Although my work has long been engaged with formal and informal educational cultures and contexts, and although I’m usually pretty interdisciplinary in practice, I had never previously been to a history of education conference. The title of the 2016 History of Education Society, UK / ANZHES joint conference, however, really appealed to me—‘Sight, Sound and Text in the History of Education’—and since at this moment some of my work is moving more conspicuously towards analysis of the historical relationships of certain media and forms of education, I decided to be bold and submit an abstract. Lo and behold, the very first paper I heard persuaded me that I have been missing out on much of topical interest and methodological relevance to my own research.
The most interesting panel for me, which I describe in detail as an example of the kind of work presented, was titled ‘Forming Community and National Identities’:
- Tom Woodin of the Institute of Education at UCL spoke about sight, sound and text in the co-operative culture and education in interwar Britain. Woodin examined how in the interwar period the co-operative movement employed cultural and educational activities—such as lectures, study groups, choirs, theatre groups, etc—as a means of both solidifying its base and attracting new members. Technology was increasingly used in the promotion of a particular version of co-operative history, especially in its films and during its pageants. Woodin drew out some of the movement’s underlying social tensions by looking at the example of the international co-operative day pageant given at Wembley Stadium in the 1920s.
- Susannah Wright of Oxford Brookes University spoke about the League of Nations Union (LNU), which from 1919 worked to avoid a repeat of the horrors of the First World War, and its annual armistice commemorations in the interwar period. Wright argued that, through its deliberately educational activities around armistice commemorations each year, which included pamphlets, public meetings, producing material for schools, local branches of the LNU engaged in and encouraged particular modes of collective commemoration that served to promote its political aims amongst a wide public of both adults and children.
- Jonathan Doney of the University of Exeter discussed his findings from archival research into the development of the 1944 Education Act. Doney drew on correspondence between representatives from the Board of Education and the British Jewish community to underscore the extent to which Judaism was at this time, and in terms of contemporary religious education for schools, constructed as a denomination of Christianity.
- The fourth paper in this panel was by Christine Woyshner of Temple University who discussed the Commission on Interracial Co-operation’s (CIC) initiative of the 1930s to teach black history and culture within and across the curriculum (including art, music and dance) for white high school students in the American South; Woyshner concluded that white students’ work in response to study materials offered by the CIC nevertheless demonstrated adherence to traditional racial stereotypes.
The ‘community and identities’ panel exemplified how deep engagement with neglected archival sources can so often usefully challenge or nuance traditional histories. It also reinforced the sheer variety of ways in which educational activity and curriculum design can be effective vehicles for social, cultural and political ideas about the past, the present and the relationship between the two.
My own paper, ‘Theatre plays in performance in the BBC and ITV schools television curricula of the 1960s’ arises from my broader span of work on media and education across the middle decades of the twentieth century. The regular performances of theatre plays on the small screen within school classroom are just one example of how in this period television functioned as a pedagogical tool for literature, drama and the arts, and the informal contribution that television has undoubtedly made to a liberal education. My paper examined the evidence for the demographic make-up of the audience and what is known about how they engaged with and responded to these programmes, together with the pedagogic frames the plays were set within (whether introductory talks or published pamphlets). A comparative analysis of how the BBC and Associated-Rediffusion presented plays underscored the success or otherwise of their communication strategies in this realm.
One excellent characteristic of this particular conference which I was pleased to benefit from was the quality of the discussion offered by colleagues in the audience. Genuinely helpful feedback was often intended to sharpen up points of methodology in thoughtful and valuable way.
I was delighted to see that BCU colleague Sian Vaughan (Senior Lecturer and Keeper of the Archives for the Faculty of Arts, Design and Media) was on the conference programme. Her paper explored the use of phonic excavations and sonic mining in sound artist Justin Wiggin’s recent work (‘Absconditi Viscus’, 2014-16) as ways of interrogating the First World War history of the Birmingham School of Art and the emotional residue from that time that lay within.
Another local colleague Siân Roberts (Library of Birmingham & University of Birmingham) drew on audience research reports from the archives to explore the effectiveness of children’s religious programming on BBC Television in developing knowledge of the Bible, looking in particular at the example of Joy Harington’s series of plays Jesus of Nazareth (1956).
There were many other points of interest in this conference—such as Heather Ellis (University of Sheffield) speaking on the use of inspiring photographic images of male scientists in order to promote science education in schools and other settings in the public sphere and Deirdre Rafftery (University College Dublin) talking about her truly inspiring Loreto, the Green and 1916 project for Google Cultural Institute. Regrettably, the parallel sessions structure prevented me from sampling the full range of what the conference had to offer.
The Call for Papers (see poster above) for the next History of Education Society conference to be held at the University of Winchester in November 2017 has just been published (and the deadline for proposals is 31 March 2017). Proposals for papers and posters on aspects of commemoration, celebration and collaboration in education as public history, institutional histories, personal and political histories of education, formal and informal education and archives are invited.
I am planning on submitting an abstract; please get in touch if you are also thinking of submitting something!