An educational NACBS

By Laura Carter, Peter Mandler, and Chris Jeppesen

Last month the SESC team attended the North American Conference on British Studies (NACBS) in Providence, Rhode Island. As is always the case with NACBS, it was a large and busy event, featuring work from scholars of the British world spanning centuries, methodologies, and geographies. We noticed that there was a real upsurge in panels and papers featuring education across the board on previous years. Stephen Jackson remarked that there were more papers on the history of education at the 2018 meeting than he could remember from any NACBS, surely a positive sign from the perspective of our project.

Likewise, Laura Tisdall, who provided the comment for the panel which featured our Laura’s paper, offered up some thoughts on why the history of education has been a sort of ‘unhistory’ in the field of British studies. Her reasons included the predominance of teacher training in the literature and the separation of more dynamic fields such as the history of childhood, which surely ought to be education’s natural ally. For Laura, reintegrating the history of education into ‘mainstream’ British history is as much about writing it out of certain narratives, as it is about writing it back in to others. With these thoughts in mind, we thought we’d use our November blog post to reflect collectively upon the research into education that we heard in Providence over the weekend.

Laura: On the Friday afternoon I attended the panel ‘Education & Empire: Networks in the 19th and 20 Centuries’, which featured Alexandra Lindgren-Gibson, Hilary Falb Kalisman, and Darrell Newton, with Gavin Schaffer as chair and commentator. As is often the case when dealing with events and experiences across a wide geographical area, these papers took education in its broadest sense. Alexandra Lindgren-Gibson explored the spaces where enlisted men learnt about India in the late nineteenth century, such as reading rooms and libraries. Hilary Falb Kalisman suggested that the American University of Beirut aided in the production of a cohort of politicised, ‘transnational teachers’ in the British Middle East. And Darrell Newton mapped the experiences of people of colour on and around the postwar BBC, and how their identities were projected to a largely white domestic public.

Apart from the stated theme of networks, what stood out most to me was the consensus that colonial education, when more or less controlled by imperial powers, was about policing and limiting educational opportunities. In opposition to this, it was suggested, the educational momentum building at ‘home’ in Britain across the mid-twentieth century was in service to the contrary goal of widening them. If education is a point of mediation between state, or empire, and citizen, then it seems that a major agenda of this new research is to probe the grey area in between, where citizens invoke the unintended consequences of receiving an education and use it to question the order of things.

As Gavin Schaffer pointed out in his comment, education quickly becomes the enemy within; a pre-requisite for anti-colonial nationalisms. I thought about this in relation to our ongoing research. In Britain mass secondary education undoubtedly gave young people some of the tools to challenge the old orders of class and gender deference, but not always with direct political outcomes. What we are increasingly finding is a complex jumble of intended and unintended consequences, where economic intentions drive social outcomes, and vice versa, especially around the time of transition from school to work.

Left: The Saturday lunchtime keynote given by Nadja Durbach of the University of Utah on ‘The Science of Selection: School Meals in Interwar Britain’.

Peter:  Like both Lauras (Carter and Tisdall), I was struck by the surge in interest in education which raises questions both about absences (what took us so long?) and presences (how to explain the new levels of engagement?).  Much of both must have to do with the long reign of class as the master category in modern British social history, which tended to treat education as epiphenomenal – work more important than school – or worse, as counter-indicated – schooling only shores up class, the default position in post-1968 social studies.  ‘Education’ was therefore only fit for specialized and rather inward-looking studies in education departments and faculties.  Now a lot of cutting-edge social history thinks about class decomposition in the postwar period and the role that education might or might not have played in cutting under or across older class identities.

This came out beautifully in the Friday morning session considering women’s subjectivities with papers by Natalie Thomlinson, Jonathan Moss and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite.  More surprising – though comprehensible in the North American context – is the interest shown at NACBS in education in colonial and post-colonial contexts, where education is now taken more seriously as a key tool of the colonial and post-colonial state.  I missed the panel on Friday afternoon discussed by Laura but went to its companion on Sunday morning, where a highlight for me was Stephen Jackson’s account of the crabwise displacement of ‘Britishness’ by multiculturalism in Canadian schools in the ‘60s and ‘70s – which makes for peculiarly thought-provoking comparisons with both American and British multicultural education.

Chris: I was equally struck by the prominence of education within this year’s NACBS programme. I last attended the conference in 2016 when, apart from a few isolated papers (one by Emily Rutherford who appeared on the panel with Laura this year), the programme gave no indication that education might represent a field worthy of attention by historians of twentieth century Britain. This year’s NACBS, in contrast, provided plenty of evidence that a deep shift in attitude is taking place. In addition to the three panels mentioned by Laura and Peter that had ‘education’ in the title, there were also numerous papers embedded in panels that, on first glance, appeared unconnected.

Presenting as part of a wonderfully engaging session entitled ‘Audience, Television, and Identity in Post-war Britain’, Chelsea-Anne Saxby gave a fantastic paper, which showcased her ongoing PhD research by considering debates around the use of sex education films in schools during the 1970s. Nicole Jackson also foregrounded the importance of education in a powerful reflection on the category of Blackness in histories of multiracial Britain. Presented as part of a panel entitled ‘Unsettling Race Relations’, she explained the centrality of education to Afro-Caribbean community activists determined to challenge systemic racial discrimination and demand equal rights of citizenship in the late-1960s and 70s.

Other papers engaged with education less directly but, nevertheless, signalled to its underlying importance in understanding broader cultural change. A particular highlight of the conference for me was the panel on ‘Transformations of Masculinity in late-Twentieth Century Britain’, which included Helen Parr’s brilliant account of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment in the build-up to, and aftermath of, the Falklands War. This mapped the pathways through which young men, often from disadvantaged backgrounds and having found limited success at school, were recruited into the regiment and remade into ‘Paras’. Amy Edwards’ paper on the same panel, which looked at prevailing codes of manliness in the City of London during the 1980s, raised similarly interesting questions about how changing institutional networks contributed to, and in turn were transformed by, the emergence of new career opportunities in the expanding financial sector for men from more diverse social backgrounds than a previous generation.

Listening to these various papers brought to mind a lecture I attended the week before NACBS, in which Tara Westover discussed her recent memoir Educated. This charts her experience of coming late to formal education from a deeply conservative background in rural Idaho and recounts in elegant tones the ‘a process of gaining a self’ that access to education made possible. Her characterization chimes with our determination to start to historicize the mechanisms and processes that opened this experience up to an ever-growing number of individuals in late-20th century Britain.

In this sense, the challenge we now face is not so much to persuade fellow historians of modern Britain that education should be understood as central to wider processes of social and cultural change – as the various papers mentioned above illustrate, this is increasingly well-established on both sides of the Atlantic – but to connect our research more directly with the amazing work being done by colleagues examining shifting understandings of class, race, and gender in a range of other contexts across post-1945 Britain and empire. In unpicking the ways in which education contributed to these changes it becomes increasingly clear the divisions that have for so long separated the History of Education from wider British Social and Cultural history are unsustainable. Hearing at NACBS how these are being broken down in other innovative ways made me excited about what our project can contribute moving forward but also to wonder whether next time we might find ourselves on a panel without ‘education’ in its title.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Dave Postles

    I can’t help but conclude, from my experience, that the post-war (rather post-1944) educational system did indeed reinforce class divisions and prospects. (Council estate; so-called ‘unskilled’ working class; grammar school, 1960-67; Oxford). Perhaps it depends on whether your perspective is etic or emic.

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