Sunday 9 December 2012

History and Education

My experience of History in school was that it was a strange beast: the art of recalling the rememberances of other people in order to gain appreciation by the education system! My first 'homework' I was ever given was to 'make notes' on a dusty textbook telling me something about ancient british tribes. I diligently set about reading this thing. It was so boring. But I struggled through the boredom and wrote a few words about "celts" and "settlements" without really knowing what it was all about, but naturally worried that if I didn't do it, I'd be in trouble in my first week at school! I remember thinking to myself "but don't worry you don't understand. This is what all the clever people have done before you! Just keep with it.." It wasn't long before I was becoming very inventive in my excuses for not producing my homework!

There are moments in education when we have to pour over things, to bash-away at something, to do some hard work. But if the fruits of that labour never become meaningful beyond winning the plaudits of the system which sponsors them, then I think something is amiss. What are we bashing away at, exactly? Why? and eventually.. "what is the point in us doing this?"

That moment is the appeal to the "elephant in the room" to show itself - the gaping absence that sucked us all into a crazy ritual. Ironically, it is that very moment of revealed authenticity which leads people to write new (and exciting) history books, or books of any kind. Not the dreary textbooks of the sort I was making notes written by opportunistic and dull teachers, but the sort of books which people actually want to read and which change them.

I am really wanting to write about the "history of education", and I mention this terrible experience of history because the 'elephant in the room' is a huge elephant when we come to talk about the history of education. "Education began at 12.42 pm on the 15th January, 342AD in a cloister in the Abbey of St. Albans." That's interesting to begin with! In order to write a history of something, does that thing have to have had a beginning? We can write about the history of the First World War because the war had a beginning. Endings aren't so important.. we can always say "and its legacy still lives with us today. THE END".

Does Education have a beginning? There were the first school houses in the 19th century. There must have been a first 'grammar school', we know there was a first University. But are they a beginning?  Or just a continuation?

The problem is that it makes sense to see how a war began. Partly because we might be anxious not to begin another one - at least in the same way! Why would we want to think how education began? So we can begin it again? So we can 'reinvent' it, maybe? Popper has a point about the dangers of historicism!

With every birth, there is some rebirth of education. The story of education has no beginning, just a continual process of rebirth. Some voices that were born have been powerful and influential. They have grabbed onto the steering wheel of education and taking it somewhere where it didn't seem that it had been before (but in reality, this was probably the result of amnesia).

Each voice that has tried to steer education has had it's own 'story of education' within it. The story acts as a kind of compass. No doubt, the stories of many have within them invented 'beginnings' of education which say "this is where we've come from; this is where we need to go!". I don't want to be like this.

My challenge is that, like many working in my field, I want to be part of an effort to steer education in difficult times. However, I cannot easily tell a 'historical' story of education to explain where we are and where we ought to think about going. I would have to invent a beginning for that, and I don't think education has a beginning. So what is my compass if it is not a story with a beginning?

My challenge is to describe what things in education do. Now. It is to describe their experience and the connection between the experience of education, the way it is organised and the world we live in. This is not a history. It is (I think) more like an allegory.

1 comment:

Scott said...

My favourite history of education is "Discipline and Punish" by Foucault. OK, its a history of prisons and executions, but its also a good history of European schooling.

But thats not the beginning of education, but the beginning of civilian-military (as opposed to religious) schooling.