Citizens, Souls and the Curriculum Workshop – Reflections on an Interdisciplinary Workshop

This past week, I have been in beautiful Copenhagen to participate in ‘Citizens, Souls and the Curriculum’, a workshop at the Centre for Education Policy Research at Aalborg University.

Nyhavn, Copenhagen

This post offers some reflections on the workshop including its theme, atmosphere and papers. The specific focus of the workshop was historical, comparative and cultural-analysis perspectives on education policy in curricula, textbooks and practices.

My first impression was the uniquely congenial atmosphere of the workshop. The participants were exclusively female, emerging and established scholars. Our ways of interacting brought to mind an influential text I read as an undergraduate – Womens Ways of Knowing [1986] – which, through extensive interviews, sought to show how women view reality and draw conclusions about truth, knowledge, and authority. It claimed that women in particular, engage in ‘connected knowing’ or what Elbow [1973] called ‘the believing game.’ That is, ‘instead of looking for what’s wrong with the other person’s idea, they try to see why it makes sense, how it might be right’ [Clichy 1990]. This contrasts with what the authors called ‘separate knowing’, or for Elbow, ‘the doubting game’, which emphasises detachment from one’s objects of thought, impersonality and adversarial modes of discourse.

In my academic training so far, I have largely been socialised to engage dispassionately and doubtfully with ideas and their proponents. Mostly this is learned by experience and by modelling other scholars. Seminars in history typically involve the audience unquestioning playing the ‘doubting game’ by unpicking every aspect of the presenter’s argument. However, our host Professor Mette Buchardt immediately dispelled any such fears. In a clear demonstration of ‘connected knowing’, Buchardt opened the workshop by winding together a personal narrative of her relationship with each scholar, their shared research interests, and the state of various interconnected fields of research represented in the workshop program. Each paper, wrestled with what she called ‘curriculum’; the ways that ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ is selected, disputed, arranged and disseminated in a society.

The first panel sustained a focus on the relationship between religion, education and nation-state building. Jil Winandy, University of Vienna, traced histories of publishing, focusing on the production of teacher training materials in eighteenth century France and Germany. In particular, she showed the ways that competing religious ideas and their proponents sought to transpose their educational histories into textbooks. Taking the historiography of teacher training materials as a site of the ‘culture wars’, Winandy showed how religious histories were used to legitimate educational reforms, and how distinctively religious and nationalist pedagogical traditions were being developed in nineteenth century Germany and France respectively.

Next, Karoline Baden Staffesen described her PhD research which is part of a large literacy history project conducted by Aarhus University and the Danish Royal Library. Her segment of the project uses qualitative methods to map the publishing history of Danish ‘readers’; a distinctive genre of learning books for children during the nineteenth century. And finally, Sara Fredfelt Stadager, a museum curator at the Danish Jewish Museum outlined her research on nineteenth century Danish missionary Eduard Løventhal, including his influential role in establishing the Indian collection at the National Museum of Denmark.

Papers in the second panel took a more contemporary, policy-oriented perspective. My paper canvassed some preliminary educational implications associated with the growing calls for for truth-telling about Aboriginal history in Australia. I outlined some of the ways that education has been linked to reconciliation politics in the recent past, as well as current trends in redress politics around the world, arguing that more work is required to uncover the problematic tensions and contradictions inherent in such processes of educationalisation.

Pernille Ahrong Gersager Nissen described her ongoing observations of a Danish elementary school classroom through the lens of critical race theory. Pernille’s unique analysis of a ‘design your own video game’ activity, revealed some curious and problematic ways that school children construct and perceive race in schooling. And finally, Jin Hui Li described her comparative analysis of ‘education abroad’ policies in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Denmark and China. Hui’s previous research compares contemporary higher education policies between Denmark and China, and this work-in-progress represents an effort to develop a deeper historical frame for comparative policy analysis. Hui discussed how ‘education abroad’ policies became state strategies for forming the essential knowledge required for the future of these nation-states and their citizens.

Our concluding discussion centred upon some common themes across the papers including:

1. The positioning of education as solution to a perceived ‘crisis’
The historical and theoretical perspectives in the papers showed how education policy is used as a political legitimation strategy. Historical analysis, although clearly not problem-free, can help to supplement and alleviate the futurist emphasis of education policy analysis which is often at risk of reproducing the problems it seeks to solve.

2. The challenge of categorisation
Many of the presenters reflected on the challenge of creating categories from which to undertake their analysis. Jil Winandy reflected upon how educational histories often seem to sit at the intersection of different disciplines, and I would surmise that it is for this reason that new ways of categorising phenomena are often required in order to make sense of the material. But there was a dis-ease amongst the presenters with doing this work, and an awareness of the dangers and limitations of arranging material into boxes.

3. Education as a strategic tool for nation-state building
Despite the globalisation characteristic of late modernity, including the internationalisation of education policies, frameworks and ideas, the nation-state remains a key framework for the analysis of education policy.

Finally, I’d like to reflect upon the value of interdisciplinarity and its relationship to connected knowing. With the reality of precarity looming over all early career scholars, it is tempting to retreat well within established academic margins. Young scholars learn quickly that when a job application asks for a ‘PhD in history or cognate discipline’, you can basically forget it if you are from a cognate discipline. And yet, as this workshop evinced, some of the most exciting academic work is being done between and across disciplinary borders. This, I think, requires a disposition of connected knowing, which I suspect needs to be modelled from the ‘top’ i.e. by senior scholars. While disciplinary rigour certainly has its place, researching creatively, about education policy in this case, will be more fruitful if it involves thinking with rather than merely against others.

I am very grateful to Mette Buchardt for the invitation to attend this workshop, the scholars who participated, and to Nanna Ramsing Enemark for such splendid organisation (and for providing the photographs!).