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The Curious Status of the History of Education: A Parallel Perspective

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 February 2017

John L. Rury*
The University of Kansas


Many educational historians no doubt have experienced the inevitable cocktail party question: “so what is your area of specialization?” Whether uttered over the clink of ice or in some other social setting, the answer is rarely simple. Real historians, after all, are supposed to work in history departments, and to focus on periods and places rather than a specific type of institution. For many people, it seems hard to comprehend the idea of history taught in schools of education, or just how such a field might be considered interesting or important.

Copyright © 2006 History of Education Society 

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1 Power, Edward J. “Persistent Myths in the History of Education.” History of Education Quarterly 2, no. 3 (September 1962): 140151; Nash, Paul. “History of Education.Review of Educational Research 34, no. 1 (February 1964): 5–21; Greene, Maxine. “The Professional Significance of History of Education.” History of Education Quarterly 7, no. 2 (Summer 1967): 182–190; Hood, Bruce L. “The Historian of Education: Some Notes on His Role.” History of Education Quarterly 9, no. 3 (Autumn 1969): 372–75; Sloan, Douglas. “Historiography and the History of Education.” Review of Research in Education 1 (1973): 239–269; Clifford, Geraldine Joncich. “Education: Its History and Historiography.” Review of Research in Education 4 (1976): 210–267; Gersman, Elinor Mondale. “Textbooks in American Educational History.” History of Education Quarterly 13, no. 1 (Spring 1973): 41–51.Google Scholar

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3 In choosing the term “disciplinary history,” I am not taking a position on whether or not education, or any of the other larger fields associated with such historical specialties, can or should be considered a discipline in the conventional academic meaning of the word. The weight of opinion appears to hold that education is a broad field of inquiry rather than a discipline, which may also be true of science as a collection of discrete scholarly domains. Instead, the term “disciplinary history” is intended to convey the notion that historians working within these subfields must attend to the concerns of their nonhistorian colleagues, and address issues deemed important to a related nonhistorical realm of research and inquiry. For an influential discussion of the question of the disciplinary status of research in education, see Shulman, Lee S. “Disciplines of Education: An Overview.” Educational Researcher 10, no. 6 (June 1981): 515, 13.Google Scholar

4 For a revealing exchange by historians working in professional schools, including an educational historian (Zimmerman, Jonathan), addressing many of these questions, see “Interchange: History in the Professional Schools.” The Journal of American History 92, no. 2 (September 2005): 553575. An important distinction, of course, is the fields discussed in this essay, which include two that are often taught in arts and science faculties: history of science and economic history. Even these fields, however, are addressed in professional colleges (engineering and business) on some campuses.Google Scholar

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11 These findings were obtained by examining a sample of two hundred from the online membership directory of the History of Science Society, selected randomly by the starting letters of surnames.Google Scholar

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17 These figures are taken from the History of Science Society Web site. Rosenberg, “Science in American Society,” 356–367; Brush, Stephen G. “Scientists as Historians.” Osiris 2nd Series, Vol. 10 (1995): 214231.Google Scholar

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23 Cameron, Rondo. “Economic History, Pure and Applied.The Journal of Economic History 36, no. 1 (March 1976): 327; Solow, Robert M., “Economic History and Economics,” The American Economic Review, Vol. 75, No. 2, Papers and Proceedings of the Ninety-Seventh Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association. (May 1985), 328–331; Heckman, , “The Value of Quantitative Evidence on the Effect of the Past on the Present,” 406–8; North, Douglass C., “Cliometrics—40 Years Later,” The American Economic Review, Vol. 87, No. 2, Papers and Proceeding of the Hundred and Fourth Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association. (May 1997), 412–14.Google Scholar

24 Goldin, Claudia. “Cliometrics and the Nobel.The Journal of Economic Perspectives 9, no. 2 (Spring 1995): 206–7; Gallman, Robert E. “The Role of Economic History in the Education of the Economist.” The American Economic Review 55, no. 1/2 (March 1965): 109–111; Cameron, Rondo. “Has Economic History a Role in an Economist's Education?” The American Economic Review 55, no. 1/2 (March 1965): 112–15.Google Scholar

25 Parker, William N. “A “New” Business History? A Commentary on the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics.” The Business History Review 67, no .4 (Winter 1993): 623636; Whaples, “The Supply and Demand of Economic History: Recent Trends in The Journal of Economic History,” passim.Google Scholar

26 Woodard, Calvin. “History, Legal History and Legal Education.Virginia Law Review 53, no. 1 (January 1967): 89121; Grant, J.A.C. “What Areas of Exploration in Legal History Are Appropriate?” The American Journal of Legal History 3, no. 4 (October 1959): 370–78; Hurst, James Willard. “Old and New Dimensions of Research in United States Legal History.” The American Journal of Legal History 23, no. 1 (January 1979): 1–20; Horwitz, Morton J. “The Conservative Tradition in the Writing of American Legal History.” The American Journal of Legal History 17, no. 3 (July 1973): 275–294 Welke, Barbara Y. “Willard Hurst and the Archipelago of American Legal Historiography.” Law and History Review 18, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 197–204.Google Scholar

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29 Welke, Barbara Y. “When All the Women Were White, and All the Blacks Were Men: Gender, Class, Race, and the Road to Plessy, 1855–1914.” Law and History Review 13, no. 2 (Autumn 1995): 261316; Basch, Norma. “The Emerging Legal History of Women in the United States: Property, Divorce, and the Constitution.Signs 12, no. 1 (Autumn 1986): 97–117; Grossberg, Michael. “Crossing Boundaries: Nineteenth-Century Domestic Relations Law and the Merger of Family and Legal History.” American Bar Foundation Research Journal 10, no. 4 (Autumn 1985): 799–847; Wunder, John R. “Doesn't Anyone Speak Injun in this Courtroom?”: New Perspectives in Native American Legal History.” Reviews in American History 5, no. 4 (December 1977): 467–476; Hoxie, Frederick E. “Towards a ‘New’ North American Indian Legal History.” The American Journal of Legal History 30, no. 4 (October 1986): 351–57; Cole, Richard P. and Chin, Gabriel J. “Emerging from the Margins of Historical Consciousness: Chinese Immigrants and the History of American Law.” Law and History Review 17, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 325–64; Dayton, Cornelia Hughes. “Turning Points and the Relevance of Colonial Legal History.” The William and Mary Quarterly 3rd Ser., Vol. 50, no. 1 (January 1993): 7–17; Moglen, Eben. “Toward a New Deal Legal History.” Virginia Law Review 80, no. 1 (February 1994): 263–75.Google Scholar

30 Friedman, Lawrence M. “The State of American Legal History.” The History Teacher 17, no. 1 (November 1983): 103119; Kalman, Laura. “Comment on Schlegel.Law and Society Review 22, no. 5 (1988): 987–990; Mack, Kenneth W. “Law, Society, Identity, and the Making of the Jim Crow South: Travel and Segregation on Tennessee Railroads, 1875–1905.” Law and Social Inquiry 24, no. 2 (Spring 1999): 377–409.Google Scholar

31 Membership figures are taken from the numbers reported on the Web page of the ACLS, which lists the ASLH as an affiliated society (along with EHA and HSS). The program for the 2002 meeting of ASLH listed the departmental or school affiliation of participants, making it relatively easy to make such calculations. Thirty-six of the sixty-two articles published in the American Journal of Legal History between 1991 and 1995 were written by faculty members in law schools, while sixteen were by members of history departments. In the same span of time, twenty-six of thirty-six articles in the Legal History Review were authored by law professors, with just nine by history department faculty. Between the two journals, the law faculty outnumbered their history department colleagues by more than a two-to-one ratio.Google Scholar

32 On the early history of the society, see Hiner, N. Ray. “History of Education for the 1990s and beyond: The Case for Academic Imperialism.History of Education Quarterly 30, no. 2 (Summer 1990): 137160. Also see Power, “Persistent Myths in the History of Education, 140–151; and Nash, “History of Education,” 5–21. Cremin's books during this time were Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876–1957 (New York: Knopf, 1961) and The Wonderful World of Ellwood Paterson Cubberley: An Essay on the Historiography of American Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 1965).Google Scholar

33 Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962); Rosenberg, Charles E., The Cholera Years, The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962). As a path-breaking work of the “new economic history,” the following article is often cited: Conrad, Alfred and Meyer, John. “The Economics of Slavery in the Antebellum South.” Journal of Political Economy 66(1958): 95130. Also see Fogel, “The Reunification of Economic History with Economic Theory,” passim. Hurst, James Willard, Law and Economic Growth; The Legal History of the Lumber Industry in Wisconsin, 1836–1915 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964).Google Scholar

34 Katz, Michael B., The Irony of Early School Reform; Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth Century Massachusetts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968); Spring, Joel H., Education and the Rise of the Corporate State (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972); Karier, Clarence J., Paul Violas, C., and Joel Spring, Roots of Crisis: American Education in The Twentieth Century (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1973).Google Scholar

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36 Veysey, “Toward a New Direction in Educational History,” 343–44. For an overview of developments in the sociology of education in these years, see Trent, William T.; Braddock, Jomills Henry II; Henderson, Ronald D. “Sociology of Education: A Focus on Education as an Institution.” Review of Research in Education 12 (1985): 295336. The summation of the “radical” perspective was the controversial work by Bowles, Samuel and Gintis, Herbert, Schooling in Capitalist America (New York: Basic Books, 1976). For additional commentary, see Joseph Featherstone, David Hogan and Mark Stern. “Commentaries.” History of Education Quarterly 17, no. 2 (Summer 1977): 139–158; Butts, R. Freeman. “Public Education and Political Community.” History of Education Quarterly 1, no. 2 (Summer 1974): 165–183; Herbst, Jurgen. “Beyond the Debate over Revisionism: Three Educational Pasts Writ Large.” History of Education Quarterly 20, no. 2 (Summer 1980): 131–145.Google Scholar

37 For contemporary perspectives on this, see Hogeboom, Willard L. “The New Left and the Revision of American History.” The History Teacher 2, no. 1 (November 1968): 5155; Zuckerman, Michael. “Myth and Method: The Current Crises in American Historical Writing.The History Teacher 17, no. 2 (February 1984): 219–245. For a sampling of scholarship representing this movement in American history, see Barton Bernstein, J., ed., Towards a New Past; Dissenting Essays in American History (New York: Vintage Books, 1968) passim.Google Scholar

38 See the discussion of this in Zuckerman, “Myth and Method,” 221–235; for a somewhat different perspective, see Neuchterlein, James. “Radical Historians.The History Teacher 15, no. 1 (November 1981): 2542. For a sampling of commentary on these questions, see Berthoff, Rowland. “Writing a History of Things Left Out.” Reviews in American History 14, no. 1 (March 1986): 1–16; Diggins, John Patrick. “Comrades and Citizens: New Mythologies in American Historiography.” The American Historical Review 90, no. 3 (June 1985): 614–638; Hunt, Michael H. “Ideology.” The Journal of American History 71, no. 1 (June 1990): 108–115; Kammen, Michael. “The Problem of American Exceptionalism: A Reconsideration.” American Quarterly 45, no. 1 (March 1993): 1–43; Leff, Mark H. “Revisioning U.S. Political History.” The American Historical Review 100, no. 3 (January 1995): 829–853.Google Scholar

39 Novick, Peter, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988) Part IV.Google Scholar

40 Membership figures were provided by the staff of the History of Education Quarterly, and Labaree, Professor David, Vice President for Division F of AERA, 2004–06. Size may also be somewhat indicative of status differentials, as it is widely noted that education faculties continue to suffer a poor academic reputation, and this may well affect the standing of historians in education as well. One of the anonymous reviewers for the Quarterly suggested that the poor reputation of scholarship in education may also be a factor in the development of the field. This is probably true, but hard to pinpoint in terms of effect. Patricia and Loren Graham offered the observation that economic historians, historians of science, and legal historians all benefit from association with relatively high-status disciplinary fields, and this may influence their willingness to identify with them. My colleague Bruce Baker added the point that most professors in these fields are also higher paid than conventional historians as well, which also may account for preferences in terms of departmental affiliation. This is almost certainly not true of historians of education. On the reputation of the larger field, see Labaree, David, The Trouble with Ed Schools (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), passim; and Kaestle, Carl F. “The Awful Reputation of Education Research.” Educational Researcher 22, no. 1 (January 1993): 23, 26–31.Google Scholar

41 Data on individual subscribers were supplied by the staff of the Quarterly. The survey of authors included all articles, review essays, and commentary published between 1991 and 1995, a total of seventy-nine. Of these, forty-three were written by historians in schools or colleges of education, while twenty-five were by historians in history departments (eleven were from other academic backgrounds). The analysis of program participants was performed by identifying individuals in the program, and ascertaining their departmental affiliation through institutional Web pages, where possible.Google Scholar

42 Brush, , “Scientists as Historians,” 214–230; Parker, “The Masochism of the Legal Historian,” 280–300.Google Scholar

43 Novick, , That Noble Dream, Part IV; for further discussion of these themes, see Kloppenberg, James. “Objectivity and Historicism: A Century of American Historical Writing.” The American Historical Review 94, no. 4 (October 1989): 10111030; Megill, Allan. “Fragmentation and the Future of Historiography.” The American Historical Review 96, no. 3 (June 1991): 693–98; Haskell, Thomas L. “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick's That Noble Dream.” History and Theory 29, no. 2 (May 1990): 129–157; and Novick's reply, My Correct Views on Everything.” The American Historical Review 96, no. 3 (June 1991): 699–703. On historical method, also see Kaestle, Carl F. “Standards of Evidence in Historical Research: How Do We Know When We Know?” History of Education Quarterly 32, no. 3 (Autumn 1992): 361–66; Scott, Joan Wallach. “History in Crisis: The Others’ Side of the Story.” The American Historical Review 94, no. 3 (June 1989): 680–692; McCullagh, C. Behan. “Can Our Understanding of Old Texts Be Objective?” History and Theory 30, no. 3 (October 1991): 302–323; Lorenz, Chris. “Can Histories Be True? Narrativism, Positivism, and the “Metaphorical Turn.” History and Theory 37, no. 3 (October 1998): 309–329.Google Scholar

44 This literature has been surveyed in a number of review articles: Donato, Ruben and Lazerson, Marvin. “New Directions in American Educational History: Problems and Prospects.Educational Researcher Vol 29, no. 8 (November 2000): 415; Finkelstein, “Education Historians as Mythmakers,” passim; Rury, John L. and Mirel, Jeffrey E. “The Political Economy of Urban Education.” Review of Research in Education 22 (1997): 49–110; Tyack, David. “Public School Reform: Policy Talk and Institutional Practice.” American Journal of Education 100, no. 1 (November 1991): 1–19; Seller, Maxine Schwartz. “Boundaries, Bridges, and the History of Education.” History of Education Quarterly 31, no. 2 (Summer 1991): 195–206; Franklin, V.P., Lynn Gordon, D., Maxine Schwartz Seller and Fass, Paula S. “Understanding American Education in the Twentieth Century.” History of Education Quarterly 31, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 47–65; Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr., “Status of the Historiography of Chicano Education: A Preliminary Analysis.” History of Education Quarterly 26, no. 4 (Winter 1986): 523–536; Butchart, Ronald E. “‘Outthinking and Outflanking the Owners of the World': A Historiography of the African American Struggle for Education.” History of Education Quarterly 28 no. 3 (Autumn 1988): 333–366.Google Scholar

45 For suggestive discussion of these issues, see Warren, Donald. “Learning from Experience: History and Teacher Education.Educational Researcher 14, no. 10 (December 1985): 512; Carter, Susan B. “Occupational Segregation, Teachers’ Wages, and American Economic Growth.” The Journal of Economic History 46, no. 2 (June 1986): 373–383; Raftery, Judith R. “Missing the Mark: Intelligence Testing in Los Angeles Public Schools, 1922–32.” History of Education Quarterly v. 28 (Spring 1988): 73–93; Slotten, Hugh R. “Science, Education, and Antebellum Reform: The Case of Bache, Alexander Dallas. “History of Education Quarterly 31, no. 3 (Autumn 1991): 323–342; Tanner, Laurel N. “Curriculum History as Usable Knowledge.” Curriculum Inquiry 12, no. 4 (Winter 1982): 405–411.Google Scholar

46 Button, H. Warren. “Creating More Useable Pasts: History in the Study of Education.Educational Researcher 8, no. 5 (May 1979): 39; Graham, Patricia Albjerg. “Historians as Policy Makers,” Educational Researcher 9, no. 11 (December 1980): 21–24; Butts, “Public Education and Political Community,” passim; Clifford, “Education: Its History and Historiography,” 215–18.Google Scholar

47 For notable recent treatments of these questions, see Coleman, James S. “Families and Schools.” Educational Researcher 16, no. 6 (August 1987): 3238; Portes, Pedro R. “Social and Psychological Factors in the Academic Achievement of Children of Immigrants: A Cultural History Puzzle.” American Educational Research Journal 36, no. 3 (Autumn 1999): 489–507; Woodward, John and Rieth, Herbert. “A Historical Review of Technology Research in Special Education.Review of Educational Research 67, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 503–536; Richardson, John G. and Parker, Tara L. “The Institutional Genesis of Special Education: The American Case.” American Journal of Education 101, no. 4 (August 1993): 359–392; Eisenmann, Linda. “Reclaiming Religion: New Historiographic Challenges in the Relationship of Religion and American Higher Education.” History of Education Quarterly 39, no. 3 (Autumn 1999,): 295–306; Baker, David P. “Schooling All the Masses: Reconsidering the Origins of American Schooling in the Postbellum Era.” Sociology of Education 72, no. 4 (October 1999): 197–215.Google Scholar

48 For an overview of current training practices in the history of education, I examined the Web page information for ten institutions that list history of education or historical foundations of education as a distinct program or area of concentration for doctoral degrees. These were selected from a larger universe of several dozen leading research-based schools of education, and included Wisconsin, Stanford, Columbia (Teachers College), Illinois, New York, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, Iowa State, and Georgia. In the Web page descriptions of these programs, the terms “educational research” and “educational policy” did not appear. This does not mean, of course, that students in these programs do not take courses examining these issues. But it does reflect the predominant ethos of training in the field, which is skewed toward the social foundations and courses in history departments. This, of course, is fine, but not if it comes at the expense of training in the modes of inquiry and contemporary research issues in the larger field of education.Google Scholar

49 For evidence of this, see the essays in Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, and Lee Shulman, S., Issues in Education Research: Problems and Possibilities (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1999); also see Lagemann's treatment of the development of educational research, An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2000) passim.Google Scholar

50 Division membership figures were obtained from AERA. As has been noted at Division F business meetings, there are several AERA Special Interest Groups (SIGs) that come close to approximating the division in size. As an indicator of the Division's relative isolation, only one of its eighteen sessions was cosponsored during the 2005 Annual Meeting, and that was with the very small SIG on Biographical and Archival Research (as indicated in the published AERA Annual Meeting Program for 2005). Of course, a few more sessions have been cosponsored in the past, but the vast majority has not, even when they have addressed issues that may be of wide interest to educational researchers elsewhere in AERA. For the most part, Division F sessions are attended by historians, and garner relatively little interest from the rest of the educational research profession.Google Scholar

51 Publication rates for historians were calculated by examining all articles in AERA publications with a “history of education” keyword, and counting those written by historians. The book and review award winners are listed in the next note. The distinguished career award went to David Tyack.Google Scholar

52 Historical winners of the AERA book award include: Hogan, David John, Class and Reform: School and Society in Chicago, 1880–1930 (Philadelphia, 1985); Anderson, James D., The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935 (Chapel Hill, 1988); Labaree, David F., The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838–1939 (New Haven, 1988); Tyack, David and Hansot, Elisabeth, Learning Together: A History of Coeducation in American Schools (New Haven, 1990); and Mirel, Jeffrey, The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System: Detroit, 1907–81 (Ann Arbor, 1993). The award winning review article was Kaestle, Carl F., “The History of Literacy and the History of Readers,” Review of Research in Education Vol. 12 (1985), 1153.Google Scholar

53 See, for instance, the summary of a Spencer Foundation conference on the field, held in 2001, in Donato, and Lazerson, , “New Directions in American Educational History: Problems and Prospects,” passim.Google Scholar

54 The foregoing should also not be interpreted in any way as a failure to appreciate the many significant contributions of historians of education who hold appointments in history departments. Although a minority in the field, they still represent a large group, and are many are fully integrated and contributing members of the field. Naturally, they too must pay heed to the larger world of educational research to one extent or another, although not to the degree of their colleagues in schools and colleges of education. As teachers and scholars, most probably consider themselves to be primarily American or European historians who happen to study education as an area of interest. This is slightly different from what has been proposed herein: that educational historians think of themselves as educational researchers who happen to study history. Of course, the combination of these two perspectives on professional identity undoubtedly helps to make the history of education such a dynamic and interesting field of study.Google Scholar