Engagement, Promising Practices, Teaching

Recovering our Histories: Studying Educational History through Stories and Memoirs

Contemporary educators suffer from a curious case of professional amnesia, in which opportunities to discuss and learn from the history of education are scarce. Presently, history of education occupies a marginalized position in teacher education, and its place as a foundational subject of study in education is dubious.1 As it stands, our plight is similar to that of the protagonist in Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Following an abrupt and severe automobile accident, this protagonist forgets the story of his own place in the world. Having lost his personal history, the story’s main character is in lost in a fog. He no longer knows where he stands, where he was headed, and from whence he came. As educators, fixed in the immediate and pressing concerns of the present contexts of work and life, we must likewise reconstruct our professional memories and stories. Literature, stories, and memoirs have great potential to open up discussion about educational history in relation to educators’ lived experiences.

Historical stories can be hinges to critical thinking about educational contexts and spaces. These stories can reach beyond the limits of an individual teacher candidate’s personal experiences and background knowledge. They can connect new teachers to past and lost traditions, places, and faces in education. Factual stories about the teaching profession can dispel the fallacy that the swirling, swimming chaos of classroom pedagogy somehow happens in isolation, unique from all other experience. Our professional amnesia need not be neglected.

Correlating History to Lived Experience

Early in his career, John Dewey was loosely affiliated with a group of educational thinkers and reformers we refer to as Herbartians due to their fondness for the writing of late 19th century educator Johann Friedrich Herbart.2 They subscribed to the principle of correlation, by which the rough divisions between subject areas are purposefully blurred so that learning activities might not artificially divide ideas into disciplinary boxes that bear no resemblance to lived experience.

In the first half of the 20th century, correlation became a vital principle in curriculum planning and instructional design. As an overarching theme, the concept of correlation would integrate skills and subjects across the curriculum, including reading, writing, editing, proofreading, media, technology, arts, social studies, and science. If students are immersed in the creation of a classroom newspaper or webpage, for instance, they are correlating the language arts with any number of subject areas that forms the publishable content.

Dewey’s conception of correlation went deeper than his predecessors’; he saw that all areas of studies, despite their abstracted and differentiated presentation, emerged from real human experience and history.3 The idea that we have to integrate various subjects takes for granted the assumption that they are fundamentally different things that we, from without, bring together.

Dewey argued that they are, in fact, fundamentally united and are made authentic through children’s lives and experiences. The correlation of knowledge, then, must not happen only among academic subjects, but also among the problems, needs, and concerns of human life and action.

It follows, then, that educational history should not be presented to student teachers as an impractical or disconnected body of knowledge, for it emerged – and continues to emerge ­– from the lives and experiences of actual teachers and learners. History can be a powerful tool for exploring our stories and our place in the world, but it is, like all bodies of knowledge, rendered meaningless unless it is wedded to human activity and experience.

Personal Stories as a Stimulus to Self-reflection

Reading educational stories that represent past and distant educational contexts can correlate the discipline of educational history to lived human experience, opening up discussion about the pedagogical past. Doing educational history – examining and thinking critically about actual pedagogy – can present educators with the experiences of others that might run contrary to their own, encouraging them to reflect upon educational practice and beliefs. If we can imagine that our belief systems resemble a web of ideas linked together by experiences we have had, a notion articulated by philosophers W.V. Quine and J.S. Ullian, we begin to see the entire network as interwoven and interconnected.

The re-evaluation, or rattling, of some of our underlying assumptions and beliefs influences all elements of our understanding.4 This web can be understood as a complex system whose individual component parts cannot be entirely understood without taking into consideration the way in which they relate to other parts and to the whole.

I am not proposing that we present teacher candidates with a reading list or canon of stories and work through them methodically, but rather, that contemporary teaching and learning can benefit from an understanding of past contexts of schooling. In university Faculties of Education, the reading of stories and memoirs can lead to open-ended discussion in which points of controversy can encourage engagement with personal or professional questions about teaching and learning.

These discussions can then become a public crossroads for multiple perspectives, where considering “the other”– as well as alternative or suppressed perspectives – can happen at the intersection of differences in background, belief, privilege, and aims.

In teacher education programs, reading and discussing historical stories can foster exploration of the relationships between teaching, learning, culture, and language.

To be most effective as pedagogical tools, texts used for discussion and analysis should be provocative and stimulating, provoking alternative and dissonant educational beliefs or experiences. This might mean, for example, juxtaposing the narrative of a female teacher in rural Ontario at the beginning of the 20th century with that of a missionary Jesuit in 18th century in New France. Teaching memoirs, as exemplified by Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, draw the teacher into the minds of a community of teachers whose experiences and feelings paint vivid and accessible scenes of the otherwise forgotten – past and distant.

In teacher education programs, reading and discussing historical stories can foster exploration of the relationships between teaching, learning, culture, and language. As an indicative example, consider the case of Mary McLeod Bethune, whose life experiences elucidate some of the struggles that women of colour had to overcome in order to pursue higher education. The daughter of former slaves in South Carolina, Bethune had 16 siblings and was the first to be born “free” following the U.S. Civil War.

She worked in the fields until a single one-room schoolhouse was opened miles away from her home. Following her elementary schooling, because there were no high schools for blacks nearby, she returned to the fields until receiving a scholarship to study up to the age of twenty. For most of her life, Bethune was the only African-American student in her school. Throughout her life, she encountered resistance and prejudice, but she succeeded in working as a teacher, directing a school, founding an institution for the education of African American girls, assuming the position of college president, becoming a national leader for the black education movement, and touring the world as an international advocate and spokesperson for equity in education.

While the questions, triumphs, and defeats experienced in contemporary classrooms are sometimes particular and unique, more often they are not.

While a single, descriptive paragraph does very little justice to the complexity of Bethune’s story, even from this brief description of her life there emerges a set of rich opportunities for debate and discussion. How did the Canadian context of the same historical period compare to this U.S. situation? Are there, in the present multicultural environments that make up our classrooms and schools, students and educators whose family histories or personal experiences resemble Bethune’s? How might such experiences affect the worldview of my students, their parents, and my co-workers? Do women today, particularly women of colour, deal with the same kinds of discriminatory social behaviours that Bethune overcame? Do I, as an educator, unaware of my underlying assumptions or biases, contribute to discriminatory practice?

Not only could personal histories, like Bethune’s, represent imbalances in power, they could stimulate personal reflection and, potentially, transformative action. The questions posed above are the products of the kinds of analyses that pounce out of the texts when we engage with, discuss, and debate powerful stories.

These stories emerge from the historical record and are extremely relevant to present classroom action and practice, as demonstrated by the Bethune story. Stories about educators and educational contexts from history can, while opening up forums for rich discussion and study of the past, correlate the content of history to the lived experiences of educators and teacher candidates. While the questions, triumphs, and defeats experienced in contemporary classrooms are sometimes particular and unique, more often they are not.


The study of history via personal stories and narratives is an opportunity to develop the interpretive tools that enable educators to reflect deeply upon the implications of the setting and situation in which education happens. It provides an occasion to grapple with the complex understanding that education is intimately related to the situational learning context. In order to discover where we are, it is essential that we consider where we came from, who came before us, and how our living, learning, and working environments were shaped. These considerations all relate to educational history, and they are all topics that should be explored through stories and critical discussion rather than with textbook summaries, drill, and recall of dates.

To conclude, as educational historians are ushered increasingly and hastily to the margins of educational study, they might rally behind the thought that history is an eminently human quest to recover human experiences and stories. Far from theoretical, the history of education can be seen as vital to the study and practice of teaching if anchored in the cultures and contexts of stories. The aim is not to foster a backwards-looking reverence or revulsion for things old and passed; rather, a forward-looking, hopeful, and imaginative vision for education requires a robust understanding of the past and of the evolution of ideas.



EN BREF – L’histoire est une quête éminemment humaine visant à récupérer les expériences et récits de l’humanité. Loin d’être théorique, l’histoire de l’éducation peut être considérée essentielle à l’étude et à la pratique de l’enseignement lorsqu’elle est ancrée dans les cultures et les contextes des récits. Dans les facultés d’éducation, la lecture de récits et de mémoires peut mener à des discussions ouvertes dont les éléments controversés peuvent amener les participants à considérer des questions personnelles ou professionnelles liées à l’enseignement et à l’apprentissage, faisant éventuellement charnière à la réflexion critique sur les contextes et espaces d’éducation. Ces récits peuvent dépasser les limites de l’expérience personnelle des enseignants en formation, les reliant à des traditions, à des lieux et à des visages perdus du passé. Ils peuvent contribuer à dissiper l’illusion que le chaos de la pédagogie en classe se produit isolément et se distingue de toute autre expérience.


1 Theodore Christou, “Gone But Not Forgotten: The Decline of History as an Educational Foundation,” Journal of Curriculum Studies 41, no. 5 (2009): 569-583.

2 K. M. Kliebard, Forging the American Curriculum: Essays in Curriculum History and Theory (London: Routledge, 1992).

3 John Dewey, Lectures in the Philosophy of Education: 1899 (New York, NY: Random House, 1966).

4 W. V. Quine and J. S. Ullian, The Web of Belief, 2nd ed. (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1978).

Meet the Expert(s)

Theodore Christou

Theodore Christou is Assistant Professor of Education at the University of New Brunswick, where he teaches history of education, philosophy of education, and social studies. He is a former classroom teacher in Toronto, a published poet, and an advocate for humanities in teacher education.

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