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May 31st, 2017 by Benjamin Kelsey Kearl

Special Education as both History and Theory: Disability and the Possibility of Interdisciplinary Friendship: A Multilogue Response to Ellis, Osgood, and Warren

I am excited by the responses that “Of Laggards and Morons” has generated from Jason Ellis, Robert Osgood, and Donald Warren. In attempting to reply to their insightful commentaries, I focus on the possibility of interdisciplinary friendship across education history and philosophy concerning not only the historical features and functions of special education but also the ways Progressive Era theories of human difference continue to haunt how education constitutes both itself and its subjects. Each of these efforts is informed by the scholarship of Bernadette Baker who serves as a model of this proposed historical-philosophical friendship.

Historicizing and Theorizing Special Education Together

Questions of theory are not new to education history, just as questions of history are not new to education theory. These questions bring history and theory and into conversation as mutually constitutive doings—history theorizes and theory historicizes. Good history is thus more than a recitation of past occurrences. Similarly, good theory is more than an ideological lens into which the past is pressed into view; it is rather, as Warren suggests, a prism that refracts light into spectrums that complicate what is being viewed. If history and theory work in concert, so too do empirics and theory with the important caveat that empirical phenomena do not exist apart from their method of observation. After all, as John Dewey reminds us: “To know the meaning of empiricism, we need to understand what experience is.” Within education, this empirical caveat gains import due to the propensity to dismiss as non- or mis-educative whatever observers do not recognize through the most convenient of education lenses, the school. Such “regimes of truth” enable education to make sense of what and whom is being viewed with the implication that observing human difference is what allows education to envision itself.

The argument I make in “Of Laggards and Morons” has similar ocular implications. That is, I maintain that to fully witness our educational present education historians and philosophers as well as policymakers must pass through the spectral refractions that special education casts upon general education. Baker helps to explain the importance of this movement:

If disciplines require compartmentalization and boundaries and if written History in the Academy in a variety of geopolitical locales must be predicated on an empirical condition of proof which requires an ocular portal and consensus around what is seen, how is it that some objects described as invisible become legitimated as real and continuously operationalized and not others, and why?

Of interest to Baker is why the child mind became an object of empirical study for the emerging discipline of psychology when an equally invisible phenomenon like the ghost did not garner similar academic support. This discrepancy suggests that history has a purpose, which Baker analyzes through juxtaposing four ways of thinking historically. The first puts into conversation the presumed link between history, correction, and subject-shaping with a hyper-presentism that ignores history as a way of escaping identity conflicts altogether. The second juxtaposition forces a dialogue between Darwinian evolution and proponents of theological devolution who maintain that human beings devolved into matter from pure consciousness. Next Buddhist questioning of whether there is such a thing as a self is juxtaposed with the location of the self in indigenous paradigms in an external, animate cosmos. Lastly, technology is seen as either rescuing history or as a historical condition from which humanity is in need of rescue. Baker also notes how juxtapositions of science and religion do not necessarily produce neat opposites, but rather amalgamating, antagonistic, and fluid regimes of truth that can be conscripted by either party to warrant their respective historical-empirical claims.

These juxtapositions are useful here in highlighting the ways historical thinking can extend beyond either/or distinctions in which empirical historicizations are positioned as oppositional and/or temporally prior to theoretical speculations. For example, writing Native American history from within a theoretical assumption that there are internally individuated selves presents historians with problematic understandings as does observing American education from a historical position that eclipses the extant educative practices of indigenous peoples. Thinking historically, then, is both a historical and a theoretical process within which it is unclear which has ontological priority or should be given argumentative preference. As suggested in “Of Laggards and Morons,” the history and theory of Progressive Era special education occurred together as education practiced defining itself through empirical classifications of human difference. Reconstructing such doings can help to elucidate, even if only in a refracted manner, the haunting legacy of classifying human differences.

Either/or distinctions inform Ellis’ call for the importance of historicizing as a way of countering the imposition of any “one true” theory of special education. Of concern to Ellis is that absent empirical accounts of its varied features and functions, special education is reducible to theoretical descriptions of social control. Against the easiness of such descriptions, Ellis argues that “‘special education’ is still very important in its own right, quite aside from what it can tell us about general education.” In highlighting this importance, Ellis links what it means to historicize special education first to the capacity to draw distinctions around the various features of Progressive Era special education, and secondly to the capacity to differentiate special education’s varied and contradictory functions. Of the five possible functions of special education, “Of Laggards and Morons” reflects only one: categorizing, tracking, and controlling disabled, different, difficult, or even threatening children. These two ways of historicizing special education provide the backdrop for Ellis’ more emphatic claim that within education’s histories special education is overly theorized. Osgood is also invested in the empirical features of Boston common schools and the functions of their differentiated curricular spaces.

Osgood’s response is attentive to the lack of needed distinctions in “Of Laggards and Morons.” Specifically, Osgood notes that the lack of any development of the methodological observation that education has and enacts a biography makes it difficult to distinguish the relevancy of this approach. Equally problematic for Osgood is the philosophical consideration that education generally defies definition. This consideration is important given the complex ways education manifests itself “differently in different countries, regions, states, locations, and public/private support.” Closely related to this point are the multidimensional complexities of not only Progressive Era education but also special education’s varied place and role within this complicated educational world as well as the location of school professionals. Like Ellis’ distinctive functions of special education, Osgood notes institutional features that might give pause to the claim that special education generally defines education. These include: segregated settings for normal and abnormal children, separate training for special and regular classroom teachers, and antagonistic “empire building” practices through which  special educationalists seek “greater power, influence, resources, and territory” by “cutting into the world of regular education.”

Ellis and Osgood’s commentaries necessitate important reconsiderations of “Of Laggards and Morons.” Taken separately, Ellis seems to be asking more of history to help offset theory, while Osgood seems to be asking more of theory to help clarify history. Taken together, these two distinguished historians of special education highlight the limitations of my own historical thinking about special education. I clearly have more work to do along the mutually constitutive paths of special education history and theory. Osgood’s own work at tracing the historical shifts in disability labeling and institutional formation is a helpful philosophical resource. “Of Laggards and Morons” is complementary to such efforts in that it posits error as amongst the reasons why and how labels and institutions changed over time. Following Warren, we might ask: How do we write an education history of errors whose miscalculations nonetheless continue to constitute education and its subjects? Irony, rather than evolution, helps to answer this question. Irony is detectable not only in noting how celebratory and empowering first-person labels come to replace terminology that degrades and marginalizes but also in observing to whom—which bodies—disability labels are made available, what labels are associated with which bodies, and how disability labeling continues to simultaneously make possible and obfuscate segregation. Within such observations, indeterminately defined labels and spaces work reciprocally to both make educated subjects and to populate educational worlds.

Ellis’ discussion of Lewis Terman’s intervention into the nature and causes of learning problems is also helpful in journeying along the path of special education history and theory. This discussion suggests that intelligence testing grew to prominence because it could explain in scientific detail learning problems whereas administrative progressives like Leonard Ayes could only postulate a general backwardness. Terman’s intervention leads Ellis to theorize the existence of a “testing moment,” which students could potentially resist. While Ellis’ efforts to complicate special educations’ functions is helpful, as presented, they appear as distinctions without a difference. For example, diagnosing and treating children “who should have been able to read, but could not” is not only about classifying dis/ability according to a borderline of ab/normality but also about determining which bodies should be performing ability better than other bodies. As argued in “Of Laggards and Morons,” such determinations occur against a historical backdrop of indeterminate definitions of human difference.

In The Measure of Intelligence, for example, Terman notes that borderline cases are “not marked off by definite IQ limits,” which means that some borderline cases are able “to manage as adults [and] to get along fairly well in a simple environment.” This is because “the ability to compete with one’s fellows in the social and industrial world does not depend upon intelligence alone. Such factors as moral traits, industry, environment to be encountered, personal appearance, and influential relatives are also involved.”A similar definitional indeterminacy facilitated the development of the learning disability label. Progressive Era practices of theorizing human difference thus anticipate a subsequent desire for a testing moment that “explained reading problems of white middle class children without raising questions about the cultural integrity of middle class homes.” If disability labels are not ahistorical, but are constituted by, within, and for theories of human difference, then both history and theory are equally helpful in asking, for instance, what counts as “learning” for an LD label or as an “emotion” for an ED label and why and to whom keeping track of these differences matters.

The Haunting Legacy of Classifying Human Differences

Baker’s above juxtapositions not only highlight different ways of thinking historically but also the importance of theoretical considerations to this thinking. More specifically, “how belief in the existence and characteristic of mind becomes and continues to be an administrative platform, plane of composition, and site of dis/qualification in the face of historical insults and injuries that have divided populations in the United States.” In problematizing how the child mind became scientized by, within, and for education, Baker also suggests how ways of seeing determine who—which bodies—count as being located within history; that is, which bodies are afforded a childhood. Those “savage” populations encountered through colonialism were thus infants who existed outside the history of Western civilization. Progressive Era education was tasked with advancing these populations out of their atavistic ways through adolescence and into adulthood. Colonized bodies were thus made into subjects of education by first becoming objects of historical inquiry.

Returning to The Measure of Intelligence, Terman was less than sanguine about the task set before education when it came to “Indians, Mexicans, and negroes”:

Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come. The fact that one meets this type with such extraordinary frequency among Indians, Mexicans, and negroes suggests quite forcibly that the whole question of racial differences in mental traits will have to be taken up anew and by experimental methods. The writer predicts that when this is done there will be discovered enormously significant racial differences in general intelligence, differences which cannot be wiped out by any scheme of mental culture.

While the racist tendency of naturalizing intelligence as hereditary perhaps falls within Ellis’ criticism concerning the easy quotability of eugenic discourses, Terman’s observation that new experimental methods will be required to understand differences in mental traits and his assertion that such differences cannot be ameliorated through learning not only posits the existence of learning deficits but also substantiates deficit thinking as a scientifically valid way of understanding human differences; a way of historical thinking that continues to haunt education and colonize its subjects.

The recapitulationism of child development specialists like G. Stanley Hall and the philosophical theories of mind from psychologists like William James also informed the scientific and nationalist realities of which bodies were empirically and thus also imperially adult. These theories were not only made to apply to colonized populations, but also to Black children already within America’s slave economy. Western nations justified their observing and classifying children of color and colonized populations by virtue of having already empirically defined themselves as being within history’s temporal borders. While Ellis and Osgood’s argument that “Of Laggards and Morons” posits a true theory of Progressive Era special education does not go unnoticed, I would suggest that more central to my argument is how indeterminate labels and categorical spaces are vital forces whose regimes of truth work to constitute education by offering a picture of reality through which it can envision both itself and its subjects. To suggest that theories of special education operate as if they are true and to then account for the effects of these truth operations is not the same as positing a true theory of special education.

Osgood notes that “Of Laggards and Morons” is on to something; specifically, I help to substantiate inclusionist claims that “it’s all special education.” Such praise notwithstanding, I cannot help but wonder if this directionality works the other way—that is, it’s all general education. Understanding that a complete discussion of inclusion debates is beyond the scope of this reply, “Of Laggards and Morons” seeks to historicize how persons with disabilities come to be included within general education. Here disability labeling and the categorical spaces of special education work in concert to reciprocally define and populate general educational worlds through the use of, for example, juridically configured individual education plans. The use of rights-based tactics of inclusion thus seems to belie Osgood’s insistence that there are “significant distinctions between the concepts of disability and special education.” Instead, “Of Laggards and Morons” shows how the indeterminate uses of disability labels makes inclusion more likely for bodies already proximally located along the normative borders of general education. Uses of disability labeling also run counter to Ellis’ insistence that special education be considered apart from its general education implications and the easy quotability of eugenicists like Henry H. Goddard.

Ellis and Osgood’s argument that “Of Laggards and Morons” overemphasizes the social controlling features of special education at the expense of its ameliorative functions also does not go unnoticed. While acknowledging this theoretical propensity, I would push back that writing in this direction is made easy by the quotability of eugenic discourses by suggesting that education has still not adequately addressed how its classificatory past makes possible a biopolitically racist present. Still, Ellis and Osgood ask an important question: If special education services are so controlling, then how is it that these provisions uplift this or that student? While special education can be benevolent, it is important to recognize that amelioration relies on locating individual students along a continuum of dis/ability in which students are distanced from each other in proximal relation to the features and functions of their human differences. Hence the insistence upon “severe” categories of disability. Rather than taking a normative position on whether special education is benevolent or malevolent, “Of Laggards and Morons” instead invites discussion of the uses of special education towards these two ends.

Just as there is not a true theory of special education, its regimes of truth are not universally applicable across student bodies. “Of Laggards and Morons” thus does not preclude benevolent understandings of special education; rather, it seeks to incite education history and philosophy as well as policymakers to be attentive to who—which bodies—are ameliorated by, within, and for special education. Baker helps explain the importance of this incitation:

The analyses of exam results that point to which populational groups fail or succeed at what do not simply tell us of the existence of racism or sexism or classism or ableism. Exams are already the vectors of such –isms, sites for the recirculation of power, a form of discipline and punishment that assumes ontologies can be segregated, graded, and differentially valued before any body-mind even enters the examination room.

At stake for Baker here is questioning whether it is possible to imagine education otherwise. Alternatives to special education’s classificatory past continue to be haunted by scientifically and juridically configured inscriptions of dis/ability within which the child mind continually becomes an object of inquiry that is made to empirically reflect an already measured reality. Such reflections, in turn, become conditions of truth about who children are even before their minds can be examined. The child mind was made to visibly reflect such a reality by being positioned against the equally invisible ghost. This juxtaposition substantiated the empirical and material nature of the child mind while also producing the measurable effects of this nature. The disavowal of the ghost as immaterial and thus beyond the empiric temporality of this reality is perhaps not that dissimilar to Darwin’s biologically historicized human being. In each moment, human beings are made through and different by their inscription within history.

Our collective inability to imagine education otherwise is thus telling of how education continues to be colonized by a reality that envisions both itself and its subjects in terms of having to prove an ability to do something and to succeed in the direction that such abilities are measured. While debates over the degree to which certain child minds need help in proving themselves as such or whether such proof is even necessary remain important, the difficulty in imagining education without these debates will persist until education can imagine itself differently. Disability is an affirmative, embodied position from which such imaginings are possible as well as a critical positionality from which education history and philosophy can foster friendship.

Education’s Histories would like to thank Benjamin Kelsey Kearl for his multilogue response and continued discussion of education’s histories and theory.

April 5th, 2017 by Donald Warren

“A Narrower than Necessary Focus”: Jason Ellis and Benjamin Kearl on Special Education History: A Multilogue Response to Benjamin Kelsey Kearl and Jason Ellis

In his response to the Kearl examination of special education’s early classification schemes, Jason Ellis solidifies his standing as a historian to watch for authoritative critical insights across several fields of inquiry. These include special education history, of course, and they reach farther afield into the broader precincts of education’s histories, education research, and the history discipline generally. Ellis perforates multiple borders, leaking implications with abandon. On that point, his comments reinforce Kearl’s findings and analysis but do so from a different angle.

He reminds readers of a vibrant new literature in special education history. It is more nuanced, sophisticated, and, he puts it, “historicized” than much previous work, although dispensable romantic versions continue to be published. He guides us through a sample of this fresh material, a highly beneficial service. For one, Ellis refers to doors opened by consultations with classroom teachers and their on-the-spot pedagogical creations. Through these and other sources, recent research underscores his argument that historical inquiry on special education remains unfinished business. We need to get the story right to root complex understandings of the field’s ways and means and to trace their impact on policy over the years. Warning against a rush to theory, he wants to fend off the simplistic dichotomies of either/or interpretations of special education’s past and worries that abstracted explanations will distract us from this essential task. His concern makes sense, given the knotted history still being untangled.

But here’s the thing: in concluding the hard labor of historicizing, as he has ably and provocatively done, he knows its implications are two-way streets. Part of the special education problem has been that education’s histories have blocked it in conceptually unjustified culs-de-sac. Whatever our concentrations, we historians need to find exits from the dead-ends. No empirical weight compels us to settle on “a narrower than necessary focus.” Ellis demonstrates the opposite is the case. In effect, he presses us to do our jobs competently in light of the latest findings. That entails ongoing conceptual excavations, tossing nets repeatedly in search of possibly relevant sources and contexts, and letting the evidence lead us, ever alert for the siren misdirections of unexamined assumptions. One way to contemplate Ellis’ comments is to see them as an outlined historiographical manual. He recognizes the deficiencies in this multilogue and his compelling 2013 History of Education Quarterly article. I am not familiar with his paper, “The History of Education as ‘Active History,’” but the title alone makes me want to read it in anticipation of his forthcoming book. He makes a strong case for historical multitasking.

He and Kearl rightly select the progressive education era as a prismatic topic potentially refracting light beyond itself onto special education, the history of education, history generally, and the intimately connected past of education research. There is much work to be done, including clear-eyed revisits to earlier contributions now suspected as incomplete if not false. Daniel T. Rodgers, for one, advocates a bigger canvas for a portrait that amends (or upends) national and continental foci. Without referencing them, his analysis casts doubt on the utility and empirical basis of David Tyack’s often cited categories of progressive education. Tyack wanted to differentiate among progressive “types,” but Rodgers’ global perspective captures progressivism as a safe haven for a colonialist mentality. He erases the irony from Tyack’s identification of a one-best system of schooling, offering tragedy as a more descriptively accurate trope. Rodgers doesn’t get the last word; he only frames questions historians of special education may find enticing.

I read Kearl’s two-part essay as an advance on the reconceptualization project, not a distraction from the historiographical work Ellis recommends. Grounded principally in philosophical sources and driven by their methods, Kearl’s theories are proposed as signposts for historical investigations. They create spaces for Ellis’ agenda.

Education’s Histories would like to thank Donald Warren for his multilogue response to  Benjamin Kelsey Kearl’s essay, “Of Laggards and Morons: Definitional Fluidity, Borderlinity, and the Theory of Progressive Era Special Education (Parts 1 & 2)” and Jason Ellis’s multilogue response, “The Theory of Special Education and the Necessity of Historicizing.”

February 14th, 2017 by Robert L. Osgood

Beyond Laggards and Morons: The Complicated World of Special Education

Benjamin Kearl’s “Of Laggards and Morons: Definitional Fluidity, Borderlinity, and the Theory of Progressive Special Education” constitutes a complex, ambitious, and provocative reassessment of central aspects of the early days of public special education in the United States. Drawing on a variety of primary and secondary sources, Kearl attempts to describe how a true theory of progressive special education represents an essential aspect of “how education, through its various classificatory schemes, defines itself.” Kearl revisits initiatives to bring efficiency and purpose to public education through its Progressive Era efforts to delineate more fully and accurately the nature of learning and cultural differences among schoolchildren by refining the manner and working definitions used in determining these differences. In the process, he explores the development of the classificatory term “moron” to demonstrate how such efforts and definitions changed over time as education sought to situate itself in the pantheon of progressive institutions during the early 1900s. In discussing this history, Kearl offers refreshing new views of how “special education” emerged as a significant component of public schooling, one more closely related to traditional or “regular” education than other historians have argued. His explorations raise new questions as well as touch on more entrenched cautionary concerns about issues of definitions, labeling, scientific judgments, and the often difficult, long-term relations between traditional classrooms and segregated settings for those students identified as exceptional.

In his introduction, Kearl underscores his primary thesis: “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.” He claims that this approach:

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, but how these schemes also give education itself coherence as a subject. This methodological implication is important given education’s desire for a theory of special education.

Basic to this approach is Kearl’s claim that two key elements lie at the foundation of education’s attempts to define itself: definitional fluidity and borderlinity. “Definitional fluidity and borderlinity,” writes Kearl, “are necessary requirements of any classificatory scheme.” Redefining these terms and their content based on “the shortcomings of any particular classification” as unveiled through experience or experimentation does “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….In working to define the categorical spaces of normality and abnormality education itself becomes generally defined.” Using the terms and concepts of “laggard” and “moron” (including their moral as well as cognitive components), the essay explores in depth how definitions change over time as a result of new “science” and new practical understandings (definitional fluidity). It also examines how the envisioning of the ways schools should address these shifts in understandings leads to restructuring of classificatory schemes and the rethinking of why certain children belong in certain places within formal education—“the space of overlap between normality and abnormality” (borderlinity).

Kearl’s essay is a complex investigation of a variety of issues, primarily those of Progressive Era attempts to structure schools more efficiently and produce more useful outcomes, i.e., workers and citizens for a new industrial society. The notion of early twentieth century schools adapting to new social and economic realities, the employment of Taylorism in school organization and restructuring, and the realities of schools marking clear delineations in ways students are taught and what students were to study have been explored in depth by scholars such as Lawrence Cremin, Herbert Kliebard, Joel Spring, David Tyack, and Raymond Callahan. What Kearl brings new to the table is the idea that these efforts were and continue to be part and parcel of developed “theory of progressive special education,” the ultimate impact of which has been to incorporate and exemplify all the essential functions of a reified “education.” His essay reflects a sophisticated awareness of the complicated transitions of labels and school structures related to disability. His discussion of the evolution of the term “moron” is enlightening, and the journey the term undergoes when being applied to school settings is presented with insight and nuance. However, while certainly ambitious and original—two qualities essential to the progress of good social and intellectual history—it does raise certain questions and caveats.

To begin with, readers would benefit from a more extensive discussion and literature review of the method of applying biography to an institution. His assertion that education as an institution seems to act on its own without input from teachers, administrators, or other participants in its development and practice needs clarification: If these people aren’t changing and defining education, who—or what—is? Examples of how a social institution acts on its own, and/or references to the literature that could explain this, would be most helpful.

Of more common concern is the millennia-long discussion of “defining education.” This is a question that is at least as much philosophical as it is historical or practical. Kearl thus understandably does not attempt to answer “how education defines itself,” except in the confines of identifying student difference as a fundamental function and characteristic. Education is of course multi-layered, complex, and manifested differently in different countries, regions, states, locations, and public/private support. In many ways it defies definition. I would be eager to get a better sense of what that definition looks like to Kearl and how it reflects more than anything a “progressive theory of special education.”

Related to this are the multidimensional concepts of Progressivism and the Progressive Era. “Progressive education” is often constructed as child-centered, social, interactive, hands on learning—Dewey’s notion of the New Education as opposed to the Old Education. But Progressivism applied to education during the Progressive Era also embodies the factory model of schooling, compulsory education, manual/vocational training, and schools being used as training grounds for workers and citizens who would do what they were told to serve the modern world. Even special education walked both these worlds: It served special education as a sorter of children for society’s sake and a mechanism for helping schools run more efficiently, while also demonstrating new approaches to curriculum and instruction that exhibited not only sorting and efficiency but also individualized instruction and hands-on, project-based learning. Thus any “theory of progressive special education” requires greater detail and complexity than a general understanding of it as a producer of classificatory systems used by all of “regular” education.

Finally, Kearl could and should address the long-held understanding that special education and regular education do in fact exhibit significant distinctions that would inhibit, or at least give pause to, the idea that special education can and does indeed define regular education. The long history of segregated settings for “feebleminded” and “normal” children in sizable public school systems, the history of separating the training and diminishing the status of special education teachers from regular education teachers, the notion of “empire building” that arose during the 1950s and 1960s claiming that special education was seeking greater power, influence, resources, and territory that was seen as cutting into the world of regular education—and the animosity that accompanied those charges for decades—all suggest that special education and regular education have long been at odds with each other over a number of critical issues since the term “special education” first came to mean working with children with deficiencies or disabilities at the National Education Association’s 1902 annual meeting.

Other methodological and thematic questions emerge from Kearl’s important essay that move beyond concepts of the relation and overlap between what is called “special education” and “regular education.” First, any fully informed discussion of the relationship between special education and regular education–especially as depicted in Kearl’s figures presented early in the essay–can and should benefit from the extensive and multifaceted voices of school professionals themselves. Elizabeth Farrell was most certainly a crucial early player in the emergence of any theory and practice of special education, but Kearl seems to focus much more on the work of professors, medical personnel, directors of public and private residential institutions, and recognized experts in the field of feeblemindedness, especially H. H. Goddard. The debates and evidence Kearl presents come extensively from the Journal of Psycho-Asthenics and other appropriate professional literature; it would be helpful to know if the authors held positions in schools and if the view of the public school professional is sufficiently represented in the discourse. For example, Edwin Seaver, Superintendent for the Boston Public Schools for twenty critical years, commented on distinctions among “grades” of feeblemindedness well before Goddard addressed the issue of the complicated nature of “filling” the category of “moron” and the struggles surrounding such efforts in 1910.

Kearl’s use of biography to examine this history is original and thought provoking. Even so, any biography must consider the whole entity, which from the start makes this approach more appropriate for a monograph-length work than an essay such as this. I would certainly encourage Kearl to continue to pursue this approach. In doing so, I do ask that he keep in mind that issues such as labeling, the use of labels other than the moron for cognitive disability, the medicalization of disability and special education throughout the 1800s and 1900s, and the crucial, significant distinctions between the concepts of disability and special education all constitute important considerations as biographical components that arose during the Progressive Era.

This essay holds much promise for rethinking our perceptions of distinctions between special education and regular education. At the heart, Kearl is truly on to something. The history of American public education is certainly rooted deeply, unavoidably, in efforts to distinguish the skills and backgrounds of students from each other. Kearl cites Gelb’s important article that examines the evolution of constructs of cognitive disability, and Kearl then proceeds to draw an accurate picture of how public school systems have continued to classify and reclassify various students into labels and settings manifesting “definitional fluidities” and “borderlinities” up to this very day. Traditionally, special education has been seen as these efforts taking place on opposite, clearly marked ends of the cognitive and behavioral bell curves, with “regular education” focusing on those falling within the standard deviation. Kearl challenges us to recast this along lines which others, especially those espousing the full inclusion movement, promote: it’s all special education. The current popularity of the Response to Intervention (RTI) model comes much closer to demonstrating a more current “theory of progressive special education” than does the historical classificatory fluidity and borderlinity on which Kearl focuses. This may be too Whig-ish a history, but perhaps the constant evolution of the classificatory schemes Kearl discusses are finally coming to bear fruit that would nourish his thesis. At any rate, it is certainly worth talking about.

Robert L. Osgood is a professor of teacher education at St. Norbert College in De Pera, Wisconsin. He can be reached at He would like to thank Benjamin Kelsey Kearl for his essay and the editorial staff at Education’s Histories.

Education’s Histories would like to thank Robert L. Osgood for his multilogue response to Benjamin Kelsey Kearl’s essay, “Of Laggards and Morons: Definitional Fluidity, Borderlinity, and the Theory of Progressive Era Special Education (Parts 1 & 2)”


January 31st, 2017 by Jason Ellis

The Theory of Special Education and the Necessity of Historicizing: A Multilogue Response to Benjamin Kelsey Kearl and Donald Warren

Theory, especially the new and engaging sort, is a welcome addition to the special education historiography. Benjamin Kelsey Kearl’s essay in two parts offers readers one fresh and exciting interpretation of the historical meaning and significance of special classes and programs. In this response to Kearl, I argue that alongside the theoretical work he does, historians still need to do research that historicizes special education’s many features in order to draw out the multiple historical meanings and wider significance to the educational history of the special classes that first appeared as a reform in American and Canadian schools over a century ago.


The substance of Kearl’s essays is that “classificatory schemes” in special education relied on elastic borderlines that could be taken in or let out, often as general education required. These elastic borders—and special education more generally—Kearl argues, are significant for what they reveal about general education in the Progressive Era. He writes:

Definitional fluidity and borderlinity enabled the science of [sic] 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.

To sustain its own existence, Kearl contends, education was compelled to “order difference”—and no area excelled at this more than special education.

Read the rest of this entry »

December 14th, 2016 by Donald Warren

Escaping Befriended Circles: A Multilogue Response to Benjamin Kelsey Kearl’s “Of Laggards and Morons: Definitional Fluidity, Borderlinity, and the Theory of Progressive Era Special Education”

Benjamin Kearl offers an overview of the twentieth-century development of special education in the United States. The reconstruction draws together fugitive and fragmented literature that he treats as primary sources needing context and validation. He delivers both convincingly and ably, applying historiographical and philosophical standards. The result is a provocative, aggravating history of historic errors, a history of not merely miseducation but also anti-education. Unrepentant irony courses the story as a connecting theme. The damage stretches from special education into education itself. Cutting across multiple disciplines, Kearl gives us an urgent research agenda littered with landmines of various sorts and temptations to settle for the faulty science that gave us the narrative in the first place.

The densely packed paper thus raises critical issues regarding the general study of education. They seem to be directed principally to historians, but Kearl’s analysis and its implications reach farther and deeper. He has penned a broadside and knows it. The title is properly specific, with little hint of what follows, although “definitional fluidity” may be a giveaway. Readers with pictures of education in their heads can expect surprises. Kearl’s contributions range across methodological and topical concerns, including relevant policies and their authors’ conceptual orientations. He challenges common thinking about education, a habit of mind he faults as intellectually and morally deficient. The essay seethes.

Kearl intends to start a conversation, perhaps to end an older misguided one, and lay a foundation for fresh thinking. Relative to the last point, I am tempted to add that he wants to begin constructing perimeters to focus the proposed inquiry, but his preliminary analysis pretty much destroys productive use of border terminology in education research, save in warning us about ideas, definitions, and actions to avoid. History and philosophy inform his perspective and provide his toolset. The sources and methods of both disciplines are essential, he argues, and they complement each other. We need conceptual clarity and acknowledgement that it never arrives context free. Time, place, and principal actors intersect to shape the “use value” of ideas. Documentation and analysis may reveal them to be illogical, dicta seeking only administrative efficiencies, self-serving opinions of experts defending or promoting their reputations, or blind affirmations of cultural biases. A host of interested constituents benefit from parsings of whether the ideas pose physical, moral, or venal dangers relative to the welfare of special education’s proposed beneficiaries. Keeping the endpoint in mind is crucial, assuming the field’s purpose is to edify, to advance learning as a process and destination.

Kearl proposes we move toward that goal with greater assurance methodologically by examining education biographically. This means, of course, that we pay close attention to human factors while probing the ways education has defined itself. The latter send education into troubling waters, a self-powered momentum. It casts education as an entity in its own history, a force replete with assumptions and classificatory schemes immune or hostile to children’s learning. As a research problem, education acquires intellectual and moral qualities. Kearl’s treatment employs special education, his specific topic, as a prism, an analytical tool uniquely able to refract light beyond itself across education generally. He makes a compelling case for conjoined history and philosophy in policy studies.


Consulting widely for possibly useful materials, he pushes outside the usual confines of education’s histories. See, for instance, his authoritative notes on U.S. historians Drew Gilpin Faust and Louis Menand. He also cites work by Adrea Lawrence and Sara Clark, neither of whom takes the embedded education narrative at face value. Like Kearl, they qualify as outliers. Among his other references are studies drawing on one or another of the social sciences. They challenge special education’s standard fare, substantively and methodologically, but like it, they tend to be isolated studies rarely consulted by scholars and practitioners in other fields. One of Kearl’s telling contributions is an expansion of the relevant literature that forces estranged sources into conversation with each other. The approach enables us to frame sharper historical and philosophical questions regarding special education and its professional family. Here again irony rears its head. If special education is supposed to be a separate field, as its advocates insist, why and how have its guiding ideas, practices, and policies mirrored general schooling in such detail? Or has influence moved the other way?

In addressing the uncertainty, Kearl discharges his heaviest weapons. The target becomes education science. Its proponents veered sharply and fatefully from paths being blazed early in the twentieth century within physical and natural sciences toward preoccupations of widely discredited eugenics and social Darwinism, buttressed by ever more refined calculations and evolving classifications of special education “conditions.” Kearl detects the trend’s precedents in the origins of the common school and the founding rationales of public education articulated by the likes of Horace Mann and Henry Barnard in the Jacksonian and antebellum eras. The problem was the reformers’ discomfort with what they deemed obvious exceptions to inclusive rhetoric. The aim and policy justification of “publicly” funded schooling amounted to what we today call equal opportunity for all, but some students were judged unequal to schooling tasks. They presented deficits requiring uncommon curriculums, pedagogies, and for designated populations separate institutions. These turned out to be those with physical and mental limitations, but also others from immigrant backgrounds or who had variously defined delinquency histories. Cultural differences colored judgements.

Kearl skims this history in order to land more squarely amid the origins of special education classifications and the beginnings of educational measurement early in the twentieth century. Both were guilty of circular reasoning, self-fulfilling prophecies, uncritical deference to experts, and related missteps into ersatz science. The aims were to confirm and reinforce assertions, as opposed to those endorsed by contemporary pioneers in science to correct findings and prove hypotheses unfounded. This aura of self-congratulation coincided with the beginning professionalization of education, visible in a hardening of the mission of the National Education Association away from the interests and presumably lower status of teachers, and founding of the American Educational Research Association. AERA is celebrating its centennial year in 2016, an inclination hard to reconcile with its likely impetus. How should we celebrate scientifically a history rooted in anti-science? Constructed as untroubled evolution, building from project to project, science can slide unnoticed from its mission to discover. Is the tendency pronounced in education science and special education? If so, their findings warrant Kearl’s skepticism and critical attention by teachers, students, parents, policymakers, and scholars.

Effects of the circular reasoning of “the theory of Progressive Era special education” leak farther afield. To find them isn’t easy given their camouflage. We need the blend of the history and philosophy Kearl executes. The colonial mindset he uncovers in special education, rule by experts who trimmed science to fit their procrustean bed of assumptions and predispositions, also shaped the agendas of Progressive Education generally. It was blatantly evident in school reforms imposed in Caribbean nations and the Philippines, as the U. S. entered its overt empire-building phase in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We are overdue for a fresh critique of Progressive Education liberated from celebratory tones and breathless gratitude to John Dewey. Recall that he renounced adulation as a research format many years ago, asking skeptically what exactly was progressive about Progressive Education as a reform movement. Kearl sets before us an intriguing, under explored trail, opened from inquiry on special education.

His agenda sketches work to be done, and it promises to be a labor of Sisyphus with no end in sight. Case studies will draw from interdependent historical and philosophical methods, and substantively, they may confirm his hypothesis that special education offers entree to other education projects. Cross-national and global inquiry can help us learn whether the deficiencies he uncovers originated in and slanted U.S. education or had a broader reach. Should we think of education as a culture and study it as such? Thanks to Kearl, the question suggests an entirely different approach to education, its historical and philosophical nutrients, and its extensions in policy and practice.

Education’s Histories would like to thank Donald Warren for his careful review of Benjamin Kelsey Kearl’s essay, “Of Laggards and Morons: Definitional Fluidity, Borderlinity, and the Theory of Progressive Era Special Education (Part 1 & Part 2)” and for allowing us to publish his 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 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.


December 30th, 2015 by Michael Bowman

Flattening Hierarchies in a Round World: A Multilogue Response to Goldenberg’s “Youth Historians in Harlem (Part 2 of 2)”

Editors’ note: We sent Goldenberg’s original essay to Bowman for peer review. Bowman’s original review was shared with Goldenberg, who subsequently revised his essay. In turn, Bowman has updated his review to reflect changes from the original to the revised essay and to incorporate the responses from Jack Dougherty’s first multilogue response. Rather than bury this behind-the-scenes exchange between the author and a reviewer, we share it to reveal more about the process of creating scholarship within the community of educational historians.

Barry Goldenberg followed his introductory installment about the Youth Historians in Harlem (YHH) project with an examination of his experience teaching oral history methodology and conducting oral history interviews alongside youth. The introductory article framed the work by asserting—correctly, I think—that there remain “untapped synergies among historians of education, historical research, and local youth.” The second article began to explore those synergies by illuminating the process of the co-collection of oral histories by scholars and high school students.

Like Jack Dougherty, reading Goldenberg’s essay immediately took me back to my own teaching experience. Between 2003-2005, fellow educators from Wing Luke Elementary School and staff from the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, led bands of curious fourth graders up and down Seattle’s Jackson Street and into early 20th century buildings that held stories of trans-Pacific labor migrations, Chinese benevolent associations, Japanese ten-cent stores, and interracial jazz clubs and dance halls. Armed with dog-eared copies of Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place, we attempted to bring to the forefront the social and cultural histories—the working landscapes—of a street and area that our students traversed on a regular basis. While our students interviewed shopkeepers, jazz musicians, and long-time residents (with, ironically, funding from The History Channel), Goldenberg’s oral history project was a much more structured affair. In Goldenberg’s words, equipping high school students with “institutional disciplinary training” gave them the credibility and credentials—it “authorized” them—to produce historical knowledge for a wide audience.

This language of ‘authorization’ gave me pause, but Jack Dougherty’s multilogue response fairly critiques this notion of authorization in a ‘digital age.’ In my brief multilogue response, I focus on two overarching questions—one political-pedagogical and the other ethical—that arose for me while reading Goldenberg’s second installment.



First Question: What Does the Doing of History Do?

During the last two decades, social studies scholars have extolled the ‘doing of history’ in American primary and secondary classrooms. Instead of a traditional textbook and recitation approach, these scholars have pushed a pedagogy of active historical construction by promoting teacher-student archival research, primary source analysis, oral histories, and trips into the field. These scholars focus their attention on how the ‘doing of history’ positively impacts student subject matter engagement, student learning, and (less frequently) student civic engagement. Goldenberg’s essay prompted me to think about how the ‘doing of oral history’ with youth can also serve as a formal space for the building and/or strengthening of an intergenerational and place-based political consciousness. That is, ‘doing oral history’ can benefit both youth and elders; can prompt recollections of the past and renew a place-based consciousness in the present. Goldenberg hints at this as an outcome of the YHH project; but there are places where his analysis seems so intent on validating the claim about historical authorization that he misses potential cases of the building of place-based political consciousness.

For example, Goldenberg notes that during one of the oral history interviews, an elder made “eye contact almost exclusively with the youth” even though Goldenberg himself asked the questions. He chooses to analyze this as a case of an elder recognizing that “the youth were also co-experts,” meaning, presumably, that the elder recognized that the youth had been schooled in disciplinary oral history methods and that the youth were to be the ones that would ultimately write and produce the historical scholarship on Harlem Prep. Maybe. But might it also be the case that the elder saw this as an opportunity to tell the younger generation about the racial and educational politics of Harlem in the late 1960s and the 1970s in order to make connections with students’ potential political activism in the present? Might it be that the elder understood that Harlem—the Harlem of Harlem Prep—as under threat by recent urban and educational policies that have produced gentrification, displacement, and racial tensions in the neighborhood? Might it be that the elder chose not to look at a white representative of Columbia University precisely because of that University’s role in the current gentrification of West Harlem? I’m not saying that this was the case, but without a more robust inclusion of the voices of participants, it seems as likely as the explanation offered by Goldenberg.

To be fair, Goldenberg rightly discusses positionality as an important dimension of oral history methodology. He finds “something deeper and more ethereal” when oral histories are shared amongst people who possess common memberships. With respect to the YHH project, he claims that the elders’ stories were likely more “personal” and more “intimate” than if they were told just to him: “a white researcher—and outsider—who grew up in suburban St. Louis.” This very well could be true, but is not necessarily so.

Positionality statements such as Goldenberg’s are important acknowledgements of the ethical nature of any kind of research that relies upon interpersonal relationships, orality, and other people’s stories. Yet, one’s position is never absolutely fixed and one might actually use research methods to move away from the position of ‘outsider’ to a position on the margin of ‘outsider-insider.’ As sociologist Paul Hodkinson has argued, scholars initially on the outside “may have to work harder over a longer period of time in order to gain the levels of trust” needed to ethically pursue their research, but such hard work brings them closer to the inside in the eyes of research participants. I believe the same is true of historians. After reading Goldenberg’s essay, we might be tempted to ask: is the inclusion of students in oral history research a means of moving these students from the outside to the inside of historical scholarship? Or, is the inclusion of students in oral history research a means of moving historians closer to the inside of the histories of Harlem Prep?

Second Question: Who Ultimately Benefits From the Flattening of the Hierarchies of Historical Production?

I am reminded here of the story of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, as told in Benjamin Looker’s wonderful new book A Nation of Neighborhoods. Originally a project of the Smithsonian Institution, the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum became a powerful symbol in the early 1970s of community-based historical research methods and neighborhood preservation campaigns. From this neighborhood museum came publications and exhibitions that “highlight[ed] the dignity and institution building of a community of working class African Americans” and “[a]long the way, honored elderly residents who were asked to contribute their memories and their keepsakes.” Such a flattened hierarchy of historical production proved short-lived, however, as the museum attempted to appeal to a broader audience and as staff became increasingly professionalized. By the late 1980s, it had transitioned from a street corner neighborhood museum to a Smithsonian branch-museum at a “secluded site” miles away.

In the context of the YHH project, the story of the Anacostia is important as a historical antecedent and as a cautionary tale. Calls for flattened hierarchies by institutional actors can be powerful. They can support the ‘doing of history’ amongst youth and elders; the formal sharing and recordings of memories formerly told only around the kitchen table; and the flourishing of contemporary place-making efforts. But institutional actors can also have broader audiences in mind and often have to toggle between hierarchies established by funders, universities, academic publications, etc. So, while I echo Goldenberg’s hope that historians of education can forge ‘new’ relationships with youth in order to produce new place-based histories of youth, I also would argue that we must always be cognizant of our institutional positionality. If we are committed to flattened hierarchies of knowledge production, we must also always include the voices of youth in our work and we must always involve participants in determining how and where our joint-work is disseminated.

With this in mind, I look forward to reading the third installment of Goldenberg’s essay, where readers will see how Goldenberg and youth both tell the stories of Harlem Prep.

Thank you to the editors of Education’s Histories and to Barry Goldenberg for creating and supporting such an open forum.

Education’s Histories would like to thank Michael Bowman for his careful review of Barry Goldenberg’s essay, “Youth Historians in Harlem: Exploring the Possibilities in Collaborative History Research Between Local Youth and Scholars (Part 2 of 2)” and for allowing us to publish his 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.

September 16th, 2015 by Jack Dougherty

Sharing Authority and Agency: A Multilogue Response to Goldenberg’s “Youth Historians in Harlem,” Part 2 of 2

Editor’s note: We sent Goldenberg’s original essay to Dougherty for peer review. Dougherty’s original review was shared with Goldenberg, who subsequently revised his essay. In turn, Dougherty has updated his review to reflect changes from the original to the revised essay. Rather than bury this behind-the-scenes exchange between the author and a reviewer, we share it to reveal more about the process of creating scholarship within the community of educational historians.

Barry Goldenberg’s second essay in his three-part “Youth Historians in Harlem” series tells a compelling story about his experience on a collaborative historical research project between Harlem teens and Teachers College graduate students. Overall, the heart of this work challenges hierarchies of learning by reframing youth as the storytellers of their community and active participants in historical knowledge production, rather than passive recipients of pre-packaged truths. This second installment opens with a question borrowed from the title of Eric Foner’s book, Who Owns History?, and argues that training and authorizing high school students as collaborative oral history interviewers challenges the traditional norms of knowledge-making.

The strongest aspects of Goldenberg’s essay are the Harlem project’s innovative oral history youth workshops, and his first-person recounting of what worked (and could be improved) as an instructor and guide. Furthermore, this essay incorporates insights from the relevant oral history literature on ways of listening (from the Perks and Thompson volume) and shared authority (from Michael Frisch). Reading it immediately took me back to my own experience as a high school history teacher in Newark, New Jersey in the late 1980s, where my colleagues and I also learned about interviewing while teaching our 10th-grade students how to do it, and desperately searched for better models and resources to improve our practice. Even though we taught in urban schools, we found wisdom in the words of Foxfire rural educator Eliot Wigginton’s Sometimes a Shining Moment (before he was discredited), and also gained new ideas by visiting youth-run media projects in New York City, which have grown in number over the years. When I entered graduate school in the early 1990s, and finally had more time to read the literature in fields such as oral history, public history, and youth participatory action research, I found only a few exemplars that taught broader lessons beyond the borders of the case study setting. Years later, I had the good fortune to read Bernadette Anand et al.’s Keeping the Struggle Alive, which described the history of school integration in Montclair, New Jersey, and the pedagogy of the teachers and youth researchers who pieced together the story. We need more scholarship in the direction that Goldenberg and his colleagues are headed. For his final installment in this series, perhaps he could take advantage of Education’s Histories online format and insert links to curricular materials developed by the Youth Historians in Harlem project, to make both their inquiry-oriented process and underlying philosophy more accessible to other educators. Educators would benefit from reading their course materials on guiding youth to conduct oral history interviews, or the interview questions they prepared, the final transcripts, and student reflections about the process. By sharing more about what happened inside their classroom, Goldenberg and his colleagues can help spread their teaching practices to other educators who want to try, but need examples to build on.

In his introduction, Goldenberg asks “what would happen—and what would it look like in practice—when high school students were trained, and then ‘authorized’ as scholars, to also produce historical knowledge.” It’s a rich question, but also a dated and problematic one. When Eric Foner wrote his essays for Who Owns History? during the 1980s and 1990s, his formulation focused on history generated by central authorities. Foner targeted the dominance of historical knowledge production by corporations such as The History Channel, politicians arguing over national history standards, and monopolistic textbook publishers. While that debate continues, a broader controversy has erupted over the decentralized production of historical knowledge with the launch of Wikipedia (in 2001) and related websites. Thanks to the expanding Internet anyone can publish their historical interpretations—for better or worse— without being “authorized” to do so. The questions have changed since Foner penned his essay, and Goldenberg’s revised essay now acknowledges that issue in a note.


But Goldenberg’s essay still maintains the idea that people need to be “authorized” to create history, which troubles me. In a footnote in his earlier draft, he stated that “a main goal of the project was to help students internalize the notion that they are authorized to produce knowledge by virtue of their training and participatory role at Teachers College.” As a former high school teacher, I certainly understand that the Youth Historians project offers educational enrichment, digital literacy, and mentoring support to help young people step into their new role as authors of Harlem’s past. Academic institutions also provide credentials and credibility to augment one’s voice within larger communities. But I push back against the idea that people need to be “authorized”—or granted permission by some more powerful entity—to write history. Perhaps Goldenberg and I use the term differently here (or maybe this criticism reflects my psychological hangups about authority figures). But all of us would benefit from rethinking the formulation of this question (and Goldenberg has since revised his footnote in light of these comments). Furthermore, it’s striking that Goldenberg’s essay series appears here in Education’s Histories, an innovative online publication that did not exist a year ago, until its editors boldly launched it without being “authorized” to do so by any scholarly association. Together, individual agency and the digital revolution have transformed who writes and publishes history.

A second and more significant challenge in Goldenberg’s first draft was the missing perspectives of participants in the Youth Historians in Harlem project, which forced readers to rely on the author’s viewpoint as the sole source of supporting evidence. Surprisingly, in an essay devoted to oral history and collaborative knowledge production, the voices of the most important participants were noticeably absent from the original draft. At several points in first essay, he described the process of co-conducting a collaborative oral history with Harlem Prep alumni, asserted that “the interview was a resounding success both in substance and in process,” and claimed that “it seems that students’ status as Harlem students mattered” because “students’ agency to ask questions altered the trajectory of the interview.” But Goldenberg’s key claims were supported by fragmentary evidence at best, told entirely from the instructor’s point of view. In the first draft the author described meaningful “eye contact” between Harlem residents and students, but did not include their actual words. In one brief scene, as a Harlem Prep alumna recalled her past experience with school racism and her present work as an African-American business owner, the author stated that “from my perspective, it was as if she was saying to students in a veiled coded language: ‘this is what you are a part of, now go out and use this knowledge for the better’.” At this point I wanted the author to remove himself as the intermediary of data and let the Harlem alumna and youth speak for themselves. My original comments asked: Can the author underscore student voices in interview transcripts to show more clearly how their roles shaped the process? Did the author record students’ reflections before and after they conducted interviews, or retain any students’ thoughts that they wrote down during or after the workshops?

In the revised draft, Goldenberg responded by adding interview excerpts to offer more direct evidence from the perspective of the Harlem community members. This helps a great deal, but readers still have a limited viewpoint of the youth themselves. For example, Goldenberg argues that “power dynamics” at the interview table shifted from the Teachers College academics to the youth because “interviewees seemed to recognize that the youth were also co-experts. . .” But as a reader of this draft, I do not yet see evidence of student expertise. Looking closely at the interview excerpts, the adults still do most of the talking, and the students barely say anything. Based on what the author presents us, my reading is that the Harlem Prep alumni responded directly to the younger Harlem residents at the table, presumably of the same race, to engage them more deeply with their community history, not necessarily to recognize their current expertise. If Goldenberg interprets this scene differently, perhaps he can share more evidence about the background knowledge that students acquired beforehand about Harlem Prep, or the interview questions students prepared in advance, or other ways that they communicated their expertise during the interview. Perhaps we will learn more about the youth historians—in their own words, either captured in interview recordings or their own writing about this project—in Part III of this series.

Goldenberg is correct that most historians who study contemporary communities typically do not engage youth as active participants in the knowledge-creation process, and that this is most problematic for historians of education, since we often focus our studies on young people. Why does this practice remain uncommon? As suggested by my criticisms above, this is very hard, messy, yet critically important work. Only sometimes is there a shining moment, as Wigginton titled his book about the student-driven local history writing process, which paralleled my experience with my 10th grade students and colleagues in Newark. Creating history this way requires rising scholars such as Goldenberg to not only tell a rich and compelling story about the past, but also to incorporate the agency and authorship of adolescents into the story-telling process. (If you’re still writing your dissertation and trying to jump through those academic hoops, it’s tempting to skip this collaborative process, as who needs the extra hurdle? Fortunately, Goldenberg thinks differently.) As I reflect on our profession and look at how most historians do their research in solitude, I get the impression that many of our colleagues prefer to study the past where our subjects remain quietly locked inside archival documents, do not talk back to us, or heaven forbid, criticize our interpretations of their community. But we all know that solitary strategies are not necessarily the best way to write the past, or to engage with the public about its significance. Instead, educational historians need more of what Goldenberg and his colleagues are driving toward, and perhaps we can learn something from the research and pedagogical methods of public historians, ethnographers, and youth media projects for direction on how to get there.

Education’s Histories would like to thank Jack Dougherty for his careful review of Part 2 of Barry M. Goldenberg’s Youth Historians in Harlem series.


July 30th, 2015 by Sara Clark

Remembering In Order to Forget

What is the purpose of remembering? Should education historians work together to remember a shared past? In 1999, Sol Cohen suggested “historians of American education (and their students and anyone interested in the history of education as a field of study) have to be reminded of this past because published work is situated within the context of this body of preexisting debates, its participants, and its canon of texts.” Cohen’s Challenging Orthodoxies envisioned a new frame for education history but not before he remembered the field’s origins: “the debates of the past anticipate to a great extent the terms and debates of the present. But as the past recedes, so does memory. These chapters are written against forgetting.” (Italics added.)

In 1968, Michael Katz, lead among a group of scholars Diane Ravitch collected as radical revisionists, wrote in favor of forgetting. By this time and three years after the publication of Lawrence Cremin’s The Wonderful World of Ellwood Patterson Cubberley, Katz argued the field (and thus its historians and its students and anyone interested in the history of education as a field of study) needed to move on, to write new histories without rehashing or belaboring old critiques. He wrote carefully at the close of his original introduction to The Irony of Early School Reform: “It seemed, rather, more to the point to concentrate on presenting a new version.” As Cohen advised, Katz’s work stems from a rich disciplinary heritage. The difference in the type of work Katz conceptualizes is that memory does not prevent the formation of new education histories. He has remembered and allowed himself to forget.

This tension between the danger of forgetting and the need to move beyond old critiques haunts historians of education. Must we remember in order to forget? We must. We must release ourselves from the boundaries of old critiques or risk a continued, paralyzing response permeating the field of education history. Without permitting this forgiveness, new versions are halted from the start as they wade through the aftermath of Bailyn and Cremin. How do we find freedom from entrenched critiques and the debates they sparked? Simply, we must be willing to forget. By engaging in this suspension of memory, we rewrite our field’s historiography and permit an alternate future for education’s histories, reimagined as the intimate interconnection among method, prose, and topic. Donald Warren first identified this “string ensemble” in his “Waging War on Education” earlier this year. Since then, Charles Tesconi’s and Adrea Lawrence’s multilogues with Warren have expanded the project beyond his intimate meditation. Prose is the forgotten “other” in this trio, and education historians need to recognize themselves as storytellers as we rewrite our historiography. One possible storyline is presented here; the plot is alarmingly simple. Education history must remember in order to forget.



The State of Remembering

Because of and in spite of the revisionism sparked by Bailyn and Cremin, education historians today still mostly reside in schools of education, and they mostly study schools. Milton Gaither concluded that “despite the rhetoric of historiographical mainstreaming, today just as in the 1950s the great bulk of books and articles written by educational historians are about school, often with an eye on issues of contemporary relevance.” For education historians who primarily focus their scholarship on schooling the last two decades have not been without innovation. To name a few, significant works by Vanessa Siddle Walker, Rubén Donato, Guadelupe San Miguel, Jr., and Jack Dougherty mark a period of forgetting made way for by the revisions of the predecessors. These authors stand together because they model careful archival and qualitative research grounded in complex understandings of how race and identity intersect with schooling. Also significant here, however, is this groups’ history writing–specifically the ways they conceptualized their works–exclusive of historiographical discussions of Bailyn and Cremin. Their individual choices gain significance when repeated examples are gathered: These historians wrote new versions of education history in a mode of forgetting.

Contemporary education histories are also marked by the shadow of Bailyn and Cremin. Karen Graves, Nancy Beadie, and Kim Tolley, have recently suggested Bailyn’s and Cremin’s critiques do not fit their historical inquiries. In 2012 Karen Graves suggested LGBTQ history as a counterexample to Bailyn’s and Cremin’s critiques of education history. Because lesbian and gay history “has focused on education writ large in the broader culture, such as work related to film, music, literature, social and political organizations, and the military,” Graves argues for needed focus on schooling. “What does it mean if we know more about the celluloid closet, the lavender scare, and coming out under fire than, say, the children of the rainbow, the Johns Committee, and the Society for Homosexual Freedom at Sacramento State?” Graves questions. Her work utilizes the school as an access point for LGBTQ histories often muddled by unseeing eyes and unhearing ears.

In Chartered Schools, Nancy Beadie and Kim Tolley intentionally or inadvertently brushed past the difficulty of the 1960s critique they raised, specifically writing that “several scholars reproached historians of education for their uncritical depiction of schooling and for failing to consider the many influences upon children’s learning apart from formal institutions.” Alas, their work is still situated in schools: “While we agree with this critique, we believe that it is important to analyze the development of public schools in order to understand the formal and deliberate choices a society makes for the education of its young.” Their explanation might alternately be understood with the following implications: “we believe that it is [more] important” or at least, “we believe it is [also] important” to focus on institutional teaching and learning.

In the case that all of these authors intended readers to conclude historians of education should follow Bailyn’s and Cremin’s critiques and continue to research “formal and deliberate” schooling, they have failed. Despite these feelings these authors remain bound by disciplinary obligation to frame their work within this old critique.

How We Alter Our Memories

In “Waging War,” Donald Warren does not underestimate Bailyn and Cremin. He credits them fully aware of the ongoing revisionism of which they too must eventually succumb. Warren has remembered but not yet forgotten. A hypothesis building for much of his career, Warren proposes a revision to our field that stands once old memories are omitted: “Education history’s intrinsic and most inviting contributions begin as research methods.” An equally important conclusion follows Warren’s methods hypothesis: “any topic can be approached” by education historians when the field is driven by its methods and not its topical domain. This conclusion is a long way from the disciplinary fear sparked by Jurgen Herbst and other critiques of Cremin’s ever-expanding definition of education. Adrea Lawrence perceptively detects the foundational assumptions within education history through Warren’s methods hypothesis, and she guides readers clearly to problems with periodization, definitional approaches, inscribed texts, and what she labels “the absence of memory” of indigeneity. Warren has started more than once with time-bending ideas of modern fiction-writer Julian Barnes to help find the courage to move past the issues Lawrence collected:

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. (Italics added.)

If memory is not certain, and if time is not always forward, these tools may be used to our field’s collective advantage. Historians of education may choose their present. We may choose to forget. We may make alterations to a shared past by actively selecting a new historiography that looks out across disciplinary boundaries, method, and conceptual frame, instead of in on painful worn out memories.

Philosopher of education Charles Tesconi, a self-identified outsider to education history, gave us the recent benefit of peering inside. Tesconi easily overlooks Bailyn and Cremin not only because of his background as a philosopher but more importantly because he believes “the methodological legacy Warren attributes to Bailyn and Cremin is incidental to the major contribution” he makes. Tesconi is correct; Warren’s methodological hypothesis stands alone and needs no support from Bailyn and Cremin. Warren proposes education history as a set of methods, a framework for undertaking any topical examination. The crux of the proposal, which he tests on American Indian histories as “analytical levers,” takes the shape of a new historiography brought together by ten unifying methodological features. Education histories under this framework:

  1. do not pay “much attention to schools”
  2. treat education as “the fraught process of cultural formation”
  3. embrace multi-disciplinary research designs
  4. rely on “extensive sources” (e.g. archaeology, film, correspondence, fiction, government records, news reports, oral history, photography, and statistics)
  5. is not ethnocentric (including across precolonial times)
  6. “consider oral traditions and storytelling to be historically reliable”
  7. do not presume a progressive arc
  8. remember “Decisions, like all other actions, have consequences”
  9. “choose words carefully, demonstrating the importance of history writing”
  10. imply the field “is again due for revision”

Warren’s list is not intended to be complete. To him and others joining this project, I suggest a return to Michael Katz’s 2001 introduction to Irony. Most important to this reflection is his persistent evaluation of the relevance of history. He asks implicitly throughout his new introduction and explicitly, “Would I, as a historian, have anything to contribute?” By asking this question, he permits the possibility that historical inquiry may not be best suited for all questions. Methods must be modified or at least reimagined. A less obvious consequence of this question is Katz’s willful vulnerability. Katz’s identity–not just his historical methodology–is open to critique. His question contains at least 7 possible claims:

I am an historian AND/OR I have [something/nothing/everything] to contribute AND/OR historians can make contributions AND/OR historians should do more than question the relevance of their methods AND/OR historians should probe the identity claims made by the historian.

The reimagined education historian emerges from this look in the mirror: Her historical inquiry is driven by method, not topic, and she recognizes her identity as central to knowledge production. Both claims merit further exploration, and point to a viable future for education historians.

One possible start, a suggestion embraced by this new framework, points outside of education (and outside of history altogether) to find promising education history. Two folklorists provide examples of my proposed eleventh method: education histories are written by the self-knowing. Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places is considered a classic among folklorists. Wisdom, which may be categorized as creative non-fiction because of its reliance on metaphor to decode Western Apache place-names, also exposes a new education history in which the ethnographer is a participant in the ongoing process of cultural formation. From Basso the ethnographer we recognize the utility of humbling oneself as the constant learner. Alongside an eleven-year-old Western Apache boy who is still discovering his own culture, Basso remarks, “he and I can learn together.” In this education history “I” must be written and heard.

A more recent work by Frank de Caro, Stories of Our Lives, will be read by most as autoethnography. Education history as method perceives memory as a curriculum in education of the community. The subject at stake here is not a culture but rather stories themselves. The value of this text is the reader’s choice; Stories can be read for de Caro’s memoir, as well as for its formative argument on the role that oral stories play in memory. These ideas are more familiar to ethnographers and qualitative researchers in education, to name only a few. Should the author announce herself? As much as the two can be distinguished, this is both a question of research methodology in the “field” and a discussion of how education history should be written.

The kind of forgetting suggested here is unfortunately not a panacea but akin to calisthenics. Education historians have shown themselves to be obligated and possibly anxious as a result of the critiques raised in the 1960s by Bailyn and Cremin. The work that sprang from their proposed revision—including work by Bailyn and Cremin—fell to many of the same sins as before, with one constant companion: education historians carried the weight of revisionism. A field already on the sidelines to academic history departments continues to feel the added strain of internal justification for its work. The resulting rehashing and belaboring has done more harm than good. The history of education has been held back.

June 12th, 2015 by Adrea Lawrence

Remedying Our Amnesia

How can this be? How did this come to be?

In his January 2015 essay, “Waging War on Education: American Indian Versions,” Donald Warren offers a methodological afterimage of “school” scholarship in education history. Originally presented as a paper at the 2014 International Standing Conference for the History of Education conference in London, Warren calls attention to flaws in the research designs frequently used by education historians. Though many revelatory histories have been created by looking at the development of the institution of the school, its variants, and its participants, including those who fought for access to it, Warren argues this is no longer adequate because it amplifies the position of the school as the most apparent—and thus most important—means through which people learn. In so doing, it malforms the methods education historians use in their research. If one believes this is true, then it is all too easy to begin and end inquiry there. In turn, it becomes unwittingly easy to convey the impression that people without schools are thus uneducated and unlearning. Warren argues that this position is flat-wrong, and he elucidates why in his January 2015 essay.

Through several examples, Warren considers the methodological limitations of convention and offers a new methodological portal through which historians of education can jump in order to rectify the ethical gap that an overemphasis on the school has produced. By reading outside of education history as a field and relating other scholars’ methods and findings to education history, Warren offers lessons which may well propel historians of education in novel directions and remedy research designs that place the school, rather than learning, at the center of inquiry. These lessons include the issue of periodization, a reliance on a definitional approach to the study of education history, an over-reliance on inscribed texts, and the absence of memory. At each turn, Warren’s essay begs the twin questions, “How can this be?” and “How did this come to be?,” in deconstructing the foundational historians’ histories of education.


Stories must start somewhere, and Lawrence Cremin’s historical trilogy on education begins in 1607, the year the English established a permanent settlement in the Chesapeake Bay. Warren’s essay, in contrast, begins in 1970 with an aside in part one of Cremin’s trilogy: that of Mohawk leaders poised to meet their English counterparts in London in the early eighteenth century.  Warren is curious about the scene in which Mohawk and English leaders meet. He primes us to be attentive to what the educative moment between the two groups might look like. What did participants learn through the encounter? What did they teach others? Warren then delivers a blow: This meeting between the Mohawk and the English “failed to capture Cremin’s speculative interest.” How can this be?  How did this come to be?

One explanation is rooted in assumptions about time and who gets to mark it across cultures. Cremin’s book, American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607-1783, is illustrative. The title alone hinges on the assumptions that 1) “education” in North America began with Europeans and Euroamericans, and 2) education history is grounded in the formation of the United States as a political and social entity. This stands in relief to counter assumptions that Warren suggests: 1) education was diverse and deliberate among Native communities, and 2) education history has a much longer and much broader trajectory in social and cultural formation in the western hemisphere than our written histories reveal.

The question of when education in the Americas began is one that Warren has been asking for some time now. This is not a question to chide education historians; rather, it is a question about our fundamental assumptions about our field, including how we periodize it. How we mark time illustrates what we study and how we study it. Some have proposed that education historians who study different populations talk about their periodization schema as they relate to the field at large.

This is a rendering of comparative periodizations in well-known and regarded histories of education. See W. Urban and J. Wagoner, American Education: A History, vol. 4th (New York: Routledge, 2009). James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988). Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, Education Beyond the Mesas: Hopi Students at Sherman Institute, 1902-1929 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010). Kim Tolley, The Science Education of American Girls: A Historical Perspective (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002). Tracy L. Steffes, School, Society, and State: A New Education to Govern Modern America, 1890-1940 (Chicago; London: University Of Chicago Press, 2012).

Historians of education might also examine how periodization varies with place, much like Nancy Beadie is doing in her work on the policy histories of schooling that start with the states and territories in the American West. Periodization, though, is but one element in a multifaceted, and flawed, research design.

The Problem with a Definitional Approach

Warren’s question, “When did education in the Americas begin?,” also begs the historian to check her assumptions about what “education” is and is not. Do we know what it is before we begin our inquiry? Should we know what it is before we start our research?

Warren attends to these questions in turn through his juxtapositioning of William Fenton’s American Indians and White Relations to 1830: Needs and Opportunities for Study against Bernard Bailyn’s Education in the Forming of American Society, presentations they each gave at the same Needs and Opportunities for Study conference series in the 1950s. Fenton, Warren demonstrates, presented listeners and readers with anthropological fieldwork and a demonstration of how one might examine it in trying to understand how American Indians and Euroamericans came to understand their societies in relation to one another. Using Fenton’s demonstration, Warren critiques Bailyn’s new book, The Barbarous Years, exposing how, through source selection, Bailyn assumes that European and Euroamerican colonization of North America was an always already done deal. In spite of presenting and publishing in the same inquiry series as Fenton, Bailyn does not use Native sources, and he does not use much, if any, of the recent scholarship on American Indian history in his latest book, The Barbarous Years. Given the veritable explosion of new research the field, how can this be?

Warren contends that a flawed research design provokes such an egregious oversight. He highlights how a definitional research design carries colonialist assumptions about the nature, direction, and substance of education and its histories, even if this is not the inquiring historian’s intention. So, how can such an approach be rectified?

Warren asks historians of education to “cleanse their methods of ethnocentrism and similar predispositions” by treating “education” as a methodology rather than a definition. He argues, “education history is required to meet a basic standard: It must be educative along the path toward discovery of a particular relevant topic.” This adheres to Richard Storr’s 1961 advice to follow learning where it surfaces. This means that evidence of learning might surface in unfamiliar terrain such as reports from archaeological digs, oral tradition, or custom; evidence might also be found in song, ritual, eschatology, or how humans have built their physical environments. Historians of education, like their counterparts in other fields and subfields must learn how to read and interpret such evidence and consider it a part of their own research agendas. So far, few have attempted this. How can this be? How did this come to be?

Inscribed Texts

As he demonstrates with the Mohawk-English encounter, Warren argues that deep scholarship in American Indian history and anthropology has been largely missing from standard education histories. Coupled with a periodization scheme and research design that begins with the school, this missing piece of education history also stems from the fact that historians of education have conventionally relied upon inscribed texts that are readable and interpretable to historians trained primarily in document analysis. This reliance, Warren argues, has become an over-reliance, and it has produced education histories that depend upon the institutions which produced and relied upon such texts. As a result, the history of education as a field has been firmly grounded in the colonial history of the school. And this has had the effect of placing Indigenous North Americans in school when studying their education histories. Did Native peoples only become educated after Europeans and Euroamericans brought them the school? Ample tribal, anthropological, and archæological evidence screams, “No!”

Placing “education” mostly within the school marks a profound irony, given that education historians have lauded Bernard Bailyn’s 1960 call to broaden the scope of study beyond the institution of the school to include cultural formation. Such an irony also suggests an ethical gap, one that assumes colonization is an always already done deal. Warren contends that Lawrence Cremin’s binary approach to analyzing the Mohawk-English encounter—that of the colonizer and the soon-to-be-colonized—buttressed conventional narratives about the “deficiency” of American Indian educational practices in relation to “dominant” Euroamerican institutions.

Warren does not share Cremin’s interpretation or apparent assumption about the inevitability of colonization. Warren asks education historians to resolve the ethical gap that progressive histories of the U.S. and the U.S. school have produced by refashioning our methodological ways. This means that we should 1) follow the traces of learning where they exist instead of where we expect to find them, 2) read outside of our subfield of education history and our field of history, and 3) release ourselves from the Bailyn and Cremin approaches. Such efforts might spark remedy.

The Absence of Memory

Such an effort might also begin to ameliorate the loss of memory about our past that is evident in our present-day and historical assumptions. Literary scholar Paula Gunn Allen writes, “An odd thing occurs in the minds of Americans when Indian civilization is mentioned: little or nothing.” This statement was echoed by Nancy Beadie’s response to Bailyn’s Education and the Forming of American Culture at the 2010 History of Education Society meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Coupled together, Beadie’s and Allen’s observations serve as a further illustrations of the ethical gap that results from the assumption of colonization’s one-directional, manifest pull. How is this? How did this come to be?

Philosopher Jonathan Lear suggests that such an assumption—and its resultant gap—stem from a stunted exploration of how power shapes a range of possible true stories.  Lear writes, “the issue that concerns us is not in who has the power to tell the story—however important that might be; it is rather how power shapes what any true story could possibly be.” Limiting inquiry to conventional, colonialist periodizations, relying on inscribed texts, and approaching education as schooling shield the possible stories that historians of education can consider in constructing education histories. And this range of possible true stories, argues Warren, is what we might be missing by operating with the telos—the school—in mind, even if backgrounded so as to be nearly invisible. This is damning because it can prevent us from seeing the trace of learning where we might not expect to find it.

But Lear offers a possible way out. He examines why “little or nothing” happens when, in the case of the Crow (Absarokee), the buffalo went away, or, in the case of non-Natives, American Indian civilizations are brought to the fore. Lear then raises the possibility of revealing a range of possible true stories by considering a variety  of possible psychological states within a given culturally rich matrix of meaning. In reconstructing the context in which cultural apocalypse and rebirth have happened within the Crow (Absarokee) community, Lear recreates possible psychological states that existed in the ideal Crow worldview before the reservation period. In a culture built around the honor in counting coup and defending the community’s territory, the permanent, static demarcation of landholdings through the reservation system marked nothing less than a near total disintegration of meaning in Crow culture. By making territory static in a warrior society, there was, in effect, nothing left to defend.

As a philosopher, Lear works ethnographically to explore how power shifts the shape of the stories we tell ourselves and others. As historians of education, we too might also work to cultivate an historical and ethnographic imagination that that begins with possibilities for learning and follows threads through unfamiliar sources and seemingly foreign terrain, including possible psychological states. We might well go in feeling blind, but we might well come out seeing as we have not before.

We might jump into memory’s afterimage. This means we can find learning if we allow ourselves to wander with our eyes and ears wide open, attuned to learning in a variety of forms.

Education’s Histories would like to thank Adrea Lawrence for her multilogue response to Donald Warren’s essay, “Waging War on Education: American Indian Versions.” If you would like to experiment with the multilogue format, please contact Education’s Histories to respond to a published essay.