Can Historians Help Reformers Improve Schools?

I wrote this piece a decade ago. I believe it continues to be relevantfor both historians, policymakers, practitioners, and parents who unrelentingly seek to improve schools in their district, state, or nation.

Historians are divided over what can be learned from history. When policymakers (and public school students) ask about the usefulness of history they want guidance from the past to avoid making mistakes now; some even want predictions.

Historians who believe that the past can inform policy argue that even if “lessons” cannot be extracted from the past, policymakers can surely profit from looking backward. They say scholars can aid contemporary policymakers by pointing out similarities and differences between previous and current situations. Or, of even more help to policymakers, historians can redefine existing problems and solutions by observing how similar situations were viewed by a previous generation. Finally, without stooping to offer “lessons,” historians can alert policymakers to what did not work, what might be preferable and what to avoid under certain conditions.

Other historians reject the notion that history can, or even should, serve the present. These historians point to their obligations as professionals to be disinterested in contemporary policies. Scholars must bring to bear their knowledge of the past and their craft in handling documents without paying attention to the present moment. Not to do so can corrupt their professional impartiality. Moreover, these historians point to the uniqueness of a past event—say, the war in Vietnam–that is seldom identical or even sufficiently similar for policy makers to compare with a current explosive situation such as in Iraq or Afghanistan. More specifically, there are contemporary situations for which no historical analogy can be drawn: To what can the collapse of Soviet communism be compared? Or the cascade of oil spills since the late 1980s?

Historians bothered about reading the present into the past also argue that policy-driven colleagues ask questions that are too tightly tethered to contemporary issues and heavily influenced by the scholars’ values and experiences. Some policy-oriented historians, for example, ask: Why do public schools seemingly fail to improve student achievement? They then search the past for answers to a question that few educators, parents, or policymakers ever asked in 1880, 1920, or 1950. Historians uninterested in connecting the past to current policy issues call scholars who seek to influence reformers presentists, researchers who read the present into the past, and, in doing so, distort history to fit contemporary situations. Historians should write history for history’s sake.

At times, I have leaned toward those who claim that scholars must disengage from contemporary policy issues when investigating the past because history seldom teaches explicit lessons. Still, more often than not, I find myself in the camp of policy-relevant historians. As a teacher, superintendent, and policymaker for a quarter-century before becoming a professor, my values and experiences shaped the questions that I have asked over the last two decades–many of which connect policy to practice.

The path I have chosen, however, has been troublesome. The tug of reading the present into the past is strong and unyielding even when I scrutinize high school yearbooks from 1910 in the dank basement of a district office. Resisting the temptation to select only those historical records and incidents that fit the contemporary scene or bolster a bias is a constant struggle. I have to constantly remind myself to take the past on its own terms, to welcome the document that challenges my beliefs or to spend more time investigating an event that undermines thoroughly what I had found. Juggling professional duties to the craft and discipline with insistent impulses to shape stories that fit particular contemporary policies consistent with my values is–in a trite phrase–hard work.

None of this would surprise colleagues deeply committed to both scholarship and improving schools. It is unsurprising because the public school, a core institution in a market-driven democratic society, has had a checkered history of being drafted again and again to uplift the lives of individual students and improve a society blessed by prosperity and freedom yet wracked by social ills and inequities. Historians of education, perhaps more so than other historians, particularly if their formative experiences included working in schools, have had to contend with this dilemma of hewing to scholarly obligations while seeking improved schools.

The compromise I have worked out draws from historian David Tyack’s conclusion that contemporary decisionmakers already have a picture of the past in their mind. Accurate picture or not, they will formulate policy based on those blurred images of the past. Like Tyack, I believe that more accurate renderings of the past than currently exist can inform the present not by prescribing particular policies but in helping educational decision makers, again in Tyack’s words: “not only to use a sense of the past (which they do willy-nilly) but also to make sense of it.” (“Historical Perspectives on the School as a Social Service Institution,” 1979, p. 56)



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6 responses to “Can Historians Help Reformers Improve Schools?

  1. David F

    Hi Larry, I’m currently at the AHA in New York and the issues of historians being a part of the narrative of contemporary issues is very much on the minds of most presenters. Unfortunately, some areas of history are essentially dead and have been left to other realms (constitutional, legal, diplomatic, military history, for starters. Also, the K-12 sessions here leave much to be desired IMHO. I haven’t seen any history of education panels, which is a shame given the discourse in education circles. Next year the AHA is in Seattle–maybe a panel might be appropriate?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, David. It is a shame that no presentations or panels on history of education were evident. I would hope that some ed historians would propose sessions next year in Seattle.

  2. How lucky I was that you were my Superintendent in my early teaching life.

    At the time I was wondering whether I should stay in education or find another vocation. You were always forward thinking and I decided to follow your lead in being content savvy in geography and history. It really made a difference in my life and understanding of the world. The National Geographic enabled me as well as Will and Ariel Durant .

    I left the classroom finally, because I was being restricted in the use of technology by people who did not understand it at all and who were challenged by it and me (or politics ) maybe, both.

    I learned from your “Open Door Policy” where I could make an appointment to discuss things with you how to see a problem or policy from different perspectives. We talked about field trips once. Since that time the world has been my focus, using technology as a base. Great field trips with the addition of GIS. I follow Esri.(So many countries, so much to learn and share.)

    I cherish the experience in Arlington as the place of learning and you as the inspiration. I probably should have gone for a PhD. But ,I was having a lot of interesting adventures and so I continued.
    So many countries, so much to learn and share.

    The World Summits on the use of Technology for Children..were a great learning experience for me. Greece and South Africa.

    Here in DC. I tied to help, but it’s difficult. I put three years in but its a difficult situation. Bullets, gangs, local politics.

    Histories, history … so important.

    So many interesting chapters in the history of education but few follow the stories.

    Much love

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  3. Hello Larry. My recent research as a historian has uncovered a Black Swan event. India’s maths was never understood in the Arabic world and never made it to Europe. The aftermath today is people worldwide dislike school math.
    PPT @
    PDF @

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