The State of American History

By Herbert J. Bass | Go to book overview

New Perspectives on the History of American Education

DAVID B. TYACK

Hear a student in a Harlem school:

The early bird catches the worm.... Not always the worm get caught. Sometimes he is too fast for the early bird. I think that sometimes this is not true because the birds are not after worms, they might find something better to eat. One of these days the worm is going to eat the bird.1

It's a question of perspective. If one identifies with the worm instead of with the early bird, the world looks different. What we see here, as Ralph Ellison has remarked about the experience of blacks and whites, is a struggle over the nature of reality. Present crises are prompting educational historians to look with new perspectives at institutions long taken for granted, and to ask new questions about unfamiliar subjects. This reexamination is not so much another form of present-mindedness -- a defect which has produced much anachronistic writing in the history of education -- as it is an example of the "Age of Reinterpretation" described by C. Vann Woodward in 1960. As Woodward has reminded us, insistent and revolutionary changes today are forcing historians to understand the past in new ways.2

The dominant early genre in the history of education in this country was a version of house history comparable to the work of early denominational historians. Like ministers writing sectarian histories for their colleagues, educational historians often wrote to unite and inspire their co-workers in the schools. From the perspective of professional

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