Historical sociology and the time/spaces of school memories, nostalgia and oral history

Year: 2018

Author: McLeod, Julie

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper opens with questions about time and educational reform and takes notions of multiple and ‘colliding temporalities’ (McLeod 2017) and the ‘affective practices’ of nostalgia to explore memory of schooling across generations, place, and policy. Insights from an oral history study of former teachers and students who worked in or attended Australian schools in the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s serve as a prompt for considering theoretical debates regarding the scope and concerns of historical sociology.  Oral histories provide the means to explore the nexus between or the entanglement of private and public feelings, and as such demand resources for thinking comparatively and historically across big time and little time (historical, generational, and biographical, daily time). Conventionally, historical sociology has been concerned with epochal time, or shifts in big time. This paper, however, repositions this orientation and addresses methodological challenges in engaging biographical narratives as a vantage point from which to explore wider cultural and educational imaginaries, revisiting a somewhat familiar dilemma of working across the time/space of biographical, generational and historical change. In this case, the focus is on engaging conceptual approaches to memory, longing and nostalgia to guide analysis of their movement and effects across different temporal registers, while attending as well to the situatedness – the geopolitical contexts – in which these emotions arise.
Nostalgia is not always or only about the past, as Boym (2001) argues: Nostalgia ‘can be retrospective but also prospective. Fantasies of the past determined by the needs of the present have a direct impact on realities of the future’. Koselleck’s (2004) categories of ‘space of experience’ and ‘horizon of expectation’ offer fruitful points of connection here. ‘The space of experience allows one to account for the assimilation of the past into the present … Horizon of expectation reveals the way of thinking about the future’ (Boym 2001), to the ‘future made present’ and ‘to that which is to be revealed’. These categories thus suggest approaches to analyzing the dynamics between biographical and generational processes of memory and cultural inheritance along with the imagination and invention of futures.  Narratives from women training to be teachers in the 1950s are explored through these lenses, with themes of mobility, desire and freedom paramount as this generation pre-figures and in part gives rise to the transformations of gender and class that unfold from the 1960s onwards, profoundly mediated by education and the teaching profession