Academic journal article History of Education Review

Timeless Projects: Remembering and Voice in the History of Education

Academic journal article History of Education Review

Timeless Projects: Remembering and Voice in the History of Education

Article excerpt

Introduction

Developments in approach to oral history have transformed scholarship in the History of Education and have sharpened focus on the relationship between past and present. Over the past four decades there has been a substantial broadening to the diversity of professional approaches in the analysis and recognition of our history. When juxtaposed alongside documentary evidence, the potential of oral narratives seemed limited and problematic to those whose logic lay embedded within the traditional archival record. Of immediate concern was the presumed unreliability of memory in the seeding of an oral context and of its supposed inability to represent the past and tell the same truth. (2) The concern for person to person transfer of information without written record seemed openly contestable, yet in many instances these were the sole sources of information and to reject them would simply leave a blank pallet in the repertoire of history. In societies such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, as Miranda Johnson points out, where Indigenous oral histories have gained legitimacy in native land and resource claims, for example, such concerns have become 'more than academic'. (3)

Critical developments in oral history scholarship reflect, and have been reflected in, an increasing perception of its relevance, and in its dynamic application across a wide disciplinary terrain. As a technique for examining diverse interpretations of historical events and social practices, it can challenge conventional scholarship--officially sanctioned versions of historical reality--and be used to construct, deconstruct or reconstruct history. Sometimes, however, it is forgotten that the precursor to the modern oral history movement rests in a much earlier time. As Alistair Thomson reminds us, it was 'the nineteenth century development of an academic history discipline [that] led to the primacy of archival research and documentary sources, and a marginalisation of oral evidence'. (4)

Within a Maori cultural domain, for example, history was learnt and retold through particular language forms like whakatauki [proverb and poetic allusions] and waiata [songs] which were underscored by an extensive knowledge base and held in-depth accuracy of events and circumstances. These language forms have been vital to the transmission and maintenance of cultural knowledge and beliefs and as oral records they constitute 'ancestral taonga' [cultural treasures]. (5) Sir James Henare noted the archival importance of these records in his characterisation of them as 'a veritable treasure house of the genius, wit, condensed wisdom and silent telepathy in the storied souls of our ancestors calling across the ages to their descendants struggling towards the cultural light'. (6) In a compelling reminder of the silenced heritage of contemporary oral history, American anthropologist Peter Nabakov claims that Indigenous oral histories 'complement, contextualise, or provide reinterpretations for written constructions of shallower pasts'. (7) In his work A Forest of Time, Nabakov explores why and how North American Indian communities have remembered, constructed and transmitted their diverse pasts over time. In his use of the term 'historicity', he points to the significance of the 'culturally patterned ways' (8) these pasts have been imagined and represented and of their relevance for making sense of, and guiding the present and future. 'The many Indian pasts', he argues, 'are as much stories of philosophical, ideological, and symbolic creativity and synthesis, inevitably processed through definitions of self, community, and destiny, as they are beads of discrete incidents hung on narrative strings'. (9) Because of its focus on the expression and representation

of culture, Nabakov's work provides an excellent foundational understanding of the oral tradition from which to examine the role and nature of oral history and its link to memory. …

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