Learning in Nowhere: Individualism in Correspondence Education in 1938 and 1950

By Lee, Francis | History of Education Review, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Learning in Nowhere: Individualism in Correspondence Education in 1938 and 1950


Lee, Francis, History of Education Review


[In correspondence education] there is no class work in the ordinary sense. Each pupil's course is his own. The subjects that comprise it can be chosen to suit the individual pupil alone. The emphasis can be laid where it is most needed. The pupil proceeds at his own pace, independently of other pupils of the same grade. Pupils of higher than average ability can and do make faster than average progress; those of less than average talent may make slower than average progress ... The use of individual assignments develops a sense of responsibility, initiative and self reliance. (1)

A.G. Butchers, quoted above, was the headmaster of the New Zealand Correspondence School in Wellington in the mid twentieth century. He was a most vocal proponent of individualistic learning in correspondence education. His words illustrate several fundamental facets of the pedagogic individualism that was prevalent in correspondence education at the time. Correspondence education was argued to be tailor-made for the individual who studied at an individualised pace. The student was to become an independent learner who developed 'a sense of responsibility, initiative and self reliance' through the use of individual assignments.

Individualism in correspondence education was, like other individualistic understandings of pedagogy and the human, connected to specific practices of producing knowledge and ordering society. (2) Individualism in education, including the correspondence variant, was intimately intertwined with educational progressivism, the psychology of individual differences, and developmental psychology. (3)

This article seeks to investigate the individualistic ideas, practices, and student identities that developed in correspondence education in the mid twentieth century. In doing so a number of questions about the individualistic pedagogy and identities in correspondence education are posed. How was individualism to be achieved? What pedagogic practices were used? Who could students learn from? What was the desired identity of the students? How were the student's material circumstances understood? In attempting to answer these questions the article aims to increase understanding of the individual pedagogy and the construction of the independent learner' at work in correspondence education during its golden age.

Theoretical framework

The article draws on the post-Foucauldian materialist tradition of research, which has earlier been applied to a wide range of phenomena including laboratories, hospitals, or disability, as well as psychology and the child centred curriculum. (4) In doing so, it emphasises the interaction of knowledge and materiality, thus paying special attention to the architecture of the school and the seating arrangements of the classroom to the curriculum materials and techniques of assessment'. (5)

This article approaches individualism in correspondence education from a governmentality perspective by analysing the conduct of conductor governing, i.e. the shaping, guiding, correcting, and modifying of individuals by themselves and others. (6) In this article I accentuate the heterogeneous nature of governing by analysing it as both a practice and a mentality. A principal aspect of the conduct of conduct is the construction of identities and its role in governing humans. Consequently, a keystone of the article is the analysis of the individualistic subject position of 'the independent learner'. (7)

Furthermore, the governmentality perspective prescribes a concern for the technologies that are employed to modify behaviour and thought. Moreover, as correspondence education is geographically dispersed, the article emphasises the technologies that make it possible to govern at a distance. (8) Technology in this sense is treated as a social apparatus consisting of a heterogeneous array of things that shape practice and knowledge. (9) These technologies can be of two major types: technologies of discipline and technologies of the self. …

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