"History of Education" what's it good for?

History of Education

History of Education

Herbst, J. (1999). The history of education: State of the art at the turn of the century in Europe and North America. Paedagogica Historica, 35(3).

“… historians of education meant to be academic historians before they would consider their role in educational scholarship and professional training.”

This statement was a revealing insight into historical scholarship. It never really occurred to me that “History of Education” would be practiced by those who identified as historians, and by those who identified as educators. While I’m usually very aware of the voice behind a piece of writing, it wasn’t something I was really focused on in my (very limited) reading of education history. It is clearer to me now that an historian’s work will be grounded in some philosophy or overt goal that is reflected in the product of their labours, particularly in light of the Cuban (2001) article explained below. Who writes the history of education? Historians? Educators? Does it matter? Who writes it is probably less important than what we can do with it.


“We have many studies of educational policy, they write, but very few, if any, of educational reality in the classroom.”

This is a powerful observation. More is written about the structures, processes, and policies of education than what happens in the classroom where education happens. Is there a new opportunity for scholarly study with Web 2.0 technology where educators are actively sharing their experiences? Could a sense of what happens in classrooms be culled from teacher and learner social media and blogs? Of course, that content is filtered and highly selective but offers more of an insight than has ever been available in the past.


“… yanked the history of education out of its traditional home in the teacher training departments of colleges and universities and sought to place it in the history departments of liberal arts colleges and Graduate Schools of Arts and Sciences. It was designed to rid the history of education of its reputation as a functional handmaiden of professional education and to reclaim it as a liberal arts discipline.

 Interesting - the perceived function of the field impacted how it was received. Fair enough, I suppose... it just never occurred to me that the "history of education" that we all take in teacher training was a study of history and not a solely a study of education. Maybe it is more appropriate to phrase it like, "I never put history together with education even though I took a course in the history of education.” I enjoyed flipping through the archives of the Historical Studies in Education journal and appreciated more the lessons one can learn from a study of the past. Of particular interest was an article titled: "How to teach English to immigrant children: Canadian pedagogical theory and practice, 1910 - 1960". As a classroom teacher anticipating receiving Syrian refugees in the near future, it was interesting to see how the challenge of second language learners had been addressed in the past. I could also see how this would be useful to policy makers in determining how to support these new Canadians.


Cuban, L. (2001). Can Historians Help School Reformers? Curriculum Inquiry, 31(4), 453–467.

While Cuban's article explores some fascinating historical content in education history, the real lesson is his description of three different approaches (on a continuum) to history that sees the historian's point of view or preferences manifest in their work to different degrees and for different purposes

In one, the “non-policy” historian strives to remain separate and apart seeking only to present information in a comprehensive and understandable way sensitive to the context of the time. It is the reader's task to make meaning from history’s narrative.

In another, the “policy-sensitive” historian applies historical understanding to current situations to inform decision making without attempting to sway the decisions in any way. History is analysed to address a current need and reported to those who will take it under advisement for policy making.
In the third approach, “presentist” historians are fully invested in the historical interpretation and the policy application. Here, history is interpreted through the lens of the present time and serve an immediate policy motive. History is used to serve an agenda and the historian tells the reader what it is and how to think about it.

Is one approach better than the others? Or does the continuum reflect the range of legitimate applications for historical scholarship? The danger, clearly, is when history is intentionally misinterpreted or skewed to serve a present agenda. Cuban criticizes the presentist approach for being simplistic and glossing over information essential for a full understanding of the issue in favour of painting a one-dimensional image that serves a particular agenda.

What do you think? Share you thoughts below...

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