Speaking Volumes: Studies in the History of Education

September 8, 1995

Gary McCulloch on Brian Simon's Studies in the History of Education .

The books that have shaped my academic development in the field of the history of education have fallen into three camps: the Good, the Bad, and the Unlikely. This being The THES rather than one of its sister journals, I will not dwell unduly on the Bad and the Unlikely, even though it is certainly true that irritating work can be highly influential in telling one what not to do.

On the one hand, educational history is full of pious works, untainted and unconcerned by the failures and disappointments of the past, content to elevate their gaze to the public ideals of the education system. On the other, education as a field has become so oppressed by the might-have-beens of national decline that its history has recently been prone to degenerate into escapist fantasy and a search for scapegoats.

Amid such ruins, Brian Simon's Studies In The History Of Education, 1780-1870 stands out as a towering achievement. This definitive work was produced in 1960, at a time when Harold Macmillan was unchallenged at 10 Downing Street and Sir David Eccles was minister of education. At that time, educational history generally ran the gamut of emotions from A to D - Adamson, Boultwood, Curtis, and Dent of blessed memory.

Simon challenged the orthodox liberal-evolutionary accounts of gradual educational progress that such historians represented. He was concerned to present the history of education as a form of social history, and to widen the appeal of the field for a broader audience as being "full of incident and interest, touching on all sides of life, on the outlook and interests of all classes of society". He sought also to portray the history of education in terms of political conflict over issues in which he was himself an active participant, such as intelligence testing and comprehensive schools. At the same time, he focused on the role of social class in shaping the character of educational provision in this country, and in helping to explain the enduring and systemic nature of educational inequalities. All of this needed saying, and Simon said it loudly, and at length.

This volume - later reissued under the more evocative title The Two Nations And The Educational Structure, 1780-1870 - has I think a strong claim in its own right to be described as the foundation stone of modern studies in the history of education. It did much to reunite the history of education with wider social and political debates. It also engaged with a longer term tradition of critical dissent about the role of education in British society that one associates with figures such as R. H. Tawney, Fred Clarke and Raymond Williams.

If this were Simon's only major contribution to the history of education, it would still count as a massive intervention. In fact, it turned out to be merely the first volume of four, the most recent of these, on the tumultuous period since the Second World War, completed in 1991 in the aftermath of Kenneth Baker's Education Reform Act. Separately, these provided important studies of different phases of educational history in the 19th and 20th centuries. Together, they constitute a general history of the period as a whole that has revised and reshaped the field to such an extent as to become itself more or less the standard account.

For myself, undoubtedly, Simon's work has been a continuing inspiration. Earlier in my career, it made sense as an overarching interpretation in a way that could inform both historical study and the policy debates of the present. It was invaluable as a resource, and also as a point of departure for discussions on many different historical topics. As I studied more deeply, it retained my interest and admiration, but increasingly as a source of challenge. The task was not merely to fill in the gaps left by Simon's account or to quibble with its details, but to seek out and explore different ways of surveying the terrain that he had marked out in such a distinctive fashion. In the 1990s, it is this immense task that now confronts the next generation of scholars in the field.

Gary McCulloch is professor of education, University of Sheffield.

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