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Oral Histories of Education and the Relevance of Theory: Claiming New Spaces in a Post-Revisionist Era

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Caroline Eick*
School of Education and Human Services at Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland


Almost forty years since the publication of Cutler's landmark “Oral history—its nature and uses for educational history,” growing numbers of historians of education have adopted oral interviews as the basis for historical analysis. Furthermore, questions about the objectivity of oral sources in view of memory's fallibility have been more productively redirected toward exploring, in light of credibility standards borrowed from the social sciences and literary theory, the many hues of subjectivity of oral historical testimonies, and their implications for understanding same past events from multiple perspectives. As Portelli aptly states, “the first thing that makes oral history different, is that it tells us less about events than about their meaning” He boldly asserts that “what informants believe is indeed a historical fact “that is, the fact that they believe it”, as much as what really happened.” Oral historians not only reproblematized memory for historians by focusing attention on understanding the subjectivity of memory as a manifestation of historical consciousness, but they also brought to our attention how memories are gendered, racialized, and class based. They brought to our attention the importance of examining why different individuals and groups experience the same event in very different ways. Today, oral sources, particularly since the 1990s when historians began investigating the construction of identities, are compared less pejoratively with documentary sources by academic disciplinarians. And oral historians continue to break down “boundaries between the educational institution and the world, between the [history] profession and ordinary people.” However, they also continue to be faced with the challenge of articulating “the connection between individual and social historical consciousness.”

Copyright © 2011 by the History of Education Society 

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1 Cutler, William III, “Oral History—Its Nature and Uses for Educational History,” History of Education Quarterly 9 “Summer 1971“: 184–94.

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2 For debates about oral historical sources and their implications for historical analyses from a variety of scholarly perspectives, see Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, ed., The Oral History Reader “New York: Routledge, 2005”.

3 Portelli, Alessandro, “What Makes Oral History Different,” in The Oral History Reader, ed. Perks, Robert and Thomson, Alistair “New York: Routledge, 2005“, 63–74. First emphasis mine, second emphasis that of the author. Also see Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History “Albany: SUNY Press, 1991”.

4 See Summerfield, Penny, Reconstructing Women's Wartime Lives: Discourse and Subjectivity in Oral Histories of the Second World War “Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998“; Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories.

5 Perks, Robert, “Ukraine's Forbidden History: Memory and Nationalism,” Oral History: Ethnicity and National Identity, Oral History 21, no.1 “1993“: 43–53; Burton, Susan K., “Issues in Cross-Cultural Interviewing: Japanese Women in England,” Oral History 31, no. 1 “2003”: 38–46; Cvorovic, Jelena, “Gypsy Oral History in Serbia: From Poverty to Culture,” Oral History 33, no. 1 “2005”: 57–68; and Goulbourne, Harry, “Oral History and Black Labour in Britain: An Overview,” Oral History: Black History, Oral History 8, no.1 “2008”: 24–34.

6 Thompson, Paul, The Voice of the Past: Oral History “Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978“, 7–8.

7 Grele, Ronald J., “Movement without Aim: Methodological and Theoretical Problems in Oral History,” in The Oral History Reader, ed. Perks, Robert and Thomson, Alistair “New York: Routledge, 2005“, 38–53.

8 Bahktin, quoted in Freeman, Donald, “To Take Them at Their Word: Language Data in the Study of Teachers’ Knowledge,” Harvard Educational Review 66, no. 4 “Winter 1996“: 732–62.

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9 Frisch, Michael, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History “New York: State University of New York, 1990“, xx.

10 See Collins, Patricia Hill, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Counsciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment “New York: Routledge, 2000“; Patricia Hill Collins, Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice “Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998”.

11 McCall, Leslie, “The Complexity of Intersectionality,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 30, no. 3 “Spring 2005“: 1771–1800.

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12 Ibid.

13 See works by Diggs, Louis S., Since the Beginning: African American Communities in Towson “Baltimore: Uptown Press, 2000“; Holding on to their Heritage “Catonsville, MD: privately printed, 1996”; In Our Own Voices: A Folk History in Legacy “Catonsville, MD: privately printed, 1998”. All proper names in this essay have been replaced with pseudonyms to protect those narrators unwilling to be identified with testimonies they felt would compromise their professional and familial relationships in the community.

14 Word used by African-American alumnus Randle, David, graduate of 1976—Interview by author on 7 November 2003.

15 Whittle, Tim, graduate of 1981—Interview by author on 28 June 2004.

16 Sadowski, Michael, ed., Adolescents at School: Perspectives on Youth, Identity, and Education “Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2003“, 22. Brown, Roger, Social Psychology “New York: Free Press, 1986”; Levine, Robert and Campbell, Donald, Ethnocentrism: Theories of Conflict, Ethnic Attitudes, and Group Behavior “New York: John Wiley, 1972”.

17 Because of funding limitations, only the testimonies of Russian immigrant students were located because Russian immigrants represented the largest newly immigrated group in the community.

18 I borrow from Fine, Weiss, and Powell to define integration as “intellectual and social engagement across racial and ethnic groups.” See Fine, Michelle, Weiss, Lois and Powell, Linda C., Harvard Educational Review 67, no. 2 “Summer 1997“: 247–84. Thus, I contrast the concept of integration to that of desegregation that refers foremost to admission policies and processes to secure laws that ensure equal representation of students across race in schools.


19 See works by Labaree, David, The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1839–1939 “New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988“; Reese, William J., The Origins of the American High School “New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995”; Graves, Karen, Girls’ Schooling during the Progressive Era: From Female Scholar to Domesticated Citizen “New York: Garland Publishers, 1998”. It is important to note that educational historians have disagreed about the intent by school engineers regarding academic tracks and the resulting class distinctions. For a discussion of competing historical perspectives, see Reese's Introduction in The Origins of the American High School.

20 Russian alumnus Strasky, Ivan shared: “There is a strong anti-American feeling, and it takes so long for Russians to realize that… what can an American teacher authority teach me?” Ivan Strasky, graduate of 2002—Interview by author on 6 November 2004. For discussions of transmigrants, see works by Olneck, Michael: “National Identity and Assimilation,” in A Companion to American Immigration, ed. Ueda, Reed “Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006”, 202–24; “American Public Schooling and European Immigrants in the Early Twentieth Century: A Post-Revisionist Synthesis,” in Rethinking the History of American Education: Essays on the Post-Revisionist Era and Beyond, ed. Reese, William J. and Rury, John L. “New York: Palgrave, 2007”, 103–41.

21 Thirty-seven alumni graduated between 1954 and 2002, three veteran teachers, and the principal who presided at the time of the interviews were formally interviewed in tape-recorded sessions that ranged from one to two hours, and informally interviewed through follow-up calls, visits, and email communications. Informal interviews of Miller Town residents and of community leaders were also conducted over a two-year period, between 2003 and 2005. My goal was to identify an average of eight to nine alumni per decade, to include as much as possible, equal proportions of male and female alumni of different racial and if possible, economic backgrounds who attended in the first half and second half of each decade. Since my intent was primarily to locate different perspectives and to capture meanings ascribed to relationships in school, rather than investigate the veracity of a past occurrence, “difference,” not “volume,” mattered. Moreover, precisely because I sought to recover interpreted experiences and meanings ascribed to relationships, as Omeldo articulated, the “truth status of the individual stories [became] less important than the value they [were] trying to support in the telling.” See Omeldo, Irma, “Redefining Culture Through the Memorias of Elderly Latinas,” Qualitative Inquiry 5 “1993“: 353–76. In this sense, I sought to capture a set of lived accounts and to consider their import to the field of education by virtue of being the human experiences of people who lived their historical times. Yearbooks were systematically analyzed for the distribution of students across extracurricular activities and curricular tracks, by race, ethnicity, and gender. Yearbook analysis procedures were inspired by the analysis of yearbooks conducted by Paul Fass toward the production of “Creating New Identities: Youth and Ethnicity in New York City High Schools in the 1930s and 1940s,” in Generations of Youth: Youth Culture and History in Twentieth Century America, ed. Austin, J. and Willard, M. “New York: New York University Press, 1998”, 95–117. Archival research was conducted in the Baltimore County Board of Education archives in Towson, Maryland, where general county school policies were examined; in the Maryland rooms of Enoch Pratt Baltimore City Public Library and of the University of Maryland College Park where census data and Maryland State Board of Education communications were examined; in the library of Miller High School where the school newspaper and archived alumni achievements and photographs were examined; and the “historic room” of Miller Town community library where Miller High yearbooks and local community newspapers were examined.

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22 See Crenshaw, Kimberlé, Gotanda, Neil, Peller, Gary, and Thomas, Kendall, ed. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement “New York: New York Press, 1995“; Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, Gareth, and Tiffin, Helen, Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts “New York: Routledge, 2005”; Collins, Black Feminist Thought; Collins, Fighting Words.

23 See above-mentioned works along with those by Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large “Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996”; Coloma, Roland, “Can I Speak and Do You Hear Me?: Questions for R/Evolution,” International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies 7, no. 12002“: 61–68; Essed, P. and Goldberg, D. T., Race Critical Theories: Text and Context “Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002”; Simon Marginson, “After Globalization, Emerging Politics of Education,” Journal of Education Policy 14, no. 1 “1999”: 19–35.

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24 Omeldo, Irma, “Redefining Culture through the Memorias of Elderly Latinas,” Qualitative Inquiry 5, no. 31999“: 353–76.

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25 Strosky, Ivan, graduate of 2002—Interview by author on 6 November 2004. Time constraints prevented me from collecting voices of Asian-Indian immigrants and Latinas/ os. They were much less numerous than Russian immigrants at the time of my data collection. This is a story to pursue.

26 Ibid.

27 See Lareau, Annette, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life “Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003“ and Bratlinger, Ellen, The Politics of Class in Secondary School “New York: Teachers College Press, 1993” for discussions about influence on students’ school experiences of generationally transmitted class values, and students’ experiences of school along class divides.

28 See Grant, Gerald, The World We Created at Hamilton High “Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988“ and Graebner, William, Coming of Age in Buffalo: Youth and Authority in the Postwar Era “Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990”.

29 Right, Doris, graduate of 1958—Interview by author on 4 September 2003.

30 Randle, Teresa, graduate of 1981—Interview by author on 9 June 2004.

31 Randle, David, African-American graduate of the 1976, shared that as a teacher and coach throughout the 1990s, although not at Miller High, he was more often and more regularly breaking up fights between girls: “Now… fights everyday, mostly girls.” David Randle, graduate of 1976—Interview by author on 7 November 2003.

32 Korn, Heather, graduate of 1993—Interview by author on 25 February 2003.

33 These reflections on changes in the community were shared by those alumni who themselves identified as “old timers,” and most of whom had graduated from Miller High in the 1970s and early 1980s. This particular quote is from transcript of audiotape interview with African-American alumnus Randle, David, graduate of 1976. David continues to be a resident of Miller Town, one who has firsthand witnessed changes in the community. Randle, David, interview by author on 7 November 2003.

34 Whittle, Tim, graduate of 1981—Interview by author on 28 June 2003.

35 Strasky, Ivan, graduate of 2002—Interview by author on 6 November 2004.

36 Ibid.

37 In my work, I also identify the role played by zero tolerance policies in intensifying students’ allegiance to each other along racial, ethnic, and national lines. See Eick, Caroline, Race-Class Relations and Integration in Secondary Education; The Case of Miller High “New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010“.

38 Annie Cole attended 1956–1957—Interview by author on 11 March 2003.

39 Randle, David, graduate of 1976—Interview by author on 7 November 2003.

40 Collins, Fighting, Words, 205.

41 Web, Alice, graduate of 1954—Interview by author on 2 October 2003.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid.

45 Law, Judy, graduate of 1954—Interview by author on 25 February 2003.

46 Ibid.

47 Good, Norman, graduate of 1959—Interview by author on 18 March 2003.

48 Right, Nat, graduate of 1963—Interview by author on 19 July 2004.

49 Ibid.

50 Hallner, Michael, graduate of 1976—Interview by author on 1 October 2003.

51 Whittle, Tim, graduate of 1981—Interview by author on 28 June 2004.

52 Cohen, Sue, graduate of 1995—Interview by author on 1 October 2003.

53 Gate, Cherry, graduate of 1992—Interview by author on 23 October 2003. Also, Korn, Heather, graduate of 1993: “A lot of the kids that did hang out with the kids that did have the money, they would have the snobby attitude….”—Interview by author on 25 February 2003.

54 Debin, Vera, graduate of 2000—Interview by author on 15 January 2004.

55 Ibid.

56 Jackman, Bill, graduate of 1999—Interview by author on 18 October 2003.

57 Debin, Vera, graduate of 2000—Interview by author on 15 January 2004.

58 Cohen, Sue, graduate of 1995: “Homecoming queen, she was black.“—Interview by author on 1 October 2003.

59 Debin, Vera, graduate of 2000—Interview by author on 15 January 2004.

60 My analysis has led me to conclude that “preps” were not eagerly emulated by students in a race for popularity, across the three time periods here studied, as Coleman's work “1961” had suggested for those he studied in the late fifties. See Coleman, J., The Adolescent Society: The Social Life of the Teenager and Its Impact on Education “New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1961“. On the contrary, my analysis revealed that “popularity” was understood to mean holding a high profile through pervasive visibility in all aspects of school life. Analysis of recollections revealed that “popularity” was constructed more as “celebrity” status might be, appealing to some, revolting to others, and not necessarily attached to a notion of “superiority.”

61 Debin, Vera, graduate of 2000, commented, regarding the production of yearbooks by the preps: “It would be more interesting to have people assigned to the committee to do the yearbook [that were] randomly selected.” Interview by author on 15 January 2004. She had complained about the fact that the preps, who controlled the production of yearbooks, mostly took pictures of and featured their own friends. Beginning with the Border-crossing Generation “1970–1985”, but mostly shared by the Redivided Generation “1986–2000”, preps were constructed as “undemocratic.”

62 By the 1990s, many county black families had moved into middle- and upper-middle-class homes. Whittle, Tim, graduate of 1981 shared: “[In the 90s], that's when blacks that weren't raised here started moving in, and the local people, both black and white, were starting to build big developments around here. This area just exploded in the 90s.” Interview by author on 28 June 2004.

63 Pokewitz, Thomas, Franklin, Barry, and Pereyra, Miguel, Cultural History and Education “New York: Routledge, 2001“, 32.

64 Ibid.

65 One of many examples of documentary data “beyond archival data described in footnote 30” that corroborated oral testimonies involved the Russian, middle-class alumna Vera Debin, member of the Redivided Generation “1986–2000”. When Vera Debin shared, when speaking of the yearbook pictures, that: “…. they [the preps] went around and tried to get pictures of all the clubs, and all the band, but it was pretty much them and their friends, all extra pictures,” and further suggested that yearbooks would “probably be more interesting if people were assigned to a committee to do the yearbook, randomly selected,” in order to ensure broad and fair representations of all students, I examined yearbooks for redundancy in pictures. Indeed, over and over same faces would reappear on the pages of yearbooks. The too, when graduates shared about what kind of student attended what kind of track, extracurricular activity or sport, I systematically analyzed yearbooks for the distribution of students across extracurricular activities and curricular tracks, by race, ethnicity, and gender.

66 Constructing minimum or set numbers of testimonies becomes even more problematic when one considers the disparity in numbers between white and black students in the early stages of desegregation. For example, how many of the total 121 white students who graduated in 1958 should one interview to “counterbalance” interviews with the four African-American students who graduated the same year? In relational histories of education “difference” becomes a more relevant and workable criterion of selection than numbers/volume.

67 Thompson, The Voice of the Past, 7–8.

68 Strasky, Ivan, graduate of 2002—Interview by author on 6 November 2004.