Duke English professor falls into historiography hole

In late April, Duke English professor Cathy Davidson wrote in a Times Higher Ed column, So last century,

…the institutions of work and education developed over the past 150 years. People had to be taught the division of labour in all its manifestations, and public education was designed for that purpose. Virtually all the features that have come to be synonymous with the institutions of education and the workplace have been carefully developed to support and enhance the ideals and methods of the industrial workplace.

Davidson falls into the standard bad-sociology patterns of implying a mechanistic relationship between economic history and education history. I have italicized the passive voice to highlight the lack of agency in this thumbnail sketch, which Davidson develops further in the complete article. 

It's bad history because it suggests that the particular development of public educational systems was overdetermined by mechanical industrialization; in this universe, things could not be different than how they turned out. It's especially bad higher education history because it ignores the role of institutionalism and public funding of the expansion of higher education in the second half of the twentieth century. 

And yet it is all too familiar to me, because I hear similar bad thumbnail histories of education all the time. It's a rhetorical crutch to make an argument for change: Sure, schools made sense 90 years ago because then they matched the economy… yet they never did, precisely or even approximately. 

Part of the flaw in Davidson's and similar arguments is the assumption that just because you do not like what you see in college and university behavior, that must mean they are stodgy institutions. Far from it: some of the behavior that worries me the most in terms of ethical obligations would not have been recognizable as "stuff colleges do" in 1960. 

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One response to “Duke English professor falls into historiography hole”

  1. Glen S. McGhee

    The problem is that dumping Davidson completely also negates the human capital theory of education as well. If not ‘for’ the division of labor, then why do we have college?

    And, unfortunately, there are oodles of evidence and data, starting with Ivar Berg, that education isn’t ‘for’ the division of labor at all (Berg demonstrates this, with unparalleled humor). A quick comparison of Germany and the USA also makes this point, as do the comparative statistics for student loan debt burden relative to first-year earnings.

    But part of the argument stands — the fact that, although decoupled, the historical origins of schooling are rooted in the workplace, just as they are rooted in the family and society. Only the astute historian, however, can hope to untangle of problem of agency, as Sherman mentioned.