Micro Review: Joy Ann Williamson, Lori Rhodes, and Michael Dunson, “A Selected History of Social Justice in Education,” Review of Research in Education 31 (2007) p.195-224.

Jonathan Fisher

March 19, 2020

Micro Review: Joy Ann Williamson, Lori Rhodes, and Michael Dunson, “A Selected History of Social Justice in Education,” Review of Research in Education 31 (2007): 195-224.

I came down with a fever two days ago, which I was afraid might be the COVID-19 bug, but turns out to be just a regular cold. Anyway, on the advice of my family and coworkers I have stayed home these past two days, which has given me a good chunk of extra reading time in a quiet house. So, I’ve been able to dig into some of the pieces I downloaded connected to my matriculation at UW in the fall, my future advisers there, and the topics which I will pursue leading up to the research for my dissertation.

This piece, I am proud to say, was co-authored by one of my future advisors, Joy Ann Williamson-Lott (I am guessing she has gotten married since the publication of this piece 13 years ago, since her last name is hyphenated now). It appeared in the AERA Review of Research in Education while Dr. Williamson-Lott was still at Stanford University. And it is important to me both because of its scope, and the force of its concluding argument for the necessity of historical research to projects of social justice in education.

That this is a “selected” history of social justice in education, I suppose is meant to be a nod to other groups such as LGBT people or to other religious or cultural minorities such as Jews or Muslims whose stories are somewhat conspicuously absent from this narrative, which is inclusive of Asian, Native American, Latinx and Black as well as White ethnic groups in its discussion. But from the beginning, this piece, importantly sets the stakes as more than just an enumeration of identifiable sub-groups within educational jurisdictions of the United States, but as the struggle of what constitutes education for social justice in the first place, broadly education that promotes assimilation, or education for cultural maintenance (“or something in between”). Will it “give students skills to alter the social order,” or “enable students to fit themselves into a higher station in that social order?” (195). Also, citing Donato and Lazerson’s earlier essay on contemporary problems in educational history, the authors consider the ends to which history of education is deployed, and caution against flat historical arguments that employ unbroken chains of causality through time.

I suppose this last caveat is aimed at a Marxist critical historical view, although I need to dig more deeply into the pieces cited by Donato & Lazerson, as well as Franke, (2000), to be sure. And yet, the conspicuous absence of a specifically materialist critique in this selected history is perhaps its most intriguing fault. It is an especially glaring absence in light of the inclusion of W.E.B. Du Bois quote, resonant not only among Black people, but, as the authors acknowledge, across a range of ethnic minority communities in the U.S.: “The Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education.” I read Du Bois here as making the materialist (not identitarian) argument. For, as the authors of this paper show, in the case of the Chinese American community in San Francisco who revolted against a 1971 desegregation order issued on behalf of students in predominantly Black schools. Assimilationist arguments are not the be-all, end-all of social justice education. Indeed, assimilationist calls for social justice may be wielded just as easily as segregationist racism as a tool of capitalists to exploit minority groups.

Despite a possible blind spot in the area of class analysis, the authors rightfully see the duty of historians of education as one of making sure previously untold stories make their way into policy discourses. They rightfully characterize this discourse as a “battle over our national collective memory.” They also note the power of historical scholarship to bring out narratives of how racial and ethnic groups and individual members of these groups have thought about their own struggles, and “defined social justice for themselves” (215). This mode of intellectual history is particularly attractive to me, and one which I want to pursue in the future.

For instance, I am interested in the question of how teachers or activists in various educational movements/ struggles through history of held up or looked to figures from other movements for inspiration or guidance, despite their goals or particular ideological stances differing. The contemporary case I’m thinking of is Tsuru for Solidarity, survivors of Japanese incarceration, and others recalling the voices of members of those activist movements to fight against the incarceration of children at the US/ Mexico border. Or else, Black Lives Matter’s use of Palestinian Liberation movement, but in a more specific educational context. I need to go back and read that Angela Davis essay about Palestine and Black Power… But also, I imagine somewhere amongst imprisoned Japanese Americans during WWII there were those who saw their plight as of a piece with earlier oppressed groups– students at Indian Boarding Schools perhaps.

I’m rambling on a bit here, but this is illustrative, again, of the power that history of education has, as a mode of research to inform policy decision shape the narratives that define curriculum at a variety of levels– personal, community, regional, state, and international.

Micro Review: From Student Markets to Credential Markets (Beadie, 1999) The History of Education Quarterly

Micro-Review: From Student Markets to Credential Markets: The Creation of the Regents Examination System in New York State, 1864-1890 by Nancy Beadie (HEQ, Vol. 39, No. 1, Spring 1999, pp. 1-30)

Well, it’s really happening. I am finally going to be enrolling in a doctoral program in History of Education at the University of Washington. The two History of Ed. Professors there are Joy Williamson-Lott, and Nancy Beadie, both of whom I have now been in contact with, if briefly. But in two weeks I have a meeting scheduled with Dr. Beadie to discuss next steps for me as I gear up to move to Seattle and get started with this. So, with these big changes as the backdrop, I’ve been anxious to get started reading and thinking more specifically about the kinds of research I’ll be able to do at UW as well as the kinds of questions I’ll be best supported in asking with my research by Dr. Beadie and Dr. Williamson-Lott.

In my digging around for papers that would give me a clearer picture of what Dr. Beadie’s research is about, I came across this one, now more than 20 years old, in the History of Education Quarterly Archives. Dr. Beadie was the Editor of that journal as recently as last year, I believe, and she still plays an active role in the History of Education Society, a group which I should very likely be joining in the not too distant future. This article was identified in a retrospective of HEQ pieces voted most representative of the periodical over the 50 years from 1960 to 2010. It’s a piece that seems to link Dr. Beadie’s research track along the line of private schools and academies in North America from the 18th century into the 19th century, with her main current area of research of educational markets and the emergence of educational systems in States. The piece focuses on the State of New York. And it is an institutional history, that is the research is focused on the governance of and demographic impact of the New York Board of Regents, establishment of a system of secondary examinations in the late 1860s. These Board of Regents Exams comprise the United States’ oldest regime of standardized testing. But at the heart of the significance of this new educational technology, the State-wide standardized test, Beadie argues, is a credential marketplace, which replaced, the student marketplace that colleges in North American had relied on to that pointi.

The significance of the creation of this new kind of market is in the analysis and conclusions it allows historians to make about the scarcity of education during this time period and the impact of that scarcity both locally and across jurisdictions in a region. So, not only are local politicians and education administrators suddenly on the hook for greater access to these credentials, but individuals could essentially trade on them for access to college education. What remains unclear from Beadie’s analysis is a clarification of the reason for or in Beadie’s words, “chronology” of the initial implementation of the Board of Regents’ policies. Beadie shows that the new exams came in the wake of a long decrease in public school enrollment. And interestingly, demographic analysis of New York high school graduates of the late 19th century, women were the greatest beneficiaries of this new credential system. But I have a hard time imagining that achieving a greater level of gender parity of students qualified for college was what the New York Board of Regents had in mind when they implemented this policy to begin with.

So, to connect this back to my initial concerns about finding a suitable home for the research I want to do as a grad student, I am impressed by the logical moves that institutional histories like these are able to make from demographic data, but I hope that my research will be able to bring a more human face to findings like these. Actually, on that note, I want to re-read another article from the HEQ that Beadie wrote I believe with Kim Tolley, another past HEQ editor, I believe, that dealt with some letters from a New York teacher who traveled to North Carolina to become a school teacher during the late 19th century. This may be a better fit in terms of the type of history I want to be writing. It’s very important to me to center teachers as powerful decision makers in communities, especially when they are acting in solidarity with their communities towards social justice aims. But, of course, this teacher agency only comes into play against the backdrop of the larger social-political and economic universe of schooling. I guess, sometimes its even at odds with the direction these larger forces are pushing. In the case of this Board of Regents creation of a new market, a set of policies, which is dubious, at best, given the rampant standardized testing of the present day, actually seems to have worked in favor of the masses of New Yorkers, and women in particular, at least in the short-term.

iNote: I’m curious, how did student markets function prior to the invention of such credential markets. Were they more like labor markets? I can see how, on its face, the credential is different from the student, but the credential cannot really be separated from the student. It has no exchange value, so to speak. It’s only value appears to be vis-a-vis the individual student who obtains it. So, this is a point of further study for me.