A case for a-theoretical History in Education Studies

This paper argues in favour of a consciously a-theoretical approach to History of Education, as it is taught and practised in Education Studies. The case made rests on consideration of three main perspectives which are drawn together. These are first, a position of theoretical principle (ironically perhaps) drawn from the discipline of History itself; second, the real constraints under which History of Education must operate as a subdiscipline that is just one part of a degree programme; and finally, a positive appreciation of the role of History within the architecture of Education as a metadiscipline. Taken together, they indicate that a deliberately a-theoretical, knowingly naïve, History is best suited to Education Studies and the needs of our students.

Drawing on the work of Geoffrey Elton (2002), whose rejection of theoretically positioned History retains a relevance that some of his theoretically committed opponents have lost, it is argued that the dangers of theory he identified are doubly perilous for History of Education. Theoretical commitment, Elton argued, leads historians to prejudge the past. It gives presentist History superficial respectability. Contemporary values, when cast in universal terms as theory, can be projected back in time without the obvious appearance of anachronism. That falsifies historical inquiry, and turns it into something like propaganda. History within Education Studies is at increased risk of falling into this temptation because a key reason for engaging in the sub-discipline is to identify ‘lessons from history of education’ – this is actually the title of a collection of works by Richard Aldrich (2006). Such an agenda for the present increases the temptation to misread the past as confirming present values and fashions, but to do so undermines the critical value of History for Education Studies.

That value lies in ‘demythologising’ (Depaepe, 1997) the educational past and, as Elton put it, providing the ‘acid test’ of theory. History can enable students of Education to reflect critically upon contemporary theory, practice and philosophy. But that requires that Education Studies take the discipline of History seriously on its own terms. It is not good enough to teach ‘lessons from history’ relying only on secondary literature, or to treat it as mere ‘context’ for another subdiscipline. At the same time, as History is only part of an Education Studies degree, it is vital that the demands made upon students be realistic. A-theoretical History is most accessible, and helpful, for Education students.


Indicative Literature:

Aldrich, R. (2006) Lessons from History of Education. London and New York: Routledge.

Arendt, H. (2006 [1954] ) Between Past and Future. London: Penguin.

Depaepe, M. (1997) ‘Demythologizing the educational past: and endless task in History of Education’, Historical Studies in Education/Revue d’histoire de l’education 9 (2), pp. 208-223.

Elton, G. (2002), Return to essentials. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jenkins, K. (1995) On ‘What is History?’ London and New York: Routledge.

Lowe, R. (2002) ‘Do we still need history of education? Is it central or peripheral?’ History of Education, 31: 6, pp.491-504.