Whose View of the Past Matters on School Reform?

History is more or less bunk. It is tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that’s worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.

In 1916, as the U.S. was gearing up to enter World War I, Henry Ford, who had applied new technologies to mass manufacturing of  cars while earning profits for his company, said  those words. He wanted the kind of history that would speak to the present, not those school-taught accounts of kings, queens, generals, and diplomacy students learned. To Ford, that kind of history was “”more or less bunk.” He wanted a different history that was relevant to the here-and-now, that could answer tough questions today (p. 1).

Today, political, military, social, economic, and education historians gather, analyze, and interpret facts to answer questions about the past as objectively as they can. The past, then, never speaks for itself in coughing up answers; historians establish facts, interpret the past, some even rendering their judgments, to inform the present.

Yet those in authority who make decisions then and now pursue a different view of the past.

Case in point. Before the housing bubble burst and cascaded through the financial community here and abroad leading to the crippling Great Recession in 2008 economists, investments bankers, Federal Reserve officials, the President of the U.S., and hundreds of other policymakers had been warned time and again about the housing boom. For example, Yale University economist Robert Shiller examined historical records dating back centuries–yes centuries–when housing prices spiked and then plunged in the Netherlands, Norway, and other countries. As recent as the early 1990s, another housing bubble burst in Japan. These popped bubbles damaged these nations’ economies badly.

Shiller said the same thing had been occurring in the U.S. since the early 1990s. He told that to Federal Reserve officials; he gave interviews to network journalists; he wrote op-ed pieces. He talked to hedge funds CEOs and top officials in investment banks all of whom were hip-deep in packaging subprime mortgages for sale to investors even though few understood what was being bought and sold. When did he say all of these things? 2005. His research findings were ignored.

But the housing bubble did pop in 2008 and the near-financial collapse of the nation has led to high unemployment and a severely damaged economy that is just barely recovering in 2013.

Why did so few hedge fund managers, CEOs of financial institutions, and investors–much less top federal and state officials and legislators–heed these lessons from the past. Because these policy elites  had a different view of the past in their heads. To them, accelerating housing prices was not a bubble it was economic growth in the American way. What happened elsewhere couldn’t happen in the U.S. because it was different. Rising housing prices were another mark of American exceptionalism. The U.S. had won wars with Britain, Mexico, and Spain in the 19th century, and twice defeated Germany in the 20th century (Vietnam was a forgettable error while the 100-hour first Gulf War in 1991 was the historical pattern). U.S. capitalism had triumphed over Soviet Union.  That was the historical map that these very smart people had in their heads. So why take heed of a Yale economist and other Cassandras warning about an economic debacle around the corner?

So the issue in front of policymakers who influence the economy–like those who seek school reform–is not ignoring the past. They like voters, taxpayers, and those interested in school reform such as practitioners, parents, researchers already have historical maps in their heads.

Years ago, David Tyack and I wrote about the history of school reform. We said:

Whether they are aware of it or not, all people use history (defined as an interpretation of past events) when they make choices about the present and future. The issue is not whether people use a sense of the past … but how accurate and appropriate are their historical maps. Are their inferences attentive to context and complexity? Are their analogies plausible? And how might alternative understandings of the past produce different visions of the future? (p. 7).

The questions we asked nearly two decades ago about the accuracy of the historical maps that reform-driven policymakers use in shaping the future of schools apply to K-12 and higher education rhetoric and action in either championing new technologies or using student test scores to evaluate teachers. Are the inferences policymakers make attentive to school contexts and complexity? Are the analogies plausible? Do other interpretations of past reforms contain different visions of the future?

After living through the housing bubble and its popping and now listening to the rhetoric of those committed to technology transforming teaching and learning, I do not hear these questions being asked. The historical maps advocates of “disruptive” technologies have in their heads do not permit such questions. Not asking these questions lead me to slightly amend Henry Ford: Their history “is more or less bunk.”


Filed under school reform policies

2 responses to “Whose View of the Past Matters on School Reform?

  1. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Larry Cuban raises a to the point question in this post, as always.

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