The Purposes of History? Curriculum Studies, Invisible Objects and Twenty-First Century Societies

Article excerpt

IN DECONSTRUCTING HISTORY, Alun Munslow (2006, p. 1) articulates what is now commonplace, that "It is generally recognised that written history is contemporary or present orientated to the extent that we historians not only occupy a platform in the here-and-now, but also hold positions on how we see the relationship between the past and its traces, and the manner in which we extract meaning from them. There are many reasons, then, for believing we live in a new intellectual epoch - a so-called postmodern age - and why we must rethink the nature of the historical enterprise to meet the needs of our changed intellectual beliefs and circumstances." Munslow goes on to posit that contemporary doubts about the nature of history, especially in terms of accuracy of representation and realism, are both part of history's awkward relation with social sciences and an extension of modernity's self-reflexivity:

One of the main points about the Age of Enlightenment modernism from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was its self-consciousness in asking questions about how we know what we know. In a peculiar sense, perhaps modernism was always going to end up fundamentally critiquing itself. Maybe postmodernism was the inevitable consequence of modernism?...it is important from the start to recognise that history was always going to be in the forefront of this modernist will to self-criticism. It is as a result of this postmodern condition for knowing that history, as a discipline, has always been particularly susceptible to debates about its nature (Munslow, 2006, p. 2).

Munslow's observations regarding a new intellectual epoch and the necessity of new enterprises to suit changed beliefs and circumstances captures a widespread sentiment in formal historiography and at the same time reduces the sentiment to the question of how knowledge is gained and represented in narrative form. Over the last century, studies of curriculum in Anglophone-dominant sites of production have been similarly and significantly dedicated to the question of knowledge and the different value-systems that generate different knowledges. Such studies have helped move the conceptual lens away from claims to objectivity, neutrality, and some universalisms. They have less frequently, however, moved beyond planetary geopolitically-based thinking, a place-knowledge reduction, or questioned how epistemological debates have been tied to human-centric imperatives in ways that "protect and isolate their primary categories from external accountability" (Carrette, 2007, p. viii).

This paper attempts one such disruption by subjecting some primary categories to an interrogation that disallows their historico-philosophical protection and isolation. Taking Munslow's insights regarding the importance of 19th century debates as significant, as well as the tension between social science and historiography, the paper moves through several layers that highlight the lack of settlement regarding the endowment of objects for study with the status of the scientific. It ultimately examines the impact upon curriculum history's lines of sight and foci of the positing and retracting of doubt in regard to objects' legitimacy. It traces relations within and between less-visited texts on education to unpack the possibilities and limits for object-formation, and considers the implication of uneven and relatively different logics formed through the social sciences and education-related fields on the conceptualization of reality and what it means to conduct an analysis. Whether the nature of history and conceptions of knowledge are, or ought to be, central considerations in curriculum studies and reducible to purposes or elevated as "present orientated," thus operates as a less effective incitement to discourse than disrupting the protection and isolation of primary categories whose troubling is overdue but not without precedent - hence the question mark in the title and the redirection that follows. …