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“What Happens in the Historian's Head?”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Kathleen Weiler*
Tufts University


Over two hundred years ago Rousseau commented, “The facts described in history never give an exact picture of what actually happened. They change form in the historian's head. They get molded by his interests and take on the hue of his prejudices.” This insight—that history is a human creation molded by the interests and prejudices of the historian—is one that is easy to forget, particularly in times enamored by the claims of empirical science. But in the past three decades, historians, like other scholars across the humanities and social sciences, have faced a number of theoretical challenges to the empiricism that had been in ascendency since the late nineteenth century. Both established academic disciplines such as anthropology, literary studies, and philosophy and emerging disciplines such as cultural studies and film studies have been profoundly affected by these critiques. The “cultural turn,” with its emphasis on the inherently artificial nature of scholarly narratives, has challenged traditional historians' unquestioning reliance on documentary evidence, scientific methodology, and empirical claims to truth. Numerous historians have debated these theoretical challenges to the discipline, but historians of education have been largely silent. The absence of this debate in the history of education is striking, given the engagement of other scholars with these concerns and the fact that these ideas appeared over three decades ago: both Hayden White's Metahistory and Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures were published in 1973, while Foucault's Discipline and Punish appeared in English translation in 1977.

Copyright © 2011 by the History of Education Society 

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1 Rousseau, Jean Jacques, Emile, trans. and ed. William Boyd “New York: Teachers College Press, 1956“, 107.

2 Bannerji, Himani, “Politics and the Writing of History,” in Nation, Empire, Colony, eds. Pierson, Ruth and Chaudhuri, Nupur “Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998“, 287.

3 Rury, John, “The Curious Status of the History of Education: A Parallel Perspective,” History of Education Quarterly 46 “Winter 2006“: 571–98.

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4 Steedman, Carolyn, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History “Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002“, 146.

5 Hogan, David, “The Market Revolution and Disciplinary Power: Joseph Lancaster and the Psychology of the Early Classroom System,” History of Education Quarterly 29, no. 3 “Autumn 1989“: 381–417.

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6 Popkewitz, Thomas, Franklin, Barry, and Pereyra, Miguel, Cultural History and Education: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Schooling “New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001“; Popkewitz, Thomas, Foucault's Challenge: Discourse, Knowledge, and Power in Education “New York: Teachers College Press, 1998”.

7 Baker, Bernadette, In Perpetual Motion: Theories of Power, Educational History, and the Child “New York: Peter Lang, 2001“.

8 Tamboukou, Maria, Women, Education and the Self: A Foucauldian Perspective “New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003“; Tamboukou, Maria, “Tracing Heterotopias: Writing Women Educators in Greece,” Gender and Education 16, no. 2 “June 2004”: 187–207; Tamboukou, Maria, “Rethinking the Political Subject: Narratives of Parrhesiastic Acts,” International Journal of Critical Psychology 14(2005): 138–57.


9 Bannerji, Himani, “Politics and the Writing of History,” 288.

10 Ibid., 297.

11 I have discussed these developments from a feminist perspective. See Weiler, Kathleen, “The Historiography of Gender and Progressive Education in the United States,” Paedagogica Historica 42, no. 1/2 “February 2006“: 161–76.

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