Education's Histories

methodological grist for the history of education

Archive for the ‘multilogue’ Category

April 29th, 2015 by Mike Suarez

We Are All Historical Actors: A Multilogue Response to Goldenberg’s “Youth Historians in Harlem,” Part 1 of 2

Michel-Rolph Trouillot once wrote, “Each historical narrative renews a claim to truth.” The manners in which individuals recall certain events or phenomena help explain the perpetuation of ideas and the transmission of culture, while also elucidating power and privilege in society. A pragmatic view of historical research acknowledges the importance the present plays on the reconstruction of the past. In this sense, a history says as much about the time when it is published as it does about its subject. Goldenberg’s work with youth in Harlem exemplifies this assertion and challenges the reader to simultaneously question a) Who has access to the construction of historical narrative; and b) Is objectivity in historical inquiry like, as one historian has claimed, “nailing jelly to the wall”?

Goldenberg sets his research agenda around two excellent guiding questions:

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

Both of these questions imply a critical lens to analyzing data sources. Coupled, with the author’s captivating prose, future installments to the essay series will offer important contributions to the field through its critique of how individual experiences align with, or contend with, edified historical narratives about Harlem’s past. Goldenberg triangulates his data with riveting sources, which will include oral histories from Harlem Prep alumni, analyses from 11th and 12th grade student-researchers, and the graduate students facilitating the Youth Historians in Harlem project. Going forward, it will be helpful to understand how these sources lend themselves to answering those questions, or if new ones arise out of the findings.

Goldenberg’s essay exposes the complexities and challenges of conducting important and innovative research. As such, he is also pressing readers to question their own subjectivities and stances on issues of reliability and validity. Goldenberg writes, “Although historical accuracy, on its most basic level remains important, events like a walking tour lend nuance to ideas of legitimacy in historical research, particularly around oral displays of perceived knowledge (or lack thereof) by the historical ‘storyteller.’” Oral histories will reveal evidence on how participants locate their own experiences and understanding of Harlem’s past. For the second essay, it will help the reader to learn more about the oral historian’s role in the research process:

  • What types of questions were asked?
  • What concepts could or could not be explored based on the availability of research subjects?
  • And most importantly, how the author analyzed primary records?

Goldenberg’s exciting research shifts the lens of historical inquiry outside of the academy, which can at times be too insular, by leveraging ideas conveyed by both students and their interviewees. Still, how will findings warrant valid, or what some methodologists call “credible,” claims? The interplay between individual recollections and broader historical narratives is complex, and subsequent installments to the essay series will provide insight into the process of analyzing these oral histories. Goldenberg references Hayden White, who once responded to criticism concerning relativism and solipsism by proclaiming that, “What we postmodernists are against is a professional historiography, in service to state apparatuses that have turned against their own citizens, with its epistemically pinched, ideologically sterile, and superannuated notions of objectivity.” Any individual can be a historical actor, demonstrating agency in the manner in which one recalls past events.

Personal memory is essentially subjective; however, historic events become part of a collective memory through negotiation between individuals in a society. Memory and the collection of oral histories cannot necessarily provide credible sources for accounts of past activity, but these sources do provide insight into how individuals internalize historical phenomena, and most importantly, how one perceives the present. Remembering the facticity of an incident does not matter as much as what the event means to those recalling it. Each person remembers an event in one’s own way. Internalizing past events and reconstructing them through memory can lead to more opaque or fictitious portrayals of past events. On the other hand, the stories people tell, whether to themselves or to a researcher, provide primary sources into the way individuals have internalized an event, how they perceive its importance, and what it meant. Parts two and three of Goldenberg’s essay series will contend with these difficult issues and in doing so, will provide the reader with all the more insight.

This well-articulated and compelling essay is an outstanding contribution to the field of historical scholarship on the history of schooling in America. Goldenberg’s focus on lived-histories will surely invoke new ideas and ways of thinking about the process of conducting historical research. As Trouillot states, “The past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past—or, more accurately, pastness—is a position.” There is no one truth in interpretive research, and historians accept that fact. Instead of bickering about relativism or the search for the defining historical account, the field is free to conduct research, present findings, and enter the discussion about a given state of affairs. Last, and most importantly, Goldenberg’s essay reminds the reader that historical narratives must account for the perspectives of the youth. These students hold the key to future understandings of civic engagement and how vitally important it is for youth to take the lead in constructing historical narratives that account for their perspectives and experiences.

Suggested Reading

Atkinson, Paul, Coffey, Amanda, and Delamont, Sara. Key Themes in Qualitative Research: Continuities and Changes. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2003.

Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Portelli, Allesandro. The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History. New York: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Richard Rorty, “Method, Social Science, and Social Hope,” in Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972-1980 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 191–210.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

White, Hayden. “Introduction: Historical Fiction, Fictional History, and Historical Reality.” Rethinking History 9 (2-3), 2005, 147-157.

The author would like to thank Barry Goldenberg and the editors at Education’s Histories for giving him the opportunity to review this excellent essay and participate in this multilogue discussion. Mike Suarez is a former high school teacher and current doctoral candidate in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His program emphasis is in Education Foundations, Policy and Practice. He can be reached at

Education’s Histories would like to thank Mike Suarez 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 1 of 2)” and for allowing us to publish his review in our experimental multilogue format.

February 20th, 2015 by Charles Tesconi

Time for a New Revisionism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Indian Histories as Models of Education History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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