Memories of schooling in Australia, 1930s-50s: Reflections on the 'happy schooldays' narrative

Year: 2012

Author: Wright, Katie, McLeod, Julie

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


This paper explores narratives of schooling from the standpoint of people who attended schools in various parts of Australia in the period of the 1930s to the 1950s. Drawing on oral history interviews conducted for a larger genealogical study of adolescence and schooling in Australia, we focus in this presentation on a common theme that has emerged in our interviews, what we describe as the 'happy schooldays' narrative. Reflecting on the accounts of former students, the paper considers some of the interpretive challenges of oral history and the difficulties of grappling with such seemingly generic constructions of schooling and growing up. How can stories of schooling as 'the best of times' be most fruitfully understood, particularly when such narratives are often counterposed with negative evaluations of the present? In trying to make sense of the happy schooldays narrative, we explore the past-present connection that has emerged in our interviews, and the work of memory and nostalgia in accounts of the self as a student. We propose a rethinking of nostalgia as more than romantic sentiment and as more than a simple story of social decline. These seemingly generic narratives, we suggest, offer important insights into how the present is experienced and constructed, not only how past educational experiences are remembered. Nostalgia, we argue, is pivotal to how participants construct a critique of the present and navigate a complex and shifting relationship to the past.