Comparative Connections: Educational History within a Global Context: Presidential Address, Midwest History of Education Society Annual Meeting, October 27, 2006, Chicago, Illinois

By Schuster, Katherine M. | American Educational History Journal, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Comparative Connections: Educational History within a Global Context: Presidential Address, Midwest History of Education Society Annual Meeting, October 27, 2006, Chicago, Illinois


Schuster, Katherine M., American Educational History Journal


While I prepared for this address and reflected upon my research and my split academic personality within the fields of history of education and comparative education, my reflecting pond could not help but be disturbed by the impacts of today's current events. As we conduct our research we are constantly being buffeted by these impact waves-outbreaks of violence in the Middle East, the continuing suffering of communities impacted by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, there are the ravages of world poverty, the depopulation of entire areas of Africa due to Aids, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the overwhelming evidence of environmental devastation. What, you might ask, does all of this have to do with educational history? Just as our historical subjects lived within complex contexts that must be uncovered in order to fully understand their realities, we, as researchers, are also living within complex times.

As we move forward into the 21st century, the global context within which we work will intensify. History is a powerful tool to help us understand where we have been and where we are going. However, I would argue that a comparative theoretical framework is also necessary in today's world.

Heraclitus's notion springs to mind, "You can never step into the same river twice." Our world seems to be changing at an ever-increasing rate--if we are to withstand the storm, we must use history to help us understand more fully what is happening around us. Historical analysis allows us to concur that it is indeed a different river; and yet, many aspects of the riverbed and riverbanks certainly look familiar. It is this contextual knowledge that will help us make wise choices. History can point out the safest points to cross the river and illuminate where the sharpest rocks might be hiding under the surface.

In addition to an historical understanding, a comparative lens is also crucial for getting across to the other side. As we forge ahead with others in order to understand a particular situation, comparativists will ask the non-trivial questions, "Are we both standing in the same river?" And, "Can you gain a clearer view of the river from your vantage point?" According to Epstein (1994, 918), "'Comparative education' refers to a field of study that applies historical, philosophical, and social science theories and methods to international problems in education. Comparativists ... are primarily scholars interested in explaining why educational systems and processes vary and how education relates to wider social factors and forces." One could argue that in some ways all historical research has some comparative elements. History inherently looks at a situation from the fundamentally different point of view of the "future," what some have called the "undiscovered country." However, historical comparative methodology specifically examines an issue from dual or multiple perspectives in order to gain a fuller appreciation of the commonalities and differences among peoples confronted with a similar situation. For example, Nancy Green (1999, 1189) explains, "A comparative study of the historiography of immigration can show rather strikingly how historians and other social scientists conceptualize their own nations while imagining others ... the American history of immigration rarely contemplates the different Australian, Canadian, or French experiences." The field of comparative education has not evolved in isolation from other foundational fields. In fact, initially comparative education and educational history were intertwined, as evidenced in their heritage of common prominent leaders and a common journal. The reinvigoration of this interdisciplinary work is critical for both fields today.

In this address, I present an examination of the early collaborative years in the United States so that it may serve as a foundation for further study and cooperative development. …

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