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The Oxford Handbook of the History of Education

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The Oxford Handbook of the History of Education

Edited by Eileen H. Tamura and John L. Rury


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This review appeared in the Journal of the History of Education and Society (2020): 1-6

The Oxford Handbook of the History of Education
Edited by John L. Rury and Eileen H. Tamura
New York, Oxford University Press, 2019
xvi + 615 pp., £97.00 (hardback), ISB 978-0-19-934003-3

This weighty volume of 36 chapters in 600 pages presents an ambitious range of scholarship, introduced by its editors with a compact but thought-provoking historiographical overview, rationalising past and present approaches, identifying current lacunae and likely future directions. The collection is infused throughout with a vibrant dialogue between history and historiography, recurring issues and themes that cross boundaries of time, place and methodology. Arranged in six parts, it opens with ‘Interpretive Frames’, followed by ‘Premodern Roots’, ‘The Rise of National Systems’ and ‘Emergence of Modern Higher Education’; two substantial thematic parts, almost half the book, then address ‘Inequality and Discrimination’ followed by ‘Educational Reform and Institutional Change’. Only a representative sample, reflecting quality and variety of treatment, is covered in this review, following just some of the lively arguments that emerge. A handbook to the field of study, each chapter has extensive bibliographical footnotes, serving as a valuable reference and bibliographical tool.

Taking cities as an interpretive frame for education, Ansley Erickson identifies the 1960s ‘urban crisis’ in the US and UK as a context that preoccupied educational historians, but questions some underlying assumptions when she echoes David Reeder’s 1977 question: What precisely is the history of urban education? Recognising a huge variation in urban settings worldwide, she calls for more sophisticated appreciation of geographical specifics, physical, social, cultural, political and economic, in the spatial organisation and two-way relationship between schools and their local environments.

Oxford Handbook of the History of EducationIn a moving chapter on ‘Precolonial Indigenous Education in the Western Hemisphere and Pacific’, where method and matter intertwine dramatically, intellectually and emotionally, Adrea Lawrence positions herself ‘as an Anglo historian writing about indigenous education history, I am an outsider to indigenous groups, by legacy in the colonizer camp, which I personally view as fraught, unreconcilable, privileged and painful’ (p. 132). She states that too much evidence has been occluded or lost in the colonisation enterprise, through the catastrophic spread of lethal diseases: ‘This apocalyptic loss created a profound loss of comprehensive knowledge, art, culture and even meaning . . . what learning happened, how it happened and how it changed the world’ for so-called primitive peoples (p. 133). Knowledge of ‘place’ is more crucial than that of ‘time’ in this context, amongst the nomadic Arikara on the Missouri for example, where women were teachers of agricultural science, the ceremonial cycle, ritual and song. A rich indigenous education has been hidden from history, and is now slowly being recovered.

‘National education systems’ were an early preoccupation of historians; a section on this theme provides methodological as well as geographical variety, where tension between colonisers and colonised continues. Contrasting experiences of development from colonialism to independence appear in a combined study of Australia and New Zealand by Craig Campbell and Maxine Stephenson, who draw attention to a shifting historiography from empirical ‘Whig’ narratives of system building and reform to social and revisionist history of the 1960s onwards. Contrasts between these neighbouring nations are further contrasted in Africa by Peter Kallaway, who focuses especially on a denouement of World Bank and UNESCO involvement in the 1980s, and on South Africa’s abolition of apartheid in 1994. Regarding education systems, the two southern neighbours present marked differences in scale, New Zealand with 3% of Australia’s landmass and about 20% of its population, as also in their indigenous cultural diversity between the Māori with their single language and the nearly 300 tongues of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Policies shifted in both countries over time, taking on ‘new meanings . . . [addressing] . . . the paradox of seeking improved student and school performance, competition and social inclusion’ (p. 189).

Africa’s experience as a continent includes colonisation by the British, French, Belgian and Portuguese, with differing relationships but parallel trajectories. Neither Christian missionaries nor colonial bureaucracies, nor even national education systems following independence, included any support for indigenous forms of education. Kallaway laments the lack of attention to history in research by supranational bodies, which has ‘undermined the capacity to understand the roots of educational problems [so that] potential lessons to be learned from previous endeavours are often ignored’ (p. 238).

For Asia, Elizabeth VanderVen includes Japan, China, India, Malaysia and also Iran. Nationalisation of schools was linked with political reform, where most Asian countries boasted distinctive established traditions, encountering tension between (western) modernity and indigenous (eastern) education. VanderVen draws attention to a relative lack of sophisticated historiography for many Asian countries, noting that historical accounts are dominated by the voices of activists, and calls for more first-hand accounts of how children experienced their formative years in new schools. A following chapter by Heidi Morrison responds to that call by documenting experiences of humiliation in colonial schools of Middle Eastern children whose indigenous culture was denigrated. The Middle East had not undergone a (western) Enlightenment ‘by which scholars placed the laws of science over laws of God’ (p. 243), and a formerly close tie between high social standing and purely Islamic education broke down. Morrison brings her critique up to date with a post-9/11 fear that schools are pro-terrorist centres teaching anti-westernism: ‘Many scholars respond to these concerns by placing educational developments in historical context. There is a long history of education in the Middle East that is rich in pedagogical and philosophical approaches, intellectual contributions to humankind . . . Islam . . . does not have an innate bias against teaching democracy, peace, and equality’ (p. 254).

Within a section on ‘Emergence of Higher Education’, Vincent Carpentier on Europe and Anthony Welch on Asia construct profound historiographical comparisons, with long historical perspectives as a route to analysis of present conditions. In Europe, current issues of funding, access and differentiation are traced through the evolution of medieval, early modern and late modern universities with shifting connections and tensions between cultural, political, social and economic rationales, through to ‘massification’ in pursuit of social welfare, geo-political strategies or a ‘knowledge economy’. Globalisation has latterly accelerated international provision through cross-border movement in programmes or campuses, and online courses. Change and continuity over centuries are instructive within this fairly homogeneous global region.

Asia, far more heterogeneous, Welch describes as a Western concept, ‘a European cultural artefact’ (p. 302). Confucian ideals as a source may be most familiar, roughly contemporary with Plato’s Academy, but Buddhism and Islam also became focal points for higher learning. Just as varied throughout Asia was experience of colonialism’s foreign influence, British, French, Spanish and more recently from the USSR and USA. Post-colonisation, there emerged the concept of state-led development for rapid economic growth in some countries. Welch makes useful comparisons with Africa and Latin America, and concludes that while much has been accomplished, more basic historiographical work remains to be done, not least to evaluate in historical perspective the ongoing work of supranational bodies for higher education in Asia.

‘Inequality and Discrimination’ is perhaps the most potent theme for current readers, with its blend of history, anthropology and sociology, destined also to attract historians of the later twenty-first century revisiting this book as a primary source. Accorded a prominent section that includes gender, migration, ethnicity, diaspora and anti-colonial struggle, its chapters variously highlight historical and historiographical aspects. Judith Kafka shows how historians seem to explain inequalities across time and place in a socio-historical context, and hopes that illuminating the past will make sense of, and inform, the present. Revealing the limitations of past educational reform, however, research suggests that unless broader social and economic inequalities are addressed, the relatively advantaged will continue to protect their existing status in the realm of schooling. For gender, Lucy Bailey and Karen Greaves focus on ‘theories and methodologies through which the field produces meanings’ (p. 355). Extensively referenced, detailed and precise, with emphasis on definitions, contested and revised, of categories and interpretive positions, their description of past and present developments describes general trends rather than specific case studies. But ‘a productive aspect of gender scholarship is its kindling of diverse nonpositivist, feminist, and poststructural methodologies ... productive for educational history as well, although ... some dismiss such work as presentist and antithetical to historical study’ (p. 360).

Yoon Pak’s concern with race and ethnicity is rooted in a narrative of politics and religion, republican reformers and ideals of citizenship that include belief in a Christian God. ‘Darker races’, indigenous tribes and African slaves, were perceived as barbarian and savage, their earthy, natural existence lacking civilised and reasoned ways of being. Her account follows through to phenomena of European immigration and religious diversity, prompting educational ideals of individualism, liberty and virtue, fostering personal industry for social mobility, with a respected but limited domestic role for women. Education functioned to unify America’s diverse populations, by internalising the superiority of American Protestant culture and the grandeur of American destiny. International parallels are drawn, especially in later years, for example in the application of eugenics. She concludes that common schooling for all as a form of full democratic citizenship remains an ongoing experiment.

Christopher Span and Brenda Sanya begin their account of the African diaspora with the bitter irony of north and west African kingdoms fostering widespread education, and attracting overseas scholars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (while Erasmus travelled to Cambridge, England, and John Harvard to Cambridge, Massachusetts). Yet during those very times a forced diaspora produced an enslaved African American population denied citizenship and education. Booker T. Washington’s campaign for industrial education is contrasted with the case of W.E.B. Dubois, whose Harvard PhD led him to advocate access to the liberal arts for black students, and further to promote pan-Africanism as a global movement.

Concluding this section on inequality and discrimination, Ana Madeira and Luís Correia examine colonial education and anti-colonial struggles. Two economic stages are described: extraction and plantation of natural resources; followed by trade in industrial goods, whereby European countries, predominantly Britain, France and Portugal, colonised 42% of the world’s land areas and 31% of its population. But with a few notable exceptions, colonial education was long neglected by scholars. Post-Second World War UNESCO studies identified a prevailing perception of developing countries as ‘other’, and a ‘so-called’ scientific approach to education seen as fundamental to social and economic progress. By that time the process of ‘decolonisation’ was under way, in which colonised ethnic groups strove to secure political, economic and intellectual freedom, and postcolonialism found its origins in the sentiments, thoughts and theories of anti-colonial movements. Notable leaders were members of the ‘Native elite’: Gandhi, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon and Amílcar Cabral. Postcolonial theories and comparative methodologies prompted examination of the larger cultural process of empires, providing a frame to re-think education at all levels and at all points of its history. Postcolonial theory served to describe resistance against oppression by class, gender and ethnicity in many different settings. And ‘despite the indoctrination embedded in . . . colonial education, its appropriation by the Natives had significant social consequences’ (p. 424). It offered western-educated Natives power and opportunity to shape their own self-identity, and provided the ‘seeds to foster cultural nationalisms, undertaken by the local intelligentsia, which would strengthen the intellectual and political struggle against colonial dominance’ (ibid.).

The final and longest section is dedicated to ‘Educational Reform and Institutional Change’. On ‘conflicting constructions of childhood’, Barbara Beatty approaches the topic through lived experiences over time and space, two centuries of economic and cultural change, represented in real life histories, literary and even photographic evidence. ‘Constructions’ over time have ordered our understanding of these experiences by means of psychological theories and social scientific analysis. Competing demands on children’s lives, of labour and education, varied from region to region across the world as global economic competition and consequent income disparities impinged on families into the modern age. Workplace pressures in a period of industrial development transformed into academic pressures, and most recently a political discourse of standards and accountability have exacerbated parental anxieties and aspirations. ‘Co-constructors’ of their childhoods, pupils and students themselves now react to the burden with stress, and mental disorders are on the rise. Historians, Beatty argues, should be mindful of their own values in understanding how constructions of childhood have evolved over time.

Progressive education is explored by William J. Reese, whose account grounds it firmly in its European roots of political revolution, Enlightenment and Romanticism, ‘never a coherent movement’ (p. 460) but a range of shared fundamental beliefs. He describes how, in the USA, Pestalozzian methods were interpreted as ‘object teaching’, a suitable base for vocational education with outcast groups such as Native Americans, African Americans and poor whites. Other obstacles were that, confronted with growing school populations in cities like New York and Boston, educational administrators tried to bring order out of chaos by implementing not a flexible, but a more uniform curriculum. Moreover, in periods of economic recession, schools faced the wrath of taxpayers objecting to ‘fads and frills’ (p. 465). The legacy of progressivism in the USA might be reduced to Kindergarten, and ‘manual training’, seen inadequately as a discernible mark of ‘new education’ on schools around the world.

A universal perspective is especially apt in the case of schoolteachers and administrators as professionals, presented by Kate Rousmaniere in an insightful and sensitive manner, engaging comparative perspectives that international readers will inevitably bring to her text. Reviewing research perspectives from the 1960s onwards, schools are seen as dynamic and complex ‘loosely-coupled’ organisations (p. 487). With reference to Britain, Germany, France, USSR and India as examples, she exposes the ‘policy-to-practice’ tension in all these different settings, the teacher as middle-manager within an increasingly dense bureaucracy. Yet however authoritarian and standardised educational policies, teachers across time and location have maintained a sense of authority within the immediate locality of their own classroom. They adapt, accommodate and resist school rules every day, and ‘the history of education has taught us this is not a new phenomenon’ (ibid).

David Vincent introduces the intriguing history of literacy as not just a nations-wide skill, but for historians a statistical source of unique character and interest. Vital, if fiendishly difficult to interpret, the arithmetic was complicated and the results difficult to interpret. The innovation of computer technology enabled sophisticated statistical analysis, and at the same time enlivened the social history of reading and writing with intricate debates regarding their significance for interpreting cultural change. Alongside its multifaceted meanings, Vincent identifies literacy as ‘one of the first key performance indicators of public investment’ (p. 511). A particular quality of this chapter, in a Handbook addressed to an international readership, is its range of reference to both European and North American literacy, where ‘an education law became as essential as a railway and a post office’ (ibid). Constructing a bridge between education and the active use of literacy, most significant changes were outside the classroom.

A concluding chapter by Marcelo Caruso examines transnational and comparative histories of education. Starting from links between education and nation in the earliest studies, a ‘methodological nationalism’ (p. 574) persists even in analysing supranational levels of educational transformation. Yet theoretical sophistication has evolved in understanding global modernity and a ‘global polity’ (p. 575).

‘Connected histories’ have become ‘entangled histories’ as mutual influences in perception and exchange find participants ‘constituting each other’ in comparative historical studies, while ‘a series of rationalized ‘myths’ defined a model of society based on the modern (Western) ideas of progress and the individual’ (pp. 579–80).

A strong message from all these chapters is the ever-growing complexity of attending to space as well as time in our understandings of educational history. Just as sociology and philosophy have increasingly informed our methodology, so there is rich evidence here of insights from anthropology. This volume will in turn become a primary source for future historiography. It carries the imprint and status of an ancient western university press. It assembles a web of research by 43 historians rooted largely in the English-speaking world: 31 from universities across North America, eight from the UK and its ‘old Commonwealth’ (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), and four from mainland Europe (Austria, Germany and Portugal). Historians of the future might question the balance of global voices represented here. And less a critique of the book, perhaps, than a reflection on the state of our field, the gender balance of contributors is surprisingly skewed, with almost twice as many men as women: authors on Inequality and Discrimination are mostly female, but no women contribute on Higher Education. The last five decades have seen a substantial shift in a traditionally male-dominated field. Yet a survey of the very useful ‘Suggested Reading’ lists following each of 36 chapters shows 35% of recommended books are by women; no female authors are listed for ‘Revisionism’, though for a chapter on ‘Gendering the History of Education’ all recommended authors are women; on ‘Teachers and Administration’ women outnumber men and for ‘Childhood and Religion’ the gender balance is equal, while for ‘Australia and New Zealand’ women’s authorship is strongly represented. Historians 50 years hence may find this worthy of comment?

Such caveats notwithstanding, this hugely impressive, authoritative and indispensable guide is a tribute to international networking, sharing and exchange of scholarship over the last half-century through bodies like ISCHE, ECER and WERA. Caruso concludes by summarising current conditions and their ongoing challenges: ‘As new economic, cultural and political settings have emerged . . . the field of international and transnational history is rechartered in a context of thick globalisation . . . high extensity, high-intensity, high-velocity and high impact transnational interconnectedness’ (p. 582). He notes that historians accustomed to working individually on grants and book projects need more collaborative efforts to meet the challenge of new historiography. Echoing a plea by Rury and Tamura in their editorial Introduction, he suggests that ‘The rare genre of collaborative books (without individual chapters)' might offer a more valid alternative for an educational historiography to challenge 'not only monocultural and monolanguage approaches but also the limits of the traditional making and circulating of texts and knowledge' (p. 582).

Peter Cunningham
Homerton College, University of Cambridge


About John L. Rury

John L. RuryJohn L. Rury is professor emeritus in the School of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Kansas.  He received his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, and his research focuses on historical facets of education policy and social inequality. His other books include Education and Social Change (2002, 2005, 2009, 2013, 2016 and 2020), Creating the Suburban School Advantage (2020), The Color of Mind (coauthored with Derrick Darby, 2018), Transforming the University of Kansas (coedited with Kim Cary Warren, 2015), The African American Struggle for Secondary Schooling (with Shirley A., Hill, 2012), Rethinking the History of American Education (coedited with William Reese, 2007), Urban Education in the United States (2005), DePaul University: Centennial Essays and Images (coedited with Charles Suchar, 1998), Seeds of Crisis: Public Schooling in Milwaukee Since 1920 (coedited with Frank Cassell, 1993) and Education and Women's Work (1991). Additional publications have appeared in the American Journal of Education, History of Education Quarterly, Paedagogica Historica,  Historical Methods, Social Science History, and Teachers College Record, among other journals.  He has served as president of the History of Education Society (USA), and a vice president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).  


About Eileen H. TamuraEileen H. Tamura

Eileen Tamura is professor emerita, University of Hawai‘i College of Education, where she served as chair of the Department of Educational Foundations. She is past president of the History of Education Society. She served as editorial board member and later associate editor of History of Education Quarterly, and editorial board member of Journal of American Ethnic History. Book publications include In Defense of Justice: Joseph Kurihara and the Japanese American Struggle for Equality (2013); The History of Discrimination in U.S. Education: Marginality, Agency, and Power (edited) (2009); Asian and Pacific Islander American Education: Social, Cultural, and Historical Contexts (co-edited) (2002); and Americanization, Acculturation, and Ethnic Identity: The Nisei Generation in Hawaii (1994). She received the Franklin Buchanan Award, 2003 (Association for Asian Studies) for Rise of Modern Japan, coauthored, and the James Harvey Robinson Prize, 1998 (American Historical Association) for China: Understanding Its Past, coauthored. Her articles appeared in History of Education Quarterly, Journal of American Ethnic History, Journal of Negro Education, Amerasia Journal, Teaching History, Journal of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, and Pacific Historical Review.


This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.

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