnus took an obvious interest in the students’ lives in Harlem. As she shared her story, I felt that she did so in a tone and vocal direction that hinted at the need for students to know these stories—her story of Harlem Prep—as a part of a greater narrative that would help put students’ current understanding of education and the greater Harlem community in perspective. From her depictions of racism in schools as a child to her current work in the community at an African-American-owned company, from my perspective, it was as if she was saying to students: “this is what you are a part of, now go out and use this knowledge for the better.”

Although most apparent in the aforementioned interview, each of the alumni were eager to share their educational stories in Harlem because of the unique youth-adult interviewer-to-interviewee dynamic. For an influential school like Harlem Prep that no longer physically exists but remains a substantial part of its alumni’s lives, current students in Harlem possess a particularly unique authority—or what social scientists might define as “positionality”—to partake in the sharing of this knowledge linked by community and educational genealogy. Ultimately, what this sharing means in the context of oral history methodology remains to be determined, and I hope that future projects explore this idea through similar undertakings with youth.

Rethinking the Role of Young People in Uncovering the Past

Overall, students and I both contributed in different ways to each of these interviews with the Harlem Prep alumni; outside of organizing the interviews, I asked many questions relevant to my research, concluded each interview segment, and provided assistance for the co-lead student interviewer when needed. Still, despite my presence, the youth also acted as primary participants in each interview, contributing in both very tangible and less understood ways as described in this essay.

The students’ and interviewees participation in the process described above illustrate that scholars must re-think how to conduct inquiries of the past. We would be wise then to include students in our research methods. Just as there are many owners of history, there should be many producers of it, too, particularly when knowledge is being created about one’s own community such as in the Youth Historians project. In these specific oral histories, students, trained in partnership with scholars, acted as the linchpin in the production of knowledge. If hierarchical norms of the discipline suggest that students cannot—or should not—lead in the process of knowledge production, these youth-led interviews challenge that. They also of course open new questions about who is “authorized” to produce knowledge and about the intricate nature of authority itself: how does the meaning of these historical stories change when received by local youth scholars, both in the context of historical scholarship and to the community at large? As the students and I begin to create digital exhibits in subsequent months, we must continue to unravel the many complications—and opportunities—latent in sharing these youth-scholar-community generated stories that shift from questions that the young people want to ask (i.e., the interviews) to the stories that the young people want to tell.

Barry M. Goldenberg is a Ph.D. candidate in the History and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a Research Fellow at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME). Outside of exploring youth-scholar collaborations through his Youth Historians program, Barry’s historical research examines educational activism in Harlem in the 1960s and 1970s. He can be reached at The author would like to thank Professor Ansley Erickson for not only graciously helping to construct and then revise, this manuscript, but for all her support and guidance on a day-to-day basis with the Youth Historians project. Without her help and her co-direction, the Youth Historians project, and this manuscript, would not be possible. In addition, thank you to the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME), particularly Professor Ernest Morrell and Veronica Holly, for providing the resources, encouragement, and initial spark for this project. Finally, thank you to each of the high school student participants for making this collaboration come to fruition.

Jack Dougherty of Trinity College and Michael Bowman of Iowa State University served as peer reviewers for this essay. Education’s Histories is grateful for their careful attention to and thoughtful feedback on this essay.


March 6th, 2015 by Barry M. Goldenberg

Youth Historians in Harlem: Exploring the Possibilities in Collaborative History Research Between Local Youth and Scholars (Part 1 of 2)

This entry is part [part not set] of 2 in the series "Youth Historians in Harlem" by Barry M. Goldenberg | February 2015

This is Part 1 of a two-part series by Barry M. Goldenberg focusing on methodological questions sparked by the Youth Historians in Harlem project. This Education’s Histories series will continue throughout 2015.

 “Flipping” the Script on Historical Knowledge: A Youth-Led Walking Tour

For three weeks, seven high school students, Ansley Erickson (Teachers College, Columbia University) and I strategized about creating a historical “walking tour” of Harlem for a small graduate class. However, there would be one caveat—local high school students in Harlem would be positioned as the resident tour guides and historical experts. The goal was for high school youth to lead an informational tour around the neighborhood, helping graduate students link their readings to the specific spatial context in which the history had unfolded. In preparatory sessions, as a group, we discussed elements of a walking tour, made decisions on how to design the tour as a history of young people in Harlem, and most importantly, chose seven spots or areas in Harlem (one space or place for each student) to present during the walk.

Youth Historians in Harlem - Walking Tour 1

One of the Youth Historians pointing out to both his peers and graduate students the significance of this particular street corner on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, nicknamed “The Campus,” which served as an iconic speaking location for African-Americans leaders such as Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. Photograph and caption by Barry M. Goldenberg. Personal collection.

Youth Historians in Harlem - Walking Tour 2

Another Youth Historian student explaining to the group the history and architecture of Wadleigh High School, one of the oldest public schools in New York City, as well as discussing his current experiences attending a co-located school in this same building. Photograph and caption by Barry M. Goldenberg. Personal collection.

It was this final task where our collaboration first confronted some initial tensions, challenging notions of hierarchy and authority within the norms of the typical teacher-student relationship. Despite my constant plea that students select spaces in Harlem that might have been significant to young people, they were reluctant to do so. I had hoped they would identify places beyond the well-known and famous, using their perspectives as young people to remind us to look for the places that mattered in students’ daily lives, such as popular historical after-school student hangouts. Although students’ lack of exhaustive knowledge of Harlem’s history was a barrier, they also had difficulty identifying their own ideas as valid in comparison to what had, elsewhere, been validated as the most important places in Harlem. Furthermore, students expressed apprehension about stepping into the role of an oral “storyteller,” weaving together both the history of the place and their own lived experiences—essentially, shifting the historical narrative within this (new) teacher-student context.

We ended up deciding on an eclectic list of stops that reflected our shared opinions. Whereas I thought mostly about specific buildings, the students also suggested broader spaces, which reflected their lived experiences in Harlem. For example, during the tour one student discussed 125th Street and how it once served as an iconic location for restaurants, shops, and entertainment for youth. He also talked about how this space still serves as an important place in Harlem for youth today, which he elaborated on during the walking tour, beyond his notes and rehearsal sessions. Our richest preparatory discussions occurred when we discussed how to highlight students’ points of view, in hopes of making the tour more valuable and engaging for the graduate students in ways that Alan Peshkin and others have long advocated for. For instance, during the tour, one student presented the history of the public housing project where he lives close to Columbia, commenting on the history of the space and his own experiences feeling excluded from the University and its adjacent, more affluent, housing structure.

In practice, the walking tour “flipped the script” as high school students taught graduate students about Harlem’s educational history. The dialectic exchanges between high school students and graduate students blurred the lines of hierarchy in who possesses historical knowledge, in what forms this knowledge is shared, and in what setting—also forcing me to re-assess my own assumptions about the exchange of knowledge more broadly. For decades, Hayden White has argued that the history discipline is closer to the literary tradition than the social sciences, and in doing so, that histories are actually “verbal fictions” which are more closely tied to the author’s imagined narrative then any set of established “facts.” White’s push against the traditional orthodoxy of how we, as scholars, codify knowledge became apparent during the walking tour. Students’ constructed narratives of Harlem’s history and its relation to their own lived experiences as youth were no less “historical” than those of established scholars—at least as internalized by the graduate students, many of them pre-service teachers, who were learning about Harlem’s educational history for the first time. Thus, by taking on the role as teachers and tour guides, students challenged the discipline’s acceptance that knowledge can only be created by credentialed historians. Although historical accuracy, on its most basic level, remains important, events like a walking tour lend nuance to notions of legitimacy in historical research, particularly around oral displays of perceived knowledge (or lack thereof) by the historical “storyteller.” Furthermore, similar experiences also underscore the role that other factors—such as personal feelings, perspectives, and social power—can play in exchanges of historical information. Education scholars from other disciplines have illustrated the benefits of pre-service teachers learning from youth, and there is no reason this principle should not be engaged by historians of education. In the case of the walking tour, having high school students step into the role of teachers enriched graduate students’ understanding of young people in Harlem’s rich history. Pedagogically, preparing and leading the tour helped authorize the high school students as knowers, researchers, and teachers of historical knowledge—a necessary intellectual belief among students and starting point for more in-depth collaborative research later in the year.

Building on the Past: Origins of the Youth Historians in Harlem (YHH) Project

Students who participated in the walking tour were part of Youth Historians in Harlem (YHH)—a project that developed out of my particular graduate student context. As a historian in training and a doctoral student in History and Education at Teachers College, I am primarily concerned with producing new scholarship and historical knowledge. Yet, I also participate in another methodological tradition that informs my work (and my interest) with young people: Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), a research framework that centers youth as capable knowledge producers and agents of change by having them participate in social justice-themed research, particularly in ways that “break down the barriers between the researcher and the researched.” As I thought about weaving these two different contexts of history and YPAR together, a compelling line of inquiry arose: how can young people participate in the production of historical knowledge, particularly in the history of education?

For the past two years, I have worked with local public high school students in an after-school program in a small high school in Harlem. The program encouraged students to discuss history beyond the textbook, introducing them to scholarly research practices that enabled them to learn the history of their Harlem neighborhood by using “the city as [a] teacher,” with a goal of becoming “critical public historians.” By “critical,” I wanted to students to not only be able to understand history as a source of knowledge or information, but as a source of identity that could be both internalized and shared with others in their community. Students benefited both academically and socially; for example, YHH helped students develop their public speaking skills, learn how to navigate archives and collegiate settings, and perform basic research online. Students also demonstrated an increased interest in history and a sense of empowerment as emerging “scholars.”

I benefited as well. Helping these high school students find historical sources, read and interpret them, and learn about Harlem improved my thought processes as a scholar. I began to develop a more nuanced understanding of Harlem in the present as it pertained to education—what interested students, the significance of their family histories, and their challenges living and learning in the neighborhood. Participating in historical dialogue with high school students about their present-day perspectives of Harlem also led me to think about my research methodologies. I was reminded of what Joyce Appleby wrote over a decade ago: that historians must “make more salient the embeddedness of history in the present,” and that doing so can help us “view the whole from a different angle of vision.” Working with local youth, I realized, could provide a new contextual portal through which to create, and examine, historical questions about education.

Exploring a Collaboration Between Local Youth and Historians of Education

This academic year, the students and I will work together on a broad-scale original research project on the history of education in Harlem. Before jumping into a yearlong collaborative research project, however, I wanted to first create a “bridge” connecting students’ previous years work to our new focus on collaboration and original research where their voices would be centered—the youth-focused Harlem walking tour served this purpose. The current group consists of six African-American and two Latino males of varying academic skill sets; seven of them are returning 12th grade students who previously participated in the program, and one is a new 11th grade student. Each student volunteers to meet twice a week for two hours at Teachers College, Columbia University. The topic of our collective inquiry is a school called Harlem Prep that existed from 1967 to 1975 and is generally absent from the historical record. Holding classes in an old supermarket, Harlem Prep was an independently financed “community school” that served former high school dropouts, recovering drug addicts, Vietnam War veterans, older adults, and other non-traditional students. Even with limited resources and a challengingly diverse population, the school sent hundreds of students to college, including many dozens to highly selective institutions.

This year’s collaboration involves three phases. In the first, planning phase, students and I devise a research strategy and compelling historical questions for the year, as well as learn the historical context of Harlem in the 1960s and 1970s based on my preliminary research on Harlem Prep. In the second, research phase, students learn oral history methodology and prepare to conduct oral history interviews with Harlem Prep alumni. Finally, in the third, dissemination phase, we will create digital exhibits (using Omekacontent management system and Neatline plug-in) to share our oral history interviews with both the general public (particularly the Harlem community) and the scholarly community, as well as hold a year-end event where we present our collaborative research-in-progress together at Teachers College, Columbia University.

This project faces unanswered questions not only about historical content but about the conceptual and methodological underpinnings of historical practice. In two subsequent essays, I will explore the opportunities and tensions involved when scholars work with youth apprentices in genuinely collaborative ways:

  1. When historians and local youth conduct historical research together, how does their work challenge notions of hierarchy and authority and/or complicate ideas about legitimate knowledge?
  2. How do processes of historical research shift, and responsibilities change, when creating history with students via online digital formats?

I approach these questions with a sense of playfulness and a necessary comfort with the unknown. As sociologist Norman Denzin writes:

Since one can be trained only in what is already known, training sometimes incapacitates one from learning new ways; it makes one rebel against what is bound to be at first loose and even sloppy. But you cling to such vague images and notions, if they are yours, and you must work them out. For it is in such forms that original ideas, if any, almost always first appear.

Denzin’s poignant explanation can, and should, apply to scholars in history. As historians of education often located within colleges of education, we have a unique opportunity to probe for new methodologies by working with youth. Our affinity for studying the education histories of students offers the possibility to research with them, in ways that might be less then optimal for historians located outside colleges of education. Karen Graves recently reminded readers about shrinking opportunities for historians of education and how we must better elucidate the importance of our field in colleges of education with the increased pressures on the liberal arts in an era of school reform. Projects like Youth Historians can help answer her call to action—researching history with local youth allows us to remain true to our discipline while also contributing to the lives of students through tangible hands-on work that is needed in education today. Within this context, and as we proceed into our collective inquiry on Harlem Prep, I hope to spark a dialogue about the many untapped synergies among historians of education, historical research, and local youth.

Barry M. Goldenberg is a Ph.D. student in the History and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a Research Fellow at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME). Outside of exploring youth-scholar collaborations through his Youth Historians program, Barry’s historical research examines educational activism in Harlem in the 1960s and 1970s.He can be reached at The author would like to thank Professor Ansley Erickson for not only graciously helping to construct and then revise, this manuscript, but for all her support and guidance on a day-to-day basis with the Youth Historians project. Without her help and her co-direction, the Youth Historians project, and this manuscript, would not be possible. In addition, thank you to the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME), particularly Professor Ernest Morrell and Veronica Holly, for providing the resources, encouragement, and initial spark for this project. Finally, thank you to each of the high school student participants for making this collaboration come to fruition.

Campbell Scribner of Ohio Wesleyan University and Michael Suarez of the University of Colorado at Boulder served as peer reviewers for this essay. Education’s Histories is grateful for their careful attention to and thoughtful feedback on this essay.



February 20th, 2015 by Charles Tesconi

Time for a New Revisionism

Don Warren offers several purposes (I counted 6) of “Waging War on Education: American Indian Versions.” They are interrelated, some interdependent, and are served in sections of this essay, which, taken together, amounts to a theoretical framework for a methodological approach to doing educational history. A new historiography is necessary, we learn, in order to exit what Don calls a methodological cul-de-sac inherited from Bailyn and Cremin. They mistakenly constructed histories through definitions of education that locked them into cramped and culturally arrogant methods.  Their definitions narrowed their educational embrace to the intentional and deliberate.  Their approaches are limited and limiting as well.  Warren’s eschews a priori definitions and invokes a trans-disciplinary methodology shorn of cultural myopia and open to sources once thought antithetical to convention.  Warren cites several publications to illuminate his envisioned methodology. These exemplars pay little to no attention to formal educational institutions and educational processes.  In fact, most of the authors of these works did not set out to do educational history as such.  According to Warren, however, all of them “treat education as the fraught process of cultural formation.”

Those familiar with Warren’s work, certainly his students, will see that “Waging War” has a long gestation period. He has been working, re-working, and advancing his proposal for a revised methodology for some time. I know this. I have known Warren for close to 50 years. He is my friend. And in this spirit of full disclosure, let me note what will be soon apparent. I am not an historian. Thus I accept Warren’s views of the works of Bailyn and Cremin and leave analysis to those who know better. I choose this approach because of my limitations and my belief that the methodological legacy Warren attributes to Bailyn and Cremin is incidental to the major contribution of this essay.

Until the 1960s, much if not most work in the history of education in the United States was occupied with the place, function, and prospects of schools and schooling in America. Like institutional history generally, educational histories were disdained by academic historians. Much the same can be said of the philosophy and sociology of education. Educational studies were not represented in the departments that housed the parent disciplines. Looking back, it is tempting to conclude that the subject of such studies, education, as well as works representative of them were both discredited and marginalized.

Bernard Bailyn’s Education in the Forming of American Society was expected to change things. Although he too was dismissive of the body of work in history of education, he did not dismiss, directly or otherwise, the study of education. His criticisms and insights welcomed a broader approach to the study of history of education; indeed, for the study of education generally. This opportunity came through an assertion, which, in retrospect, seems full of common sense, even ordinary. Echoing Emile Durkheim’s observation that education is the preservation of culture inherited from times past, Bailyn avowed that education is the transmission of culture across generations. If so, and if culture is the sum total of learned behavior patterns, values, beliefs, mores, knowledge claims and all other products of human work and thought, then the study of education must necessarily address all the ways and means through which culture is transmitted. Yes!

Received like an epiphany, Bailyn’s criticisms and insights were expected to change things. But taking full advantage of new possibilities has proven difficult. With few exceptions, it seems, post-Bailyn (and Cremin) work in educational history has not produced a transformational shift; as Warren would want it and as Bailyn’s insights invite. As Warren sees it, those who do history of education have, for the most part, retreated to familiar methods and terrain.

Some things obviously changed. Bailyn, and his staunch interpreter and defender Cremin, implanted, as Warren put it, a cultural orientation that put teaching and learning center stage in a boundless theatre. Some historians of education worked hard to distance themselves from the limitations of their craft so decried by Bailyn, who, by the way, was voicing what academic historians had been muttering for years about work in the history of education, as their academic counterparts in philosophy, sociology, and psychology had about educational studies linked to their disciplines. More people from different academic disciplines engaged educational studies. A functionalist and largely positive history of education was challenged by critical and radical conflict perspectives. An institution long regarded as a source of opportunity and social justice was portrayed as otherwise. Public education seemed to be at the center of public moral discourse.

Warren was among those who saw hope in these developments and in revisionist histories and related changes to educational studies. He summarized some of these changes and their implications for public policy in 1978:

Comparative and interdisciplinary approaches provide concepts and resources for assessing educational development in the United States. There is also a discernible trend away from survey history in favor of basic research and focused case study. A wealth of new literature has appeared that utilizes new sources and techniques, employs fresh critical perspectives, and in turn generates new research questions. …More significant, however, are advances in sophistication and subtlety by which complex educational phenomena are analyzed and explained.

Surely some of the change and hope evoked is owing to the work of Bailyn and Cremin. How much I leave to historians.

Warren agrees with Bailyn’s (and Cremin’s) notion of education as cultural transmission and the kind of educational history work it invites; up to a point, that is. Bailyn and Cremin failed to adopt a methodology that education as cultural transmission demands–one bereft of definitional gatekeeping and the cultural favoritism and blinders it elicits. In short, works by Bailyn and Cremin do not attend to the logical and ethical obligations their pronouncements invite.

American Indian Histories as Models of Education History

Warren discusses cultural continuity among American Indians and works about them as a means to illuminate many of his points about the methodology he indicts. He sees education as the best if not only explanation to account for cultural continuity and adaptation to change evident among American Indians, and, I would add, among ethnic groups as well. The persistence of culture, at least in some major aspects, reflects an investment of effort, time, energy, and other resources to transmit the received culture; especially so with cultures, such as those of American Indians and other Indigenous peoples, so long under attack. An educational lens provides access and explanatory possibilities to and for these phenomena respectively.

In seeking to account for the unrealized promise of broad and deep enduring methodological and subject changes in the doing of educational history, evident in the retreat he has partly documented, Warren reminds readers that Bailyn generated fears among professed historians of education, given his hope that his criticisms and insights would divorce “the present interpretation of education in American history . . . [from] its separateness as a branch of history, its detachment from the mainstream of historical research, writing, and teaching.” Education history was “a distinct tributary,” traceable to a marriage of convenience with professional teacher and other school professional preparation at the turn of the twentieth century. Bailyn wanted and anticipated education historians would be working within academic departments of history, free of professionalizing roles in their traditional homes. The divorce didn’t happen. History departments were not inclined to pursue educational matters. Educational history remains the pursuit of educationists, and according to Warren’s findings, retains its parochial focus.

Bailyn’s was not a new way of seeing education, as the above reference to Durkheim attests, and as Warren observes here and elsewhere; it was acknowledged by Bailyn and Cremin as well. There was, too, George Spindler’s invitation as early as 1954 to anthropologists to study education. Their perspectives and methods, as he and Louise Spindler subsequently demonstrated, revealed rich investigative possibilities. So, too, with works by Theodore Brameld: Cultural Foundations of Education: An Interdisciplinary Exploration and The Remaking of a Culture. Brameld wrote of the debt he owed to John Dewey’s works, especially Reconstruction in Philosophy as pointing the way towards the importance of these cultural approaches to the study of education in the U.S. Indeed, one cannot come away from Dewey’s admonition in “My Pedagogic Creed” without reflecting possibilities that inhere in a broad conception of the education. He put it this way:

I believe that all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race. This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual’s powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together. He becomes an inheritor of the funded capital of civilization. The most formal and technical education in the world cannot safely depart from this general process.  (Italics added.)

For Warren, limitations that inhered in works by Bailyn and Cremin account in very large part for the return to established ways he sees and bemoans. They violate what is implicit in Bailyn’s admonition and explicit in Cremin’s interpretation of him; namely, that the study of, interpretation of, and explanation of history demands empathic understanding. Do not be ethnocentric. Yet, they were taking western European culture as their model.
Warren sees methodology as the major vehicle through which historians of education can make contributions to their field and, importantly, I think, to the study of history generally. The very nature of the educational requires the trans-disciplinary and diverse source methodology Warren advances. These two attributes are among several others (I counted 10) shared by the publications Warren recommends as models, none by a professed educational historian. The attributes that are most significant among the others do not presume a progressive or functionalist arc to education history. And, significantly, these works are not burdened by a priori definitions of education; indeed, most if not all of the authors did not set out to do a study of the educational. Warren, nonetheless, sees these works as studies in educational history. He points out in quoting Fenton that if attended to with “sharp eyes and ears” they are revealed as “deeply nuanced reconsiderations of educational processes.” Consequently, they move education and education history into new areas.

Through inferences drawn from the exemplars he cites, Warren concludes that

education history’s intrinsic and most inviting contributions begin as research methods. Hypothetically, any topic can be approached, and reach important destinations, if the approach itself is driven by accumulating evidence of when, where, and by what means individuals and groups have learned, for good or ill. (Italics added.)

It is “learning,” whatever its outcome, “for good or ill” as Warren writes, that marks what is educational. This strikes me as definitional, at odds with what I understand Warren thinks about such matters; although it is more open-ended, perhaps problematically so, and not as commanding and normative as the definitions of Bailyn and Cremin.

Warren contends that definitional approaches are at once confined and limiting, as exemplified in the Bailyn definition and the even more elaborate restrictive Cremin definitional. Both elicit ways of seeing the past through the present. They lead to seeing markers of attainment along the way to the known, and they open the door to an institutional lens and functionalist conclusions.

Warren wants room left for the serendipitous, accidental, experiential, and informal, or in Dewey’s terms, unconscious learning. Here, Warren makes explicit what is tacit in the work of Richard Storr whose work Warren has been taken with for some time and cites in support of his case: Bailyn and Cremin bequeathed an “inadequate, even crippling, research design. Knowing education’s appearance in advance, they could confidently locate it in trolling the past.”

What I see as Warren’s definition of education, stated explicitly as “learning for good or ill” is a bare bones one but with a broad embrace. On the other hand, his accounting for his claim about slavery as an educational institution suggests a conception of education that is rather specific in some ways.  Consider this:

The most pervasive, embedded, and effective agent of education in the U.S. during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was slavery. As an institution, it taught Americans how to see and measure their world and their own worth. It functioned as the lodestar of their moral compass, slanted public and scholarly rhetoric, and molded, unremarkably, the conceptual foundations of literacy, religion and theology, commerce, science, technological advance, and art. It was literally, although not ideally, the American common school.  It received direct and indirect public subsidies and political ratification. Slavery’s educative force encompassed the nation, shaping discourse, policy, territorial, state, and federal constitutions and laws, and accepted common sense. (Italics added.)

The italicized sentences strike me as defining attributes of what Warren would consider worthy of that which is educational, even the heavily, outcome freighted “educative.” Are the characteristics Warren invokes not definitional?  Warren doesn’t mention that Cremin saw slavery as “miseducative.” He may have though it unnecessary. After all, to say that slavery or any institution or process is miseducative is not to deny that they are educative. “Miseducative” suggests, among other things, that something is wrong with the outcomes attributable to some experience or process, that those outcomes are worthy of negative sanctions.

Warren’s choice to ignore this word in the context of his discussion of slavery may be a tacit acknowledgment that “miseducative” is not helpful (although he uses it in a question—“are some cultures more educative than others?”—and with respect to educative histories). Importantly, “educative” invites moral and cultural judgments—something Warren wants to avoid. Simply because we may disapprove of something learned does not deny its origins in the educational. We should get rid of the word.

The contexts and ways through which any societal culture is transmitted are broad and varied. If Warren’s stated conception of education (learning for good or ill) is necessary to accepting his envisioned methodology, it commits to an acknowledgement that the educational domain embraces, among other processes, conditioning, training, indoctrinating, lying, and propagandizing. Different societies employ these means as they induct oncoming generations and other newcomers into their societies and culture. To acknowledge these as taking place under the rubric of “education” invites challenges to the moral freight embedded in “education,” “educational,” and “educative.” I think, therefore, Warren’s case will be advanced and rendered more acceptable to those who might be put-off by “learning for good or ill” by making a more expansive explanation of his conception of education. Such an explanation would help to account for what I see as a contradiction between his “learning for good or ill” and his claims about the educational functions of slavery. Those claims create another question for me. Is it the case that what is educational or educative can only be so determined after-the-fact, after outcomes have been effected? If so, doesn’t this invite the “teleology in reverse,” believing is seeing fallacy that draws Warren’s and Storr’s approbation?

I also think Warren would strengthen his case by distinguishing meanings and implications associated with cultural transmission and cultural formation. He and Bailyn use them interchangeably. While dictionary definitions may also treat them synonymously, it strikes me that they deserve more nuanced treatment in the context of Warren’s argument.

It seems to me that the kind of histories of education that Warren’s framework evokes takes a very special skill set and both a broad and deeply funded knowledge base. There are comparatively few who possess such talents and the inclination to invest the time to develop them and, in turn, invest them in a study that employs them. This may very well be the case with academics, particularly those in search for tenured positions. So, I think Warren could help his case by addressing this concern.

Finally, Warren’s theoretical framework stands on its own, independent of Bailyn and Cremin. This is not to suggest their work is not deserving of the criticism Warren directs at their work, but to observe that his methodology needs no foils. The methodological dead end left by Bailyn and Cremin may account for the retreat Warren finds wanting. But there are other explanations: the non-responsiveness of history departments to Bailyn’s invitation; the continuing professionalizing functions of the study of educational history in school professional training programs; the reward protocols in schools of education and other departments of history that serve to discourage the kind of trans-disciplinary work Warren promotes. In any event, it is the theoretical framework proposed that needs more attention.

Warren attempts a great deal in a relatively short treatise. His ideas are worthy of expanded treatment, a book-length manuscript. The need as I see it for the clarification and further explanation suggested above and the intrinsic worthiness of his theoretical framework and proposed methodology deserve it. Don’s theoretical framework has implications for educational studies generally. It reinforces and extends inquiry in anthropology of education, sociology of education, and philosophy of education.

Charles Tesconi is Professor Emeritus at American University where he served as Dean of the School of Education from 1989-2000. He was Dean of the College of Education and Social Services and Professor of Education at the University of Vermont (1978-1989), served on the faculties of Ithaca College, University of Illinois, Chicago, and has been a Visiting Professor at the Ohio State University. He is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of six books and numerous articles emphasizing the relation between socioeconomic background and educational opportunity. His last book, Good Schools (Hampton Press), examined the local policy environments of public schools unusually successful with economically poor students. Tesconi has served on the editorial boards of major social and educational journals, and has held appointive and elective office in professional and scholarly associations, including service as the elected President of the American Educational Studies Association. Charles Tesconi can be reached at

Education’s Histories would like to thank Charles Tesconi for his careful review of Donald Warren’s essay, “Waging War on Education: American Indian Versions” and for allowing us to publish his review in our experimental multilogue format.


January 29th, 2015 by Donald Warren

Waging War on Education: American Indian Versions

Sometime between 1703 and 1712, four Mohawk chiefs came to London under the aegis of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Lawrence Cremin mentioned this astonishing cultural encounter as an aside in a dismal assessment of the Society’s missionary ventures among the colonies’ Native peoples. The Mohawk leaders were not the first Indians to cross the Atlantic for English destinations, and they would not be the last. Still, such voyages were unusual, and a delegation of Native dignitaries to foreign shores even rarer. One wonders what the chiefs thought of their experience and how the English hosts responded to them. The moment teems with educative potential begging for conjecture and analysis. For the Mohawks, the journey alone back and forth across an unknown ocean must have amazed. The English too entered unfamiliar territory, their guests’ physical bearing, regalia, language, mores, and spirituality. Did they see savages, royalty, or traces of both? Cremin did not pursue such matters probably because documentary sources were not available. Notice, however, on other topics he willingly and insightfully guessed. Apparently unheeded, the Mohawk meeting slipped from Euroamerican memory, and it failed to capture Cremin’s speculative interest. Segments of it may yet be recoverable within Mohawk and Iroquois oral traditions, the kinds of sources he cited in general references to American Indian histories.

This photo symbolizes the past and present. The photo on the left was taken by Edward Curtis in 1908. The photo on the right, taken 100 years later in 2009, demonstrates the long standing educational and spiritual tradition of the Arikara and that there are those who have not forgotten our teachings. Photograph and caption by KuuNUx TeeRIt Kroupa. Personal collection.

This photo symbolizes the past and present. The photo on the left was taken by Edward Curtis in 1908. The photo on the right, taken 100 years later in 2009, demonstrates the long standing educational and spiritual tradition of the Arikara and that there are those who have not forgotten our teachings. Photograph and caption by KuuNUx TeeRIt Kroupa. Personal collection.

What piqued Cremin’s curiosity instead was why colonial missions among Indians tended to fail. With regard to the Iroquois, one of his sources, a missionary Mohawk elders declined to encourage, offered answers:  1) mistreatment of Indians by land speculators, 2) disreputable behavior by white military personnel, and 3) misrepresentation of English motives by Dutch merchants seeking advantages in their trade with the Iroquois. Cremin added an implication. The missionary “could scarcely carry on his work in the face of this larger and more powerful education.” Discordant education or discordant pedagogies thus surfaced as an interpretative theme in his three-volume history American Education.

Summarizing colonial experience, Cremin posted a binary framework for analyzing Indian and European cultural conflicts, “the more powerful education of tribal folkways on the one hand and white exploitation on the other.” A fair fight, he observed, did not ensue. Rather, “the vast majority of the Indians were formed by tribal values for a way of life that was at best marginal to the social mainstream, and at worst crumbling.” Cremin found education within the dynamics of Natives’ cultural formation and judged it deficient. By the time of the American Revolution, it was losing a battle against dominant myriad forces of Eurocentric teaching and learning. This essay explores methodological effects of what can classified in Cremin’s terms as a war waged on education. Looking backward from what would become the United States’ future, he did not ask whose social mainstream qualified as normative during the colonial period, apparently assuming the answer was known. Battle after battle, it would seem, Indians eventually lost the war on their cultures. The perspective deletes an entire topic from the interests of education historians, namely the educative processes and institutions active among Indigenous Americans pre- and postcontact with white intrusions. Specifically, the paper develops a preliminary investigation on roles played by historians of education in continuing historiographical failures.

Other Conceptual Foundations

American Indian scholars and specialists think education historians need sharp eyes and ears ready to hear. The suggestion may seem odd. It is meant collegially to aid detection of often muted and submerged noises of cultures in motion, the essential task of historians interested in education. The advice has far-reaching applications. Unready, education historians can miss, for example, David Van Reybrouck, Congo, Amanda Vaill, Hotel Florida, and Theodore Rosengarten, All God’s Dangers as deeply nuanced reconstructions of education in process. Van Reybrouck configures the long, turbulent histories of the Congolese from pre- to post-colonial eras, determined to find Indigenous perspectives on lessons wrought from European and U.S. imperialism. Vaill uses a much frequented Madrid hotel to filter interactions comprising the Spanish Civil War, asking variations on a single question: What did participants learn from the conflict? In contrast, focused on one man, a black Alabama sharecropper who labored across the twentieth century, Rosengarten produces a study of cultures fixed, fluid, and ironically integrated. In one critic’s view, All God’s Dangers is the book that “best explains the [U.S.] South.” It won a National Book Award in 1974 and then vanished from scholarly and popular discussion, including the education canon, where it never found a home in the first place. Education historians might also overlook Thomas Piketty’s magisterial Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which, like Daniel T. Rodgers Age of Fracture, scans the history of economics for clues to the ways and means of the education of the public. Similarly, Werner Sollors, The Temptation of Despair looks for the public emerging in Germany after World War II. Here despair becomes an educational option in the same way that inequality functions as an educating institution in Piketty’s analysis and social fragmentation surfaces as a vehicle of pervasive teaching and learning in Rodgers’ work. Save for Rosengarten and Rodgers, none of these authors pays much attention to schools or other intentionally pedagogical institutions; all treat education as the fraught process of cultural formation.

They have methodological similarities as well. The authors merge research designs of various disciplines and rely on extensive sources ranging across archaeological digs, commercial motion pictures, correspondence, documentary films, fiction, government records, news reports, oral history, photojournalism, and statistics. They neither disparage precolonial times as prehistory nor otherwise elevate Western European culture as the pre-eminent arbiter of ideas, values, explanations, and meanings. They consider oral traditions and storytelling historically reliable. There is no presumed progressive arc driving the inquiries, thus explicitly denying time fantasized ameliorative powers. Things do not necessarily get better. Not all wounds heal, and those that do may leave barely visible scars. Decisions, like other actions, have consequences the authors intend to find. They choose words carefully, demonstrating the importance of history writing. Prose becomes the third front of their history projects, the others being method and topic. Although intimately joined, like a string ensemble, each plays different and varying roles. By these means, but unintentionally, the authors push education history onto less trafficked landscapes. Their work implies the field is again due for revision, the research agenda needing new formats and sensibilities, as Native scholars have advised.

This essay proposes an expedition into sources, published ones primarily, synthesizing works not usually linked to education history. It moves from a definition of historiography as not only literature review but more basically as critique of research methods, or to borrow from William Fenton, “the critical and constructive process by which history is written.” The essay is interested both in historians’ findings and how they reach findings. It does not seek balance between poles of a continuum, trying rather to understand how fulcrums shift in particular projects and whether they should shift. In general the essay raises a debatable proposition: education history’s intrinsic and most inviting contributions begin as research methods. Hypothetically, any topic can be approached, and reach important destinations, if the approach itself is driven by accumulating evidence of when, where, and by what means individuals and groups have learned, for good or ill. Absent any presumed definition of education, history of education projects as procedurals take the form of biography, cross-generational probes of intersections among human behaviors, intentional or not, and their contexts, both of which—the people and their settings—require identities and investigations. The essay offers America Indian histories as analytical levers. Collectively, they provide prismatic case studies of what happens methodologically when education historians attempt to cleanse their methods of ethnocentrism and similar predispositions. Such efforts inevitably fail, given durable habits of mind, but the research process itself benefits. It can bloom profusely. In short, education history is required to meet a basic standard: It must be educative along the path toward discovery of a particular relevant topic. Topics in Native education histories are deemed end products rather than places from which to begin. The essay’s concluding observations can apply to Indigenous histories of other nations but that probability is only hinted, not pursued systematically.

From several angles, the following pages explore Bernard Bailyn’s problematic definition of education, but do so by casting Native Americans’ perspectives on conceptual issues. He presented his now famous paper on the history of U.S. education in October 1959 as part of a conference series hosted by the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Virginia. Both welcomed and decried as moving beyond the confines of formal pedagogy, Bailyn defined education “as the entire process by which a culture transmits itself across the generations.” The broad construction, he argued, enabled historians to see “great variations” as “schools and universities fade in significance next to other social agencies,” to see “education in its elaborate, intricate involvements with the rest of society,” and “its shifting functions, meanings, and purposes.” At the time, responses tended to be contentiously bipolar. Many celebrated an open, more empirically grounded, version of education history liberated from unquestioning advocacy of schools, colleges, and other formal institutions. Critics feared a threatened retreat from recurring battles to defend publicly financed and controlled common schooling and warned Bailyn’s hypothesis could not produce written histories distinguishable from general history. The history of education would disappear as a specialized field of inquiry. Almost at once, Lawrence Cremin set to work to prove them wrong, subsequently devising more detailed, if malleable, definitions of education to inform a comprehensive survey. The debate continued, eventually less heatedly. Other revisionist trends ensued, but in the twenty-first century self-identified historians of education routinely work from Bailyn’s assumptions and definitions and Cremin’s examples. Nevertheless, they seem to have returned to a schooling focus, as documented in the pages of the History of Education Quarterly, American Educational History Journal, and the printed conference programs of the History of Education Society, Organization of Educational Historians, and Southern History of Education Society, all U.S. associations. Work emanating from other countries may limn a more intricate contemporary portrait.

Cremin refined and augmented Bailyn’s critique of education history but left it basically unchallenged. Furthermore, Sol Cohen observes in detail, Cremin’s three-volume masterwork American Education merely proved Bailyn’s critics right. A coherent, fulsome survey of U.S. education broadly defined could not be reduced to a written version without crimping intellectual consistency or invoking pre-emptive benchmarks to obtain manageable samples of teaching and learning. One could argue Bailyn and Cremin tried hard to soothe disconcerting variability and controversy. They tended to leave funding as an indicator of education’s priority status unexamined. Both tethered their critiques and reconstructions to the coalescing U.S. achievement of pedagogical institutional forms before the Revolutionary War. Afterwards, well into the twentieth century in Cremin’s work, Americans progressed to an admittedly diverse array of ensconced educational variations. According to Bailyn, their most notable alteration of antecedent European influences was to shift education to a social intention. Growing from their wilderness experience as colonists on the Atlantic coast, they concluded that institutionalized teaching and learning were necessary accompaniments of urgently needed social cohesion. They survived and eventually flourished not as individuals and families alone but as a union. Intentional schooling brought efficient fuel and cultural glue to the enterprise, and the march toward a new nation commenced. Granted, the trek had ups and downs, although they were correctable within a generally sure-footed directive.

Early on, Richard Storr had warned of the chilling effects of “teleology in reverse,” reconstructing education’s past through the rose-tinted glasses of reigning knowledge claims. He worried about educative phenomena that would be missed along the way toward documenting the pre-established definitions and remained deeply skeptical of methodological effects issuing from over-weighted intentionality. Room should be left for serendipitous, accidental, and experiential learning. With tacit reference to Bailyn and Cremin’s definitional approach, Storr thought the field’s problem was not lack of breadth. Rather, they bequeathed an inadequate, even crippling, research design. Knowing education’s appearance in advance, they could confidently locate it in trolling the past. The methodological misstep entered at the onset of research and tainted the findings that followed. Education historians have tended to ignore Storr’s advice as several critics have observed.

Arikara Lodge completed in 2009 in White Shield, ND. Photograph by KuuNUx TeeRIt Kroupa. Personal collection.

Arikara Lodge completed in 2009 in White Shield, ND. Photograph by KuuNUx TeeRIt Kroupa. Personal collection.

Historians who underestimate Bailyn and Cremin as scholars are bound to find themselves embarrassed later. They are celebrated exemplars of a cultural perspective that lifts teaching and learning, variously discerned, onto history’s center stage. Yet, if education is understood in their terms as the process by which people struggle to survive, grow, and form society, their critique of education history fails at other methodological points as well. The conceptual errors blur distinctions between their work and that of Ellwood P. Cubberley, a personalized target of their analyses and an easy mark for later criticism given his overt biases against women, immigrants, people of color, and farmers. Other important problems surface. No competent historian treats the past as “the present writ small,” but depicting the past as distinctly different from the present, a foreign territory, merely restates a Western European abstraction of time as linear and progressive. British novelist Julian Barnes helps readers perceive the more twisted chronologies charting the lives of real people, where past and present mingle and memory functions as more of a solvent than a fixative unless regularly exercised. In lived chronologies people forget and alter past events; time and memory neither recur purely nor cohere upwardly. They emerge as tools for organizing personal and communal experiences, constructed realities that come and go in relation to equally mobile signposts and other triggers. Euroamerican historians have battled over these complexities for centuries. If only intuitively, they have grasped revision as the lifeblood of their discipline. They write and rewrite and perform their detective work tentatively, acknowledging that sooner or later colleagues may offer different interpretations. Finally, although the Bailyn-Cremin criticism of education history as celebratory and evangelical sounds wise and empirically attractive, it crumbles upon inspection. If education is a cultural asset, arguably the necessary one, as they propose, finding evidence of its traces occasions historians’ warm welcome, or should, if they intend to understand how societies form and fade. Education portends the depth and breadth of experiments in cultural change and continuity, including those telling failed ones, inevitably discovered interactively after the fact. This is the closely woven filter Indigenous Americans tend to employ in retelling their oral traditions.

To capture the diverse, typically subterranean, phenomena of cultural formation, education historians need a different conceptual net than the one Bailyn and Cremin posited. It may be broader, although it does not have to be, as Rosengarten shows, but it must be finely meshed. In The Barbarous Years, his latest addition to the multivolume study of The Peopling of British North America, Bailyn reveals his famous aphorism as finite and skewed. Education remains the process of cultural development across generations, but his model culture is Western European, thus soured by colonial and mercantilist preferences against other, apparently lower order, cultures. Does education perform its magic in all cultures? Are some more educative than others? Bailyn leaves us in a conceptual cul-de-sac.

To back out of it, consider a different working hypothesis: The most pervasive, embedded, and effective agent of education in the U.S. during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was slavery. As an institution, it taught Americans how to see and measure their world and their own worth. It functioned as the lodestar of their moral compass, slanted public and scholarly rhetoric, and molded, unremarkably, the conceptual foundations of literacy, religion and theology, commerce, science, technological advance, and art. It was literally, although not ideally, the American common school.  It received direct and indirect public subsidies and political ratification. Slavery’s educative force encompassed the nation, shaping discourse, policy, territorial, state, and federal constitutions and laws, and accepted common sense. Popular views on women, American Indians, and immigrants, particularly Irish Catholics, Eastern and Southern Europeans, Asians of all nationalities, and Spanish and Portuguese speakers, hardened accordingly. Some of these consigned strangers predated the arrival of other Western Europeans, and thus are incorrectly classified as immigrants, except from the perspectives of Native Americans. Slavery’s hegemony did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation or two years later at the Appomattox Courthouse but persisted legally, by common practice and consent, and insidiously, as Douglas A. Blackmon documents in Slavery by Another Name. Recent research on the history of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, both anticipates and reinforces Blackmon’s penetrating study. These new contributions frame afresh questions of where and how Americans learned, proposing slavery as their principal educative institution perhaps beyond the nineteenth century, as W.E.B. DuBois concluded long ago and Blackmon confirms. Drawing from methodological and conceptual innovations, the queries propose a truism: Historiographical findings in education depend on scholars’ abilities to reconceive the search for relevant phenomena. None of this fertile new work has been produced by professed education historians.

If, as in the example of slavery, research methods are key and fundamental in the history of education, a question rises in importance and urgency: How do education historians proceed? An answer can be found in recent histories of American Indian tribes and nations and reconsiderations of older—often much older—contributions. Like all intellectual domains, stretching from pure science to popular culture, education history benefits from new and revised findings, but now it is especially clear that the investigations’ necessary precondition and consort is another way of thinking. The times seem ripe for a thorough rebuke of our field via methodological initiatives. Piketty’s critique of economics offers a model that is at once rigorously and systematically historical, empirical, literary, multidisciplinary, and educative. Not detailed here, the example could prove useful as education historians ponder escapes from delimiting approaches and assumptions.

At War with Education

Bailyn’s series on The Peopling of British North America tacitly invites education historians to join frankly animated conversations. The two books published so far can be read as a depiction of the fateful beginning in the seventeenth century when England declared war on the education encountered in its new world. This hypothesis forces a reconsideration of Bailyn’s earlier pronouncements on the history of education in the United States. Education in the Forming of American Society was the third publication in the Needs and Opportunities for Study series. Each followed a similar organization, an interpretive essay supported by a bibliographical review. The second, and more relevant to this paper, was American Indian and White Relations to 1830 by William N. Fenton, an anthropologist committed to the emerging field known then and still today as ethnohistory. Tension within the amalgam persists, evident in the 1950s and 60 years later. It grows from disputed assumptions and methods favored respectively by historians and ethnologists, the latter drawing principally, at least originally, from anthropology. Now visible within the history discipline itself, the tension reinforces calls for a fresh critique of Bailyn’s 1960 essay and literature survey and his subsequent investigations on The Peopling of British North America, specifically The Barbarous Years. Note the practical goals of these conferences and publications: “The primary aim of the series is to serve the needs of graduate students and those directing their studies, and thereby to foster better research.” Unrecorded was a tacit purpose to send historical research in certain directions and not in others. The Bailyn volume stated the aim explicitly: to “provide a new and challenging perspective for the study of early American education, indeed for a reassessment of the history of education in the United States down to the present.” Was the aim then to cement history’s substantive relevance to contemporary education policy or, separating methods from findings and thus committing simultaneously the sins of anachronism and contextual isolation, to enforce a particular way of doing history? Depending on the answers, Milton Gaither’s critique of Bailyn and his admirers is overly gentle or his criticism of the institutional foci of current education historians is off the mark. They are simply following in Bailyn’s footsteps and, as it appears, in Cubberley’s as well. Are there grounds for understanding the Bailyn hypothesis as proposing routine socialization cloaked in Euroamerican institutions, academic, if graceful, prose, and the history discipline’s ethnocentric snobbery?

Taking cues from an ongoing project in the 1950s funded by the Ford Foundation, Bailyn aimed to decouple “the present interpretation of education in American history” from “its leading characteristic . . . its separateness as a branch of history, its detachment from the mainstream of historical research, writing, and teaching.” Education history was an embarrassment, “a distinct tributary,” its origins traceable to a marriage of convenience with professional teacher preparation at the turn of the twentieth century. (Similar complaints issued from psychology and sociology, both maturing disciplines during the same period.) Bailyn envisioned a change of venue where education historians would ply their trade within the canons, if not under the authority, of history departments. He reckoned free of the context of higher education’s protocols, values, and policies. The proposed marriage failed to be consummated, for reasons falling outside the scope of this paper. If a Bailyn revolution was in the making, its trajectory fell short. To align education history with university history departments assumes the latter know how to frame and pursue educational queries and are inclined to do so. Until recent decades, that has proved to be optimistic, and contrary to typical history department reward systems. Within a few decades, education history usually still could be found in professional academic units and retained its institutional focus. Looking back, we can detect a more basic problem with the key concept of culture. It forged the foundation of Bailyn’s thinking about change, continuity, and societal development, and that foundation was essentially Eurocentric, ill prepared to admit or sustain studies of different cultures. The problem becomes acute in investigations of American Indians before or independent of their Euroamerican contacts. If education is the means by which a culture transmits itself across time, we have to ask:  Taking into account tribal and national distinctions, where and how do we find specific manifestations of American Indian education? If we label them “informal,” only to differentiate bureaucratized Euroamerican schooling, education historians risk devaluing their educative purposes and effects. We could also subvert prospects for more culturally inclusive approaches in teacher preparation and education research generally. In the same vein, slave education, owner learning within the culture of bondage, multilateral exertions of agency development, and education as lived experience forging group identity and differentiated resilience, all intersect here as well. In the 1950s and moving toward century’s end, such calibrated phenomena were the foster children of U.S. historical and education research, typically unseen by many leading practitioners yet even then an obvious and rich trove of insights on interacting cultural strangers and the intersections’ national implications.

William Fenton presented his paper in February 1953 at the third Needs and Opportunities for Study conference. The series was meant “to encourage a broadening of historical studies into fields where relatively little original research has been carried on or where new approaches to old problems challenge investigators.” Although Fenton’s paper was second in the published series, even so, four years passed before the book appeared. Other commitments consumed his time; nevertheless, his needs and opportunities for study project seems to have been troubled. Fenton declined to document his paper in formats familiar to historians, and his list of published and primary sources struck conference organizers as abbreviated. They invited other authorities to expand it. Couched tactfully, the difficulties apparently surfaced at the start, with Fenton’s conference presentation itself.  Read how he began:

It is in the spirit of Dekanisora, speaker of the Five [later Six] Nations, who called on Governor Spotswood here at Williamsburg [VA] supposedly before 1720, that I have come to your fire to polish the “Chain of Friendship” between the ethnologists and the historians.

He offered wampum (in the form of his paper) as the bond of friendship attesting words spoken, urged the audience “to wipe away tears for those who have gone the long trail since our last meeting,” to open their ears for better hearing, and “to clear your throats of any bitterness . . . between us that you may reply later with a clear mind.” Trained “conventionally” as an ethnologist, Fenton also recalled he had been initiated into adulthood by the “old men of the Six Nations.” He was no stranger to distrustful collaborations between anthropologists and historians, for years engaged with the preparation of historical ethnologists. He then admitted this opening was ritualistic “in the manner of the old Iroquois orators.” Its format could be found in the records of numerous Indian negotiations with British and French representatives, who routinely reported feeling stymied by the delay in turning to the business at hand. The reactions mystify. Euroamericans of the day (and subsequently) typically began conferences with prayers and other invocations. Fearing his 1953 audience would be similarly restive and ethnocentric, Fenton aimed to underscore an elementary point. Given the topic, the history of Indian and white relations in what became the United States, both groups needed to be apprehended on their own terms, ideally with respect for cultural differences. (Presciently, the hardcover imprint of his book carried an image of a peace pipe.) The Iroquois, for example, always attended meetings that promised significant outcomes bearing wampum, a specifically crafted or selected gift representing the event. They began with speeches honoring the dead and the continuing past, admonishing attendees, themselves included, to listen carefully to each other, and urging all to lay aside acrimony and bitterness. A multination confederation, not a tribe with a distinct language, uniform value system, and singular religious practices, the Iroquois governed themselves by consensus, their path to transcending diversity. Oratory was a necessary skill, and they were famous for it among colonists and Indians alike. It was the means by which they convinced others and themselves of productive actions and resolutions of internal and “foreign” conflict. Its centrality suggests a component of what Euroamericans still label curriculum. Oratory advanced cross-generational teaching and learning.

Following the ritual opening and related history lessons, Fenton turned to the conference theme in an effort to complicate what he feared could become bland and boring issues. Historiographical barriers arose immediately in his presentation, notably with regard to Indian life before European contact. To reconstruct this past, he cautioned, historians required access to oral traditions, with more than mere nods to archaeology and anthropology’s research tools and findings. Lacking them, uninitiated historians could not grasp generally or in detail the trajectories of cultural change and continuity Indians had instigated across millennia. Not all their societies had developed in similar ways and speeds; some had devolved or disappeared completely. Tribal differences remained, and all were in motion. They became farmers; others, abetted by horses and guns, ranged farther afield as hunters and gatherers. Their spirit lives—their theologies, rituals, and cosmologies—shifted accordingly. Unless historians paid attention to the changes, they risked committing their guild’s fundamental error, writing Indian histories without Indian sources. In assessing white and Native relations before 1830, historians needed to know Indians from Indian perspectives.

Fortunately, Fenton observed, historians could find dizzying arrays of relevant materials. Written in English, French, Spanish, or other European languages, they lay scattered across the country in massive and local collections and in European libraries, museums, and archives. Great numbers were warehoused as U.S. government documents, others held by state historical societies. Surviving captivity memoirs by whites, a popular genre of the colonial and early national periods, and even fiction proved informative if contextually triangulated to help frame research questions. With difficult labor, oral traditions could be accessed and situated. Fenton concluded with an agenda of needs and opportunities for study: 1) the supplanting of Indians in New England; 2) the role of the Six Nations in founding the Republic; 3) biographies of Native and white individuals and societies; and 4) as a beginning, the connections among leading actors in emergent narratives, each rooted within Indian and white frameworks: the missionary, ethnologist, educator, and patriot. It was a short list but also outlined a tangled web of complex, transdisciplinary work to be done.

The supporting bibliography, not written entirely or principally by Fenton, provided citation details. The section on “Missions and Education” exposed an originating problem. It posited a false assumption that should have troubled historians generally, namely that Euroamericans through evangelical projects brought education to Indians. Here was a discordant note sounded in sharp contrast to Fenton’s emphasis on Indians’ long (and diverse) traditions of teaching and learning to guide cultural change and form their societies. The list and categories of sources revealed, for all who cared to see, that the Euroamerican concept of education was terrifyingly, maybe incurably, ignorant, that its true purpose was imperialistic, or both. Again, a path of study beckons.

Bailyn gave his paper on early American education six years after Fenton’s presentation. It was published the following year with the intent of disturbing often-trod areas of study overgrown with “an excess of writing along certain lines and almost undue clarity of direction.” It identified Ellwood P. Cubberley as a major culprit in the commission of historiographical errors. The interpretive essay and bibliography qualified, in Milton Gaither’s view, as a history of a history; in Bailyn’s view, the latter was an inept history to boot. Gaither perceived a young man at work who favored subtle wit and irony. Imagine Bailyn having fun. But at stake was serious business, a reconceptualization of early American life dictated by an unimaginable future, not a familiar, well-rehearsed past. Due in part to inadequate attention to the colonial period, education historians had missed this context in which “learning—the purposeful acquisition not merely of technical skills but of new ways of thinking and behaving—was essential.” On this point, Bailyn channeled Benjamin Franklin, pioneering exemplar of transformations in the inherited pattern of education among his Euroamerican contemporaries. Replacing stable cross-generational family status, the nature and persistence of servitude, and restricted opportunities for careers, “new devices for self-improvement and education” appeared. Colonists relaxed and amended expected family traditions and social structures as they invented wilderness communities and struggled to survive in them. Sectarian religion provided mooring of sorts, a trusted anchor. For Bailyn, that explained why they launched missions to convert, educate, and otherwise civilize the “savages” who surrounded and outnumbered them. Social life in the colony required unity, and the Indians were definitely different and eventually hostile. The colonists’ outreach exuded “bland piety” and “hypocrisy” but also “sincerity.” The effort failed miserably. “The English settlers, insensitive, inflexible, and righteous,” despite their need to adapt to strange and unwelcoming lands, proved “atrocious anthropologists,” habitual practitioners of feral ethnocentrism.

The implications become explicit in The Barbarous Years where Bailyn reconstructs seventeenth-century British encounters with Powhatans and other Algonquins without recourse to sources providing Indian perspectives on the invasions of their lands. The historiographical error could have been avoided, given the accumulating new research on North American Indian peoples, much of it coming from Native scholars working in anthropology, archaeology, demography, ethnohistory, plant biology, and U.S. history. Merle Curti’s social and intellectual history of human nature in Euroamerican thought also would have helped fashion more complex and dynamic depictions of Indigenous and white confrontations. In Education in the Forming of American Society, however, Bailyn credited white newcomers with introducing “the problem of group relations in a society of divergent cultures,” adding “a new dimension to the social role of education.” The “self-conscious, deliberate, aggressive use of education…spread throughout an increasingly heterogeneous society and came to be accepted as a normal form of educational effort.” It was to be enforced as ointment for the “unstable, highly mobile, and heterogeneous society” of colonial America. Schooling became “an instrument of deliberate group action.” The “transformation of education, turning on the great axles of society—family, church, community, and the economy—had become clear before the end of the colonial period.” Note the transformation grew from improvisation and generational breakdown. Experiments were underway. Unfortunately for Indians, the English missionary campaigns were both evangelical and more essentially propagandistic, experiments of a different order. Consider the contrasting anthropological and archaeological evidence of an inconvenient truth. The Powhatans, other Algonquians, and the Iroquois had long understood and practiced education as social intention, and now also facing grave uncertainty, they too tested new norms of educational effort. Bailyn does not recount their side of the story.

As promised, his essay delivered a hypothetical history, identifying myriad and fundamental needs and opportunities for study, but it slanted the perspective. Closely reasoned and documented, it nonetheless privileged a narrative that tilted the playing field on which envisioned investigations were to be conducted, admitting “it may well prove to be wrong or misleading.” In the essay on sources, Bailyn acknowledged the publication by “Fenton and others” but dwelt on the mission and education section of its bibliography, the details of which “need not be repeated here.” Arguably, he should have dug deeper, especially into Fenton’s layered conceptions of culture drawn from outside the history discipline at the time. In doing so, he would have found non-imperialistic examples of education as the process of cultural change and continuity, or at minimum framed rudimentary questions opening them to inquiry.

Bailyn confirms the bias in The Barbarous Years, a work subtitled The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675. Here emphasis falls on the process through which diplomatic and common courtesy extended by English and Algonquian tribes, specifically the Powhatan Confederacy, degenerated quickly into barbarity within both societies. Pointedly, he asks why the English became savages. One reviewer, a former Bailyn doctoral student at Harvard, judged the question faulty. First, it had surfaced in Bailyn’s original plan for the multivolume series published before the study was far advanced. Second, and perhaps for this reason, the sources cited almost three decades later tended not to take advantage of recent Native studies. The comment warrants an underline. American Indian histories have amassed exponentially over the past 30 years, with Native scholars contributing significantly to the enterprise. Critical acclaim, sales, and prestigious awards have accompanied the new productivity. Charles Mann complains, somewhat unfairly, that Bailyn’s premise commits the sins of anachronism and historicism, given the undeniable presence of Native inhabitants who met European invaders. His general title, The Peopling of British North America, notwithstanding, Bailyn knows his study concerns “the repeopling” of North America’s eastern seaboard. He intends to construct narratives of the colonists, a heterogeneous mix of European ethnicities, not English alone, and of Indians (“The Americans”), but his interpretation and the sources supporting it suggest grounds for skepticism. His secondary materials in history and anthropology tend to be old and indiscreetly selective. Bailyn dispenses rather abruptly with contested findings, for example, estimates of Indigenous populations, a matter related to mortality rates traceable to imported European diseases, and he avoids searching critiques of European missionary impulses. He displays detailed attention to the life styles and values of specific tribes, relying heavily on testimony from outsiders, but does not acknowledge limitations of this historiographical approach. His attraction to the British story, despite recognition that the Spanish came earlier, hints of racial, ethnic, and linguistic predispositions. With lyrical sophistication, he portrays Indians as exotic and doomed, a commonplace but backward-reading depiction of Native peoples as perceived by white outsiders. It tacitly assumes the clearest understanding of Indians is as conquered peoples. There is irony here. Bailyn misses opportunities in his subsequent investigations to amend, update, and otherwise extend his hypothesized linkage of education and culture in Education in the Forming of American Society. The omission casts doubt on the earlier work as merely a learned restatement of the Cubberley thesis: Schooling in the United States developed amid serial battles and opponents as increasingly embedded socialization. Does Lawrence Cremin’s take on historiographical sins of education history also warrant reassessments?

Breaking Ideological Molds

On lands incorporated as the contiguous United States, contacts among Indian peoples, white invaders, and migrants from the south and the north occurred in tidal waves of settlers, missionaries, itinerant hunters, and military personnel across more than four centuries, some predating Columbus’ voyages. Like that with Mexico, the long Canadian border remained relatively porous throughout, an openness compromised periodically by the Russian and U.S. acquisitions of Alaska and fluctuating policies of governments up and down the continent. Neither demarcation constrained travel by Indigenous Americans and never had. After the 1880s, U.S. expansion into Pacific and Caribbean islands changed the targets of empire building but not its rationale. What had happened previously proved to be merely dress rehearsal of a Euroamerican script many years in the writing. Advantaged by new research, we can see now the U.S. newcomers and their governments were neither prepared for nor inclined to accept the cultural legitimacy of the peoples occupying lands they wanted. To safeguard the forced acquisitions, this essay hypothesizes as a way of reading the evidence, they declared war on education. Other interpretations of longer duration are available for consideration—conquest, genocide, effective, if partial, assimilation—but they leave much unexplained. Why did American Indians typically resist the strategies and tactics, favoring instead both/and choices among traditional and white cultures? How have so many tribes and nations managed to survive against military, economic, and political forces and pandemic diseases? The second question implies they are winning the war. If so, how?

Answers to these three leading questions can be found in resilient Native cultures. Outsiders know more about them than previously, and evidence continues to accumulate. Newcomers to the U.S. during the post-Columbian era encountered culturally heterogeneous societies, some blended and formally allied, others distinctive, even warlike. Their oral traditions and sources reconstructed by archaeologists and historical anthropologists tell us they practiced cross-generational education. Adrea Lawrence perceptively names it “epic learning.” They adapted their cultures as disruptions occurred, thus reactivating practiced habits of change and continuity. Education enabled accumulations of cultural assets, what Jonathan Lear, in his study of the Crow Nation, labels “radical hope,” pervasive devastation notwithstanding. Other examples abound. Agricultural pioneers, Arikara Indians adapted corn horticulture and related religious ceremonies on a pre-Columbian, millennium-long migration from south Texas to North Dakota. Along the way, they engineered corn for diverse soils and climates, introduced the crop to Plains tribes (before Euroamerican contact), and acquired a reputation as entrepreneurs by organizing gatherings of the nations to exchange hides, tools, crafts, dances, songs, and stories. William Fenton’s high regard for the Iroquois was widely shared.  Charles Mann judges the confederacy to have been North America’s most influential polity above the Rio Grande River at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Sioux had attained similar status in the upper Plains a century later. The Comanches operated primarily in the lower Plains, the Southwest, and northern Mexico during this period. Recent studies conclude they had become the mightiest empire on North American soil by the mid-eighteenth century, eclipsing the world’s super powers in cultural sway and military capacity. The list is only illustrative of the many ways American Indians displayed distinct cultural strengths as educational attainments.

The inside of the Airkara Cultural Center in White Shield, ND. Photograph and caption by KuuNUx TeeRIt Kroupa. Personal collection.

The inside of the Airkara Cultural Center in White Shield, ND. Photograph and caption by KuuNUx TeeRIt Kroupa. Personal collection.

Their histories can liberate education historians to think again about their field and to weigh expansions. For one, the studies multiply the available instances of cultural continuity and adaptation, and thus of education, that occurred throughout the American continents outside those permitted within Euroamerican frameworks. They serve to de-provincialize the detection of teaching and learning, releasing curiosity from cultural blinders. For another, they draw upon sources and methods that can inform research on other topics in education history and education research. Multidisciplinary and comparative approaches seem essential but cannot be taken at face value. Anthropology, for example, has its own history of bias and curtailed interests to contend with. Buyers need to beware. Scholars in the social sciences and humanities have proved noticeably inept in posing and pursuing questions about teaching and learning phenomena. Their primary interests rest elsewhere, a preoccupation helping to explain why so many fail to acknowledge Native scientific achievements and other cultural assets. In framing such queries, education historians contribute not only to their own specialization but also to the literatures of other disciplines. Language can help with the liberation. As repositories of unique metaphors, symbols, and modes of analysis, American Indian histories offer treasuries of diverse ways of thinking and writing about education’s past, including that long period of declared war.

The author thanks Ben Warren for entering and revising multiple versions of the manuscript, constructing and correcting citations, reading it all with fine critical sensibilities, and telling me exactly what he thinks. Others helped significantly in similar ways, in writing and face-to-face: A. J. Angulo, Sara Clark, Abigail Gundlach-Graham, Jeremy Jernigan, Glenn Lauzon, Adrea Lawrence, Daniel Perlstein, Charles A. Tesconi, Jr., Wayne Urban, and Christian Ydesen. An earlier version of this article was presented as a paper at the 2014 International Standing Conference for the History of Education in London. Donald Warren is professor emeritus and university dean emeritus, School of Education, Indiana University Bloomington. He can be reached at

Charles Tesconi of American University and Wayne Urban of University of Alabama served as peer reviewers for this essay. Education’s Histories is grateful for their careful attention to and thoughtful feedback on this essay.


October 19th, 2014 by Sara Clark

A Methodology Guide to the 2014 History of Education Society Meeting

In less than a month, historians of education will descend en masse on Indianapolis for the 2014 History of Education Society Annual Meeting. The recently finalized conference schedule promises not to disappoint our twin desires to provoke discussions about methodology and promote innovation.

We are excited to foreground and highlight methodological discussions at this year’s meeting; the conference schedule suggests we are not alone in this effort. In order to generate methodological grist — in this case, the kind of forward motion that can come when minds collaborate around questions and conceptual issues central to the methods of our field — we have taken a first step.

We have assembled a “Methodology Guide.” The guide gathers and organizes conference sessions which most readily represent themselves as methodologically inclined. Our guide utilizes the following categories to help give shape to this year’s meeting:

   Oral History

   Teaching Methods

   Digital Approaches

   Quantitative Research


♦    Biography

   Multiple Research Methods


Of course, this guide is inherently incomplete. We hope it is used as a means for gathering and communicating. In this spirit, should you notice missing sessions or become aware of other important methodological discussions, please share them

During the conference, we will also be tweeting about methodological innovations, questions, and new directions. Follow us @edhistories and join the conversation #HES2014.

We are looking forward to sharing in a great conference with all of you!

Thursday, November 6

{Multiple Research Methods}
Finding and Funding Our Work: Lessons from New(er) Historians of Education

Chair: Michael Hevel, University of Arkansas

Local Archives and Reconstructing “Official” History

Jon Hale, College of Charleston

Exploring the History of Education at U.S. Presidential Libraries

DeeAnn Grove, University of Iowa

Using Legal Sources in the History of Education

Ethan Hutt, University of Maryland

Securing Archive Travel Fellowships

Michael Hevel, University of Arkansas

Friday, November 7

{Oral History}
♦ Exploring Participants’ Memories and Students’ Understanding of History to Better Represent Historical Change 

Chair and Discussant: Barbara Beatty, Wellesley College

Using Memory to Study the History of Education in the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction

Ben Davidson, New York University

Not in My Backyard: Race, Integration, and Opposition to Demographic Change in a Working-Class Kansas City Suburb, 1964-1990

Aaron Rife, Wichita State University

“Heirs of Conquest”: Historical Proximity, Usable Pasts, and Guatemalan Youth Understandings of the Spanish Conquest

Deirdre Dougherty, Rutgers University

Beth Rubin, Rutgers University

♦ Biographical Portraits in African American Philanthropy 

Chair: Andrea Walton, Indiana University

Giving Along the Way: Placing Madam C.J. Walker’s Philanthropy in Historical Context

Tyrone Freeman, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Mary Cable (1881-1944): A Teacher’s Contributions to Shaping Local Philanthropic Institutions

Lyndsay Cowles, Indiana University

Father Boniface Hardin, OSB, (1933-2012): Priest as Philanthropist

Nancy Chism, Indiana University

Discussant: Noah Drezner, Teachers College, Columbia University

♦ American Indian Education History: New Work and Methodological Insights for the History of Education ♦  

Chair: Adrea Lawrence, University of Montana

American Indian Histories as Education History

Donald Warren, Indiana University

Epic Learning in an Indian Pueblo: A Framework for Studying Multigenerational Learning in the History of Education

Adrea Lawrence, University of Montana

Education as Arikara Spiritual Renewal and Cultural Evolution

Standing Bear Kroupa, Arikara Cultural Center

Negotiating the History of Education: How Histories of Indigenous Education Expand the Field

Yesenia Cervera, Indiana University

The History of North American Education, 15,000 BCE to 1491

Milton Gaither, Messiah College

A Second Wave of Hopi Migration

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, University of Illinois

{Oral History}
♦ Histories on the Edge: New Methods for an Old Discipline 

Chair and Discussant: Adrea Lawrence, University of Montana

Of Laggards and Morons: A Conceptual Biography of Progressive Era Special Education

Benjamin Kearl, Indiana University

Here We Are: A Preliminary Collective Educational Life History of the Female Academic

Sara Clark, Indiana University

“Why Are You Going All the Way Up There to That White School?”: Oral History and Chicago School Desegregation

Dionne Danns, Indiana University

{Teaching Methods}
The Foundations of Education Project: A Workshop on Growing the History of Education in Our Colleges and Universities ♦  

Workshop Description: The Foundations of Education Project seeks to develop concrete “plan of action” to develop foundations programs at our institutions. Led by three facilitators, small groups will focus on: (1) the ways foundations is governed; (2) how our pedagogical styles can spur reform; and (3) the steps we are currently using to grow the inclusion of foundations in the (general) education curriculum.

Chair: Jon Hale, College of Charleston

Participants: Kevin Zayed, University of Illinois

Campbell Scribner, Ohio Wesleyan University

Isaac Gottesman, Iowa State University

(All HES Session)
{Multiple Research Methods}
{Oral History}
{Quantitative Methods}
 Evidence and Method in History of Education ♦ 

Chair: Christine A. Ogren, University of Iowa

Participants: John L. Rury, University of Kansas (quantitative methods)

Nancy Beadie, University of Washington (archival methods)

Dionne Danns, Indiana University (oral history)

Kathleen Weiler, Tufts University (biography)

Roger L. Geiger, Penn State University (institutional history)

Discussant: Carl F. Kaestle, Brown University

{Teaching Methods}
♦ Beyond Print: New Perspectives on Teaching Primary Sources   

Chair: Campbell Scribner, Ohio Wesleyan University

Exploring the Visual in Teaching the History of Education

Christine Woyshner, Temple University

Primary Source-based Instruction in Teacher Training Programs

Courtney Kisat, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

MOOC—American Education Reform: History, Policy, Practice

Michael C. Johanek, University of Pennsylvania

John L. Puckett, University of Pennsylvania

Saturday, November 8

{Digital Approaches}
{Teaching Methods}
 Leveraging Digital and Spatial Tools to Enhance Research and Teaching 

Workshop Description: This workshop discusses digital and spatial tools, such as GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and Omeka, for representing archival materials and enhancing their teaching and research in the history of education. We have structured the workshop to include three brief presentations to illustrate the various ways that historians have used these tools in their teaching and research followed by small group discussions on the benefits and limitations of these tools. We will provide participants with time to discuss their own projects and brainstorm ways that they might include these tools to enhance their teaching and research.

Chair: Campbell Scribner, Ohio Wesleyan University

Educating Harlem Digital Archive: Exploring the Role of Digital and Spatial Humanities in the History of Education

Ansley Erickson, Teachers College, Columbia University

Jean Park, Teachers College, Columbia University

Antonia Smith, Teachers College, Columbia University

Visualizing Your Research Aim: Linking Disparate Historical Sources to Map Inequality

Erika Kitzmiller, Harvard University

Lessons from the GIS Lab: Using GIS to Facilitate Undergraduate Research in the History of Education

Hilary Moss, Amherst College

{Multiple Research Methods}
♦ Rethinking the History of Education: Transnational Perspectives on Questions, Methods, and Knowledge 

Panel Description: The panel discussion is designed to advance a dialogue between leading historians working in education outside the United States and American historians of education. Oriented around a recently published edited volume, Thomas S. Popkewitz’s 2013 Rethinking the History of Education: Transnational Perspectives on Its Questions, Methods, and Knowledge, the panel brings together contributors to the book as well as two additional scholars (Reh and Rousmaniere) for a conversation about debates in the humanities and social sciences about knowledge and institutional practices that constitute schooling.

Chair: Noah Sobe, Loyola University, Chicago

Participants: Thomas S. Popkewitz, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Daniel Troehler, University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg

Mirian Warde, UNIFESP

Catherine Burke, Cambridge University, UK

Lynn Fendler, Michigan State University

Catarina Silva Martins, University of Oporto, Portugal

Discussants: Sabine Reh, Humboldt University, Germany

Kate Rousmaniere, Miami University, Ohio

 Intellectual Borderlands: Charting the Future for HEQ 

Session Description: Incoming editors for HEQ Nancy Beadie and Joy Williamson-Lott share some thoughts and invite ideas and discussion from HES members regarding new directions for HEQ.

Participants: Nancy Beadie, University of Washington

Joy Williamson-Lott, University of Washington

Kathryn Nicholas, University of Washington

Isaac Gottesman, Iowa State University

{Teaching Methods}
 Teaching History of Education to Diverse Audiences: Reflecting on Objectives, Curricular Priorities, and Pedagogy 

Chair and Discussant: Karen Graves, Denison University

Whose (her/his) Story? Constructing Knowledge and Developing Critical Thinking Skills in a History of Education Course

Natalie Ridgewell, University of Florida

A Pedagogy for Sustainability: A Graduate Student’s Reflection on Teaching the History of Education

Kenneth Noble, University of Florida

Teaching History of American Education to Graduate Students from Diverse Academic Disciplines

Sevan Terzian, University of Florida

{Teaching Methods}
 Using the Archives to Research and Teach about the History of Educational Philanthropy 

Session Description: Representatives from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy (LFSP) will participate in a panel discussion about using the archives, reflective writing, and experiential learning to teach about the history of educational philanthropy. Participants include the philanthropic studies archivist, philanthropic studies faculty members and doctoral candidates, and the head of undergraduate programs of LFSP.

Chair: Andrea Walton, Indiana University

What is Philanthropic Studies About, and How Can the Lens of Philanthropy Invigorate Our Teaching in the History of Education?

Andrea Walton, Indiana University

Philanthropy Primary Resources: Ready for Your Interpretation

Brenda Burk, Clemson University

The Philanthropic Autobiography: Connecting Education and Philanthropy Through Students’ Personal Narratives

Tyrone Freeman, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, IUPUI

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail: A ‘Sense of Place’ for Philanthropic Studies Undergraduates

Kathi Coon Badertscher, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, IUPUI

{Digital Approaches}{Teaching Methods}{Publishing}
 Collaboration as Students and Scholars in the Digital Age: Writing, Pedagogy, and Publication ♦ 

Session Description: This panel of faculty and graduate students will explore questions of how history endures as a discipline in the face of a rapidly changing digital and technological landscape. Panelists will consider a wide range of topics, including how best to engage students, publish and research in today’s academic context. Note: This session is sponsored by the Graduate Student Committee of the HES.

Chair: Kathryn Nicholas, University of Washington

Participants: Adrea Lawrence, University of Montana

Zoe Burkholder, Montclair State University

Antonia Smith, Teachers College, Columbia University

Sara Clark, Indiana University

Sunday, November 9

{Teaching Methods}
 Next Steps in Teaching Foundations and History 

(discussion and meeting of HES Teaching Committee)

Host: Jon Hale, College of Charleston

{Multiple Research Methods}
 Evidence and Method in History of Education 

Hosts: Dionne Danns, Indiana University

John Rury, University of Kansas


May 22nd, 2014 by Adrea Lawrence

Our Trickster, the School {part 4}

This entry is part [part not set] of 4 in the series "Our Trickster, The School" by Adrea Lawrence| May 2014

The following excerpt is Part 2 of a four-part essay “Our Trickster, The School,” published throughout May 2014. If this is your first time visiting our site, we encourage you to begin with Part I, Part II, and Part III. Subscribers to our site will also receive a complete version of “Our Trickster, The School.” 

 The Pore

Navajo Girls in Footrace, Navajo Reservation, Arizona, July 4, 1913. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-5386.

Navajo Girls in Footrace, Navajo Reservation, Arizona, July 4, 1913. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-5386.

Navajo Boys at Start of Footrace, Navajo Reservation, Arizona, July 4, 1913. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-4760.

Navajo Boys at Start of Footrace, Navajo Reservation, Arizona, July 4, 1913. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-4760.


“How did you come through the experience of being schooled?” asked the education historian.

“I was born to words, truly, ma’am—very old words, from the time when dogs could talk,” responded John Pai.

“Hmmm.  Having an affinity for words doesn’t really explain how you made it through the gauntlet.”

“I . . . remember myself,” Pai said.

“But, then, how did you come out to consider yourself an educated person?” asked the education historian.

“I was a camp child, a child of the cloth, trade cloth.  I preached to the dogs in the name of the Sailor, the dragonfly, and the muchacho.  Amen,” he said.

“Ah ha!  You subverted the school?!”

“Hmmm,” (Pai chuckled in the historian’s mind).

“Did you trick the trickster?” she asked, winking.


The trickster is not a singularity.  It acts and is acted upon.  As it tricks and is tricked, as it opens up pores for alternate possibilities, it engages individuals and communities in sometimes mundane and sometimes transformative ways.  Scholar Gerald Vizenor writes that “[t]he trickster is a communal sign, never isolation; a concordance of narrative voices.  The trickster is not tragic because the narrative does not promise a ‘happy ending.’”  The school invites such a “concordance of voices” even if it doesn’t mean to, begging the chance for trickstering and other potentialities. Most conventionally, and as most non-Native reformers had idealized, the school was a means into the mainstream U.S. economy for American Indian students, offering manual training in recognized vocations.  The formalized, written curriculum itself and student accounts of their experiences at schools run by the U.S. government attest to that.  Designed for industrial schools modeled after the Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes, Estelle Reel’s 1901 Course of Study for the Indian Schools of the United States, Industrial and Literary delineated a manual training and domestic arts curriculum that included blacksmithing, carpentry, engineering, agriculture, printing, cooking, housekeeping, laundry, and sewing.  The Course of Study also included study in traditional academic subjects like history, music, math, reading, geography, and physiology.


“Before [Max Hanley (Navajo)] le[ft] Sherman [Institute] he had mastered three trades. ‘In the white man’s words, “I specialized,” and certificates were filled our for me which identified what I could do best.’”


For Max Hanley, the Sherman Institute in California credentialed his skill in the several trades he had learned there.  The credentials verified his vocational competency to the world outside the Indian school; they were a pore for Hanley.  The credentials and the training that buttressed them were evidence that Hanley participated in a schooling experience that was familiar—at least on its face—to Americans with many different backgrounds.  In this way, the school’s recognition of Hanley’s skills affirmed his potential as a viable “American.”  But his credentials do not necessarily convey whether or not Hanley had converted himself in a wholesale fashion.  Hanley appears to have stepped through the instrumental portal by specializing in several trades, yet he identifies himself as outside the Euroamerican pale.  The ideals promoted by the school to refashion Indians into Americans fell in upon themselves.  Hanley was a skilled Indian straddling cultures.  As such, Hanley tricked the school as he confounded the reformer-idealists.  Hyde writes, “trickster stories are radically anti-idealist; they are made in and for a world of imperfections.”  Instead of a “happy ending,” there is an ambivalent and ambiguous one.


“[N. Scott Momaday’s] John Pai uses English not to repeat the propaganda of the schools, like the paper Indians, but to engage in a type of wordplay doublespeak that exemplifies the ‘riddle’ of his identity (22). When his teacher Carrie compliments him on his command of the English language, he responds, ‘Imagine. I am eloquent, and it isn’t even my native language.’ Carrie replies, ‘But you have taken possession of it, appropriated it, made it your own, as if you were born to it.’ Carrie means by this that he has been able to comprehend and reproduce the lessons in civilization that he has been taught at the school. She tells him, ‘You will make a fine preacher, John. You will spread the gospel, as they say. You will glorify the word of God.’ But when John Pai responds by saying ‘I was born to words, truly, ma’am—very old words, from the time when dogs could talk,’ suggesting that his eloquence is a Kiowa characteristic rather than an effect of English literacy, he puzzles her. And when he inverts her statement about glorifying the word of God, stating that he will glorify instead, ‘the word of dog, the voice of the turtle,’ Carrie says with exasperation, ‘If we can get past your impertinence! Your riddling is . . . out of place. Remember yourself,’ she commands. With a glance at the Medicine Wheel, John Pai insists, ‘I do remember myself: I was a camp child, a child of the cloth, trade cloth. I preached to the dogs in the name of the Sailor [Seta], the dragonfly [Koi-khan-hodle], and the muchacho [Mosatse]. Amen’ (22). Preaching to the Kiowa (in whose mythology the dog—and the ‘giant dog’ or horse—plays an important and respected role) in the name of the three frozen boys, keeping them alive by sharing their story with the people, John Pai sees himself with a far more complicated mission and repertoire of identity than his teacher claims for him.”


The ambiguity that trickster invites—in spite of itself—allows for a dynamism that can refashion and reformulate culture.  As the school bit Native students, it also provided an unwitting forum where a pan-Indian identity and literature developed.  For example, literary scholar Amelia V. Katanski writes that school newspapers were the subversive proving grounds for several American Indian writers.  Though school superintendents attempted to control the content and form of articles published in the papers, students found fissures in the domineering authority of the school, and shimmied through them.  N. Scott Momaday’s John Pai finds his way through the school’s personnel and curriculum, winning a spot at seminary.  When three of his friends freeze to death when attempting to escape the school and return to their families’ camps in a winter blizzard, John Pai discreetly disembarks from his journey to seminary to return to his family’s camp.  The faculty laments his “running away,” believing that he decided to forget his Euroamerican schooling.  Katanski argues that John Pai had cultivated and acted with a “repertoire of identity” that the school and its faculty did not recognize.  In writing John Pai, Momaday refashioned and reordered the categories through which John Pai might be understood.  He was a careful study with a deeply rooted compass that could recognize learning portals and avert being sucked into the school’s vortex. The Hopi did this on a grand scale, reformulating the categories of meaning derived from the school encounter all together.  Historian Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert argues that the group of Hopi students, young and old, who went to the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California from 1907-1910 enacted another form of migration that was congruent with earlier migrations which had helped define Hopi experience and culture over many centuries.  Whether or not the school recognized this is immaterial.  Lewis Hyde writes, “In creating cultural categories we give shape to this world, and whoever manages to change the categories thus changes the shape.”  The Hopi “jumped into the liminality” and bounced the colonialist purposes underlying the very existence of the school off of the school itself, creating a reformulation of cultural categories.

Hopi Boy Racing Horse, Hopi Reservation, Arizona, July 8, 1908. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-5687.

Hopi Boy Racing Horse, Hopi Reservation, Arizona, July 8, 1908. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-5687.


Our trickster, the school, is a methodological and axiomatic guidepost.  Historian Philip J. Deloria writes that the trickster “exceeds history, serving as a metaphor, a mode of inquiry, perhaps even a methodological position.  Laced through that method is a lack of certainty, the possibility that any claim may invert itself and become its opposite.  If one believes this, humility . . . stands as a critical ground.”  The school, our trickster, shows us how we should and should not live in this world as it builds itself up and implodes in on itself.  As it describes idealized forms of learning, it clouds unexpected learnings.  It is prismatically muddled and a transparent wayfinder; it is the spotlight and smoke.

The education historian thus asks, “Is the school a trickster, or does it make tricksters of us?”

Donald Warren of Indiana University and Christopher J. Frey of Bowling Green State University served as peer reviewers for this essay.  We are grateful for their careful attention to and thoughtful feedback on this meditation.