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Burlbaw, Lynn M. and Field, Sherry L. (Eds.) (2005). Explorations in Curriculum History. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Pp. ix + 410
$34.95   ISBN 1-930608-42-X

Reviewed by Mark Nagasawa
Arizona State University

August 29, 2006

“One often advises rulers, statesmen, and peoples to learn from the experiences of history. But what experience and history teach is that peoples and governments have never yet learned from history, let alone acted according to its lessons” (Hegel, 1953/1837, p. 8).

Given concerns about contemporary international education reform efforts historiographic inquiry in education seems particularly relevant, for could it be possible that these current policies have come to be in isolation of those that preceded them? Of course not and therein lies the potential for historical study to contribute to understandings of our own time. While none of the contributors directly addresses questions about the connections between past and present, Explorations in Curriculum History, a primarily U.S. focused collection of historical cases, is a worthy effort that can help us to see historical echoes in present day curricular and policy debates. While at first glance the twenty-three cases may seem obscure or narrow, for example William Bagley’s influence on normal school education in Montana or curricular debates over geometry’s place in American high school math curricula, one of the book’s strengths lies in the range of subjects covered by its twenty-one contributors, and so it merits examination not only by those interested in educational history but also by those interested in the intersections of curricula with nationalism, sexism, racism, civil rights or language policy.

Lynn Burlbaw and Sherry Field have organized the chapters into four themes: (1) curriculum as a field of work, (2) as a life’s work, (3) as a shaper of institutions, and (4) as a response to crises. I appreciate their efforts for this collection is, as O.L. Davis writes in the Foreword, “a typical random harvest of curriculum theory inquiries…that illustrates both the vigor and the unevenness of an emerging and developing field” (p. x). This is a very accurate assessment of the volume, one that suggests some of the challenges involved in distinguishing curriculum studies from other facets of educational research, since many of these chapters do not focus on “actual” curricula, but rather on the socio-historical contexts and enactment of curricula and schooling.

Lynn M. Burlbaw
Davis’ comments also speak to the potential fertility of historiography and educational research, which this collection illustrates through a range of historiographic methods from archival, to oral history, to textual analysis and by focusing on historical subjects as varied as key actors, professional organizations, schools in community contexts, and schooling within the macro contexts of national or global forces.

O.L. Davis’s statement about the “unevenness of an emerging and developing field” also targets a key issue with Explorations in Curriculum History. The parts may be of greater use than the whole. This critique is an important one, as this volume has two explicit objectives, (1) to highlight recent historical scholarship and (2) to bring historical perspective to educational research and practice. Burlbaw and Field are to be congratulated for providing a forum for these scholars’ works and individual chapters will no doubt be of help to feminist scholars (with eight chapters focusing on gender issues), Chicana/o scholars (an oral history of Blandina Cardenas and a study of Metz School in Austin, TX), those interested in specific regional histories (Ireland, Montana, New Mexico, Spain, Texas, or Virginia), or those who seek to place education and schooling within the broader flow of historical events (Settler Colonialism of the U.S., World War I, the rise of European Fascism, World War II, desegregation, or the “Cold War”). It does less well with the second purpose, certainly the larger of the two.

The editors, and many of the contributors, express a belief that historical perspective is an important component of professional judgment for direct practitioners, educational researchers, and policy makers. And yet many also point out that lessons are rarely drawn from history. Burlbaw writes, “As surely as seasons come and go, educational reforms spring up, blossom, and wither away. Although they may not occur annually, reforms seem to take a cycle that ignores, or blinks at, previous experiences” (p. 53). Why is this so? Frustratingly, none of the contributors take the risk of forwarding hypotheses on this question, preferring instead to rely on the rational assumption that insight will lead to different actions. However, if the aim is to inform the present through the study of history, I believe that it is necessary to draw connections between past and contemporary events, such as current shifts in curriculum, professional standards, or governance symbolized by the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in the U.S. and by national policies in other countries (Anderson-Levitt, 2003; Bloch, Holmlund, Moquvist, & Popkewitz, 2003). An opportunity was missed to contextualize these studies of the past with the present.

An example of this can be seen in the first chapter, William Wraga’s “The Inglis Surveys: Social Efficiency Thesis Anomalies,” which opens the section entitled “Curriculum: A Field of Work,” a grouping that examines the development of the field by exploring the activities and contributions of a selection of key actors in the early to middle 20th Century. Wraga effectively utilizes the seemingly narrow case of Alexander Inglis’ work on state education surveys between 1912 and 1922 to critique the thesis that these educational surveys were a reflection of the social efficiency movement’s influence on American public education (cf. Callahan, 1962). His argument is that close historical examination raises questions about simplistic social efficiency interpretations, where in essence systematization at lowest cost trumps “finest product” (p. 23). He shows that both consistencies and inconsistencies with the social efficiency thesis can be found and maintains that the inconsistencies are not minor.

Wraga’s analysis complicates the view that social efficiency was a monolithic ideology. Instead Inglis’ work might be better seen as reflecting a hybrid of liberal democratic ideals and scientism; however, Wraga does not provide a convincing case to negate the interpretation that the ideas and methods of Frederick Taylor were very influential in early 20th Century education reform in the U.S. illustrated through the work of educators like J. Franklin Bobbit (Calahan, 1962). While his point is well made that inconsistencies should not be ignored, and he reopens debate about whether this should be seen as the dominant theme of the time, no acknowledgement is made of scientific management’s enduring influence on curriculum, instruction, and school governance which may be heard in the standards and accountability movement, the narrowing of definitions of science, and the incorporation of business discourse in schools (Apple, 2001; Education Sciences Reform Act, 2002; Eisner, 1998; Smith, Miller-Kahn, Heinecke, and Jarvis, 2004).

In attempting to explain why Inglis’s work deviated from those more clearly affiliated with scientific management Wraga invokes the "great man" thesis as one possibility (the other being the fallacy of overly broad interpretation). In general this is the view that certain individuals possess exceptional qualities to exert force over or resist the movements of a time. This is a perspective that is also taken by other authors in this section and in the following one, although to different effect, entitled: “A Life’s Work.”

Here the focus is on the role of “forgotten” individuals, and shows how historiography can shed light on the forgotten, the subjugated (Foucault, 1980), or the erased (Derrida, 1976; Kaomea, 2003). While it can be argued that this section falls into the trap of morphing the great man thesis into the great woman, eight of the nine contributions address individual women’s contributions to curriculum development and the broader field, this section is perhaps the most effective as a collection. Implicitly they raise the question, were women leaders forgotten because they shone less brightly, or is there a more likely explanation?

Linda Levstik takes up this question, as well as challenging a “great person” view of history, in “Woman as Force in Social Education: The Gendering of Social Studies in the 20th Century,” arguing that the social pressures on a male dominated, but nascent, historical profession actively silenced women’s contributions to social studies education. Hers is a critical examination of the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS), an offshoot of the then newly formed American Historical Association (AHA), and the subsequent erasure of women such as Mary Kelty (the subject of two other chapters by Keith Barton and Margaret Smith Crocco) from the field’s memory. The NCSS’s role was to standardize secondary and eventually primary social studies curricula, but its work was peripheral to the larger goal of establishing credibility for the discipline.

As academic historians struggled to make their field the counterpart of more prestigious sciences, they publicly separated themselves from anything deemed feminine. Not only did they attempt to exclude women at each stage of the historical processes they were establishing, they resorted to gendered discourse to make the separation clear. “Objective,” “scientific,” and “virile” history generated in “seminars” replaced “amateur,” “superficial,” and “literary” history associated with women writers (p. 195).

This case illustrates the important historical task of not only asking questions about what male leaders were saying but also looking at what various groups and subgroups were doing. However, Levstik adds that existing histories may be unreliable places to find sources because women are rarely referenced. Her approach differs from others in this volume in that it details the operations of social structure, revealing that women’s silence has not been by choice or chance (p. 199).

The following section “Shaping Institutions,” is less cohesive than the others. The editors’ intent was that each chapter suggests a common idea of curricula as social activity, that curricula are produced by and reproduce social contexts – institutions, communities, and societies. It is interesting that this is the briefest portion of the book, as this is a broad idea that warrants additional exploration.

Mary Black’s “Mexican American Education: An Elementary Case Study” suggests both the nearly unlimited possibilities of, and some of the challenges involved in (such as limited sources), conducting community studies. This microhistorical case tells a story of the 20th Century U.S. through the history of a single school, Metz Elementary School in Austin, TX, which has continuously served children of Mexican heritage since 1916. By chronicling an unknown (outside of the community) school, Black shows how broader social forces affected the school and how the community responded to these through its school.

It is a largely celebratory story of a school and community negotiating the arc of the 20th Century: demographic shifts, perhaps due to urbanization or to ripple effects from the Mexican Revolution; depression era school segregation efforts; post WWII “white flight” (Wilson, 1978); the arrival of the Metz’s first Mexican American principal who brought bilingual/bicultural education in 1973, and 1981 bussing which again shifted the school’s ethnic demographics (98% Latino to 58% “overnight”); community mobilization around decaying school facilities and the politics of facilities funding; and the fear of state takeover induced by reported poor scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills in 1993. This is a helpful reminder that hidden beneath debates over macro forces and sweeping policy mandates lie people’s lived realities, perhaps small but not meaningless.

The story of Metz Elementary shows that communities and institutions are after all made up of people. Individual actors change but there are also continuities, albeit not necessarily linear ones. For Black, studies such as hers can assist in, “understanding the details of particular educational environments [which] is important in order to analyze the influence of policy decisions, cultural tendencies, and other factors that impinge on academic achievement and economic success” (p. 263). I would add that this can especially be the case when complimented by fine grained ethnographic studies that offer details obtainable only by participant observation (for example see Valdés, 1996, 2001) but which are often critiqued for lacking a diachronic element.

Explorations in Curriculum History ends somewhat abruptly with “A Response to Crisis,” where four of five chapters discuss curricular issues and schooling during World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. This section is interesting because these chapters link the “separate” worlds of schools to the broader, consuming social events of war and societies’ concerns with forming a “new world order.” This section also has one of the two studies focused on non-U.S. topics, Ron Wilhelm’s “España Nuestra: the Molding of Primary School Children for a Fascist Spain (the other being Ann Pliska’s chapter examining monasticism’s influence on early Irish education).

Wilhelm’s contribution is also noteworthy for being openly theoretical and for embracing both interpretation and social scientific methods (content analysis), rather than relying solely upon more traditional historical narrative. Unlike the other authors, Wilhelm treats schools as ideological state apparatus (see also Althusser, 1971) and España Nuestra, a textbook published in 1943, as a cultural artifact containing a condensed Nationalist ideology developed through the contests over modern Spain, which culminated in the Spanish Civil War. Published after the consolidation of control by the nationalist coalition, made up of rightist groups led by General Francisco Franco, España Nuestra reflects the qualities of Spanish fascism: patriotism, Catholicism, civic-mindedness, and militarism to defend against the enemies of Spain, “often defined as a ‘Communist-Jewish-Masonic Conspiracy’” (p. 345). While it may not be surprising to learn of schools in fascist Spain being used to interpolate children to nationalist ideology, this approach might also be fruitful when applied to today’s curricula within the current discourse of nebulous enemies and war (Altheide, 2006).

However, once again these applications and possible critiques of the present are left implicit. The overall project of historicizing the field of education is undermined when attempts are not made to reconcile the optimistic hope of learning from the past with history’s recursiveness. This is a central problematic of the discipline, one which I think needs to be openly addressed and discussed across disciplines, because it is an issue that other social researchers have addressed (see for example Leach, 1959; Pareto, 1963), in order to explore ways of remembering and making use the past. This broader theoretical issue leads me to be concerned that this collection, and similar work runs the danger of not being read, for if history repeats itself than what use is its study? Similarly this practical question is not addressed despite repeated assertions by various contributors, both explicit and implicit, that historical understanding can and should inform contemporary decision-making. While I understand the contributors’ reluctance to make simplistic, linear connections between past and current events, I do find it disappointing that there is at best an occasional, oblique reference to contemporary issues. While it is unfair to expect clear linkages in all instances, I believe that maintaining historical distance contributes to disciplinary provincialism, relegating the study of the past to historians and very few others. Although flawed, Explorations in Curriculum History provides readings that could be put to good use in undergraduate and graduate foundations courses as well as in administration, leadership, policy studies, or research methods seminars, where in my experience historiography is given lighter treatment than other disciplinary approaches.


Althusser, L. (1971). Lenin and philosophy and other essays. London: New Left Books.

Altheide, D. L. (2006). Terrorism and the politics of fear. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.

Anderson-Levitt, K. (Ed.) (2003). Local meanings, global schooling: Anthropology and world culture theory. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Apple, M. W. (2001). Educating the “right” way: Markets, standards, God, and inequality. New York and London: Routledge Falmer.

Bloch, M. N., Holmlund, K., Moquvist, I. & Popkewitz, T. S. (Eds.) (2003). Governing children, families & education: Restructuring the welfare state. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Callahan, R. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1976). Of grammatology (G. C. Spivak, Transl.). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002, Publ. L. No. 107-279 (2002).

Eisner, E. W. (1998). The kinds of schools we need: Personal essays. New York: Heinnemann.

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977 (C. Gordon, Editor and Translator). New York: Pantheon Books.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1953). Reason in history (R.S. Hartman, Transl.). Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

Kaomea, J. (2003). Reading erasures and making the familiar strange: Defamiliarizing methods for research in formerly colonized and historically oppressed communities. Educational Researcher,32, 14-25.

Leach, E. R. (1959). Political systems of highland Burma: A study of Kachin social structure. Oxford: Berg.

Pareto, V. (1963). The mind and society: A treatise on general sociology. (A. Bongiorno, Transl. & A. Linvingston, Editors and Translators). New York: Dover Publications.

Smith, Mary Lee, Miller-Kahn, Linda, Heinecke, Walt, & Jarvis, Patricia F. (2004). Political spectacle and the fate of American schools. New York: RoutledgeFalmer

Valdés, G. (2001). Learning and not learning English: Latino students in American schools, New York: Teachers College Press.

Valdés, G. (1996). Con respeto: Bridging the distance between culturally diverse families and schools, an ethnographic portrait. New York: Teachers College Press.

Wilson, W. J. (1978). The declining significance of race: Blacks and changing American institutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

About the Reviewer

Mark Nagasawa is a doctoral student in early childhood education at Arizona State University. His research interests include the politics of education and comparative educational practices.

Copyright is retained by the first or sole author, who grants right of first publication to the Education Review.

Editors: Gene V Glass, Kate Corby, Gustavo Fischman

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