When the present becomes the past– writing a history of radical and progressive education

Year: 2016

Author: McLeod, Julie

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper is motivated by three questions, explored in relation to writing a history of progressive ideas and radical innovations in schooling, beginning with the 1970s, looking backwards to the interwar period, sideways at feminism and education and outwards from Australia. It asks: 1) how and in what circumstances does the recent past, the nearby educational present, become framed or transformed as a topic of historical investigation; 2) what is involved – lost and gained – in historicising the present? and 3) how else might the educational past be regarded, other than as offering a set of lessons for the present?The larger historical study follows the movement of educational ideas and actors across the mid-decades of the twentieth century, locating them in experiments in curriculum, school organization and design, and in teacher knowledge and professional expertise. This was a time of significant expansion in mass secondary schooling and progressive ideas both permeated and provided a critique of these developments. They underpinned the establishment in Australia of alternative school settings within the state education system, but more than this, these experiments were not simply niche activities: they left a mark on mainstream schooling, one that had a profound cultural impact, shaping teacher and student identities and sense of possibility. It seeks to recast how historical accounts of progressivism might be told and how memory of radical practices can be mobilized or forgotten in the present. It does so, first, by bringing feminist agendas to the fore, arguing that accounts of feminism and schooling and of progressive education are often told in separate story lines, to the detriment of understanding each. Yet, these movements had parallel and overlapping agendas, even if they were not overtly acknowledged at the time or subsequently. Exploring such exclusions/inclusions opens up the contradictory and uncertain dimensions of progressivism. Second, it looks to the transnational exchanges and re-articulation of radical ideas, seeing how initiatives in Australia had distinctive features yet also shared some of the characteristics of democratic and de-schooling activities underway in many other parts of the world. It thus engages historiographical debate within the history of education and the affordances and limitations of following a transnational turn. Third, this history of ideas is anchored in accounts of everyday practices alongside the aspirations of policy and official discourses; and it is anchored in affective practices and material objects – the circulation of iconic books, the design and spatial arrangements of schools, the articulation of pedagogies, and the force of collective and biographical memory.