What’s the West got to do with it? Challenging assumptions in the history of education
In this blog Nancy Beadie, Senior Editor of History of Education Quarterly discusses the latest issue of the journal and how this special collection of articles, book reviews and a two-part historiographical essay on Rethinking Regionalism: The West aims to illuminate changing perspectives of the history of education in the Western United States of America.
Twenty-four years of teaching history of education in the Pacific Northwest has fattened my files and changed my perspective. Since the day in 1993 when I set out cross-country in my little blue Honda Civic with the Journals of Lewis and Clark and Annie Dillard’s The Living in my pack, I’ve been filing away moments of recognition and pieces of evidence that illuminate the distinctive shape of the history of education from western perspectives.
Perhaps the first of those moments occurred during that same cross-country journey, when we turned off the highway to go to Pine Ridge reservation and the site of Wounded Knee. After a rocky ride down a dusty road, we came to a four-corners near the hill where the massacre is commemorated. At each corner a small group congregated under some form of shade from the summer sun. Each group, it seemed, coalesced around a somewhat different version of events, reaching back more than 100 years to 1890, when federal troops killed hundreds of men, women, and children, but even more critically to those of 1973, when a stand-off between federal agents and the American Indian Movement there led to three deaths. As we climbed the hill on foot to the gravesites, a red pick-up truck sped ahead and stopped in front of us. A man jumped out and greeted us with a one-page leaflet. The man, it turned out, was a BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) Agent, though his visit did not quite seem official. The document many not have been official either, but it was in writing, and in that way seemed to be. What was most noteworthy was how thoroughly the text was written in passive voice—so passive as to be indecipherable. All reference to agency, meaning, cause, or consequence had been thoroughly expunged.
With this tangible evidence of how both history and education matter and are contested, I began my career as historian of education at the University of Washington. At the time I didn’t realize that the history department at UW was an epicenter of the New Western History achieving its first peak of influence. As a student at Syracuse University, however, I had taken a graduate seminar with the great historical geographer D. W. Meinig then in the midst of writing his classic four-volume work, The Shaping of America. Meinig is a genius at using the art of map-making and other visual representations to challenge spatial and historical assumptions. His illustration, “Two Might-Have-Beens” showed how the shape of America that we take for granted might have been different if negotiations with Britain over the borders of Oregon Territory in 1846 and with Mexico in 1848 had gone differently, yielding either a “Lesser” or a “Greater” United States. With this one image he opened up both the contingency of history and the history of the West in ways that informed my teaching and work with students at UW.
As a traditional archival historian charged with developing a history of education curriculum, I of course plundered area special collections for materials to enrich my teaching and fuel my students’ research projects, many of which focused on the West. In the process my students and I discovered many things, from the essays of Nisei students interned during WWII, which became the focus of Yoon Pak’s 2002 book, ‘Wherever I Go, I will Always be a Loyal American,’ to the distinctive migration and settlement patterns, housing policies, and politics that shaped the 2007 Supreme Court Decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools.
We also struggled to frame the significance of the stories we had to tell. What’s the West Got to do with It? The history of education, perhaps more than other subfields of U.S. history, has an Atlantic or Northeastern emphasis that assumes the direction of influence is East to West. From that perspective, a western story is always a minor story, an anecdote, a variation on an eastern theme. Again and again, however, our research and reading challenged those assumptions. Like Meinig’s illustrations, a close look at the history of education from a western perspective makes the map of the field with which we are familiar look strange. Consider the fact that missionaries and Native Hawaiians in Hawaii and “the civilized tribes” of Indian Territory began setting up educational “systems” in the 1830s before Horace Mann even thought about becoming involved in education. Whether we’re talking about demand for state level provisions for education, invention of manual labor education, practices of immigrant education, or teaching about race and racism, the picture looks different from the perspective of the West. In this special collection of articles, book reviews, and a two-part historiographical essay on Rethinking Regionalism: The West, we aim to illuminate those changed perspectives.