Chapter 8: The Con/text of Mary Sheldon Barnes (1850-1898): A Hermeneutic Inquiry

Article excerpt

The tapestry of the genesis of public schooling is so complex that educational scholars may have only just begun to unravel it. This article will further that unraveling by exploring the work of Mary Sheldon Barnes (1850-1898), first female professor of Stanford University. By focusing on particular research and pedagogical texts of Barnes, our aim is to understand both how she formed and was formed by the intellectual and educational milieu of her times. Furthermore, we suggest the possibility that the influence of her work may continue to linger in current educational thought and practice. We begin by explaining the benefits of hermeneutic inquiry for this type of project, move from there to an analysis of Barnes's texts, and conclude by proposing a resolution for what Monteverde (1999) has called the "conundrum" (p. 35) of Mary Sheldon Barnes.

The philosophical hermeneutics of Gadamer provide the theoretical framework for the exploration of the texts in this study. Although Gallagher (1992) types Gadamer's approach as "moderate," we believe that our project may also be considered critical in that we seek greater insight into our own "pre-understanding," thereby allowing us in some way to transcend our present situation. (1) As Gadamer (1960/1997) notes, "Insight is more than the knowledge of this or that situation. It always involves an escape from something that had deceived us and held us captive" (p. 356). We must acknowledge that while this emancipation represents a place of wider understanding, the nature of understanding is that it is never complete or permanent. We can never escape the limits imposed upon us by our pre-understandings; we will never attain a vantage point from which new questions cease to arise.

Regarding hermeneutic methodology, Laverty (2003) points out that there is no universal set of appropriate procedures, but there is an "obligation to understand the context under which the text or dialogue was being produced and to bring forth interpretations of meaning" (p. 21). Gadamer (1960/1997) proposes that hermeneutics is the art of conducting a conversation, the "art of the formation of concepts as the working out of common meanings" (p. 368). A useful understanding of the text itself is possible only if the text is seen in a limited field of inquiry. If we expect a response from the text, we must limit what we wish to learn from it by addressing specific questions to it. While curriculum scholars have taken up hermeneutic methodology in a variety of ways (e.g., Blumenfeld-Jones, 2004; Brooks, 2000; Reynolds, 1989), we felt the approach of Blumenfeld-Jones provided an appropriate set of questions to pose to this particular set of texts. Like Blumenfed-Jones, our intention was to examine literal curricular texts so that we "might learn who we are as historical beings living in the onflowing stream of thought that comprises our particular field of endeavor" (p. 126). In addition, we desired "an approach that reveals the historical characteristics of curriculum and their direct material presence in the curriculum text itself" (p. 127). Therefore, we decided to explore the texts of Mary Sheldon Barnes by utilizing the concepts of "ostensive, personal, [and] historical motives" (p. 128). In short, this involves a search for (1) explicitly stated reasons why the text was produced, (2) specific, individualized issues that the curricularist has within the field that moved her to conceive of new curricula, and (3) general, historical, sociocultural conditions that create a context for the text. Blumenfeld-Jones emphasizes,

   Of the three motives ... this last may be the most difficult to
   explicate, but in some ways it is the most significant. Although a
   curriculum may be the product of the curricularist's imagination,
   no curriculum emanates idiosyncratically from the person's mind or
   responds to an isolated tradition. The multiple contexts of the
   curricularist's decision making not only affect decisions but must
   find a material presence in the curriculum. … 

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