Reflections on History of Education conference

I was really pleased to be able to discuss my Pictures for Schools work at the History of Education Society annual conference over the weekend, and to hear about the work of other researchers.

I particularly enjoyed the opening keynote by Jane O’Dea from the University of Lethbridge, Canada who, as well as discussing the social, cultural and political forces that have shaped education and the distribution of literature in Ireland historically, reflected on the place, form and nature of academic writing and the work of the historian. Her advice to find your voice, be yourself, avoid jargon and prioritise quality over quantity – as well as the notion of the historian as a kind of artist – certainly resonated with me.

I was pleased to hear from Laura Newman at Royal Holloway University, who discussed some of the findings from an ongoing research project in collaboration with Kew Gardens looking at nineteenth-century school museums. Newman focused on the teacher-curators who drove the collection and display of objects, as well as writing articles advising teachers on the care and use of collections. Newman described how some teachers collected not just botanical specimens, but took opportunities to obtain items relating to manufacturing. They encouraged a culture of collecting in students and their families, and got former students to send artefacts relating to their eventual careers. However, the use of such museum objects varied – whilst some students were taken out onto nature rambles, and given object lessons, others were not allowed to touch!

Also fascinating was a talk by Catherine Sloan, a PhD student at the University of Oxford, about nineteenth-century school magazines. Sloan described in detail the operations of one magazine in particular, relating to a middle-class and hierarchical Quaker school in Croydon in the mid-nineteenth century, which was created, distributed and subscribed to by pupils, who encouraged each other to take responsibility for its content. She showed how school magazines were a means by which students obtained status in schools as cultural producers and ‘autonomous sculptors of school culture’, circulating knowledge and creating a ‘juvenile archive’. Although some researchers have debated the extent to which school magazines are a valid resource and encapsulate students’ authentic voices, she showed the value of such school magazines.

I got several really interesting comments and questions relating to my paper, including comments about how the need to teach critical skills is important now more than ever. One question prompted me to consider something I had never thought about before, and didn’t really know how to answer: were the organisers of Pictures for Schools concerned with the illustrations in textbooks, as part of a wider culture of visual communication, and did the exhibiting artists get any such commissions on the back of the scheme? Other questions related to aspects of the operations of Pictures for Schools that I should perhaps have made clearer: did the scheme cover the whole of Britain, or just England, and were northern schools beneficiaries or did schools in London and the south east benefit in the main? I was asked about the focus on Nan Youngman, and whether her work as an artist and an educationalist was equally important (the answer is that this was due to the availability and focus of archival material, and the stories that emerged from it – and that despite a split in the material between Youngman’s work as an artist and an educationalist, I believed these two sources of material benefited from being read alongside one another as part of a wider career trajectory). Finally, it was interesting to hear from a woman who was surprised to hear about Marion Richardson’s work in the sphere of art education, as she knew of her only as a ‘victim’ of her methods for teaching handwriting, for which she is better known!

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