March 31, 2008

Jim Anderson retrospective, part 1

Last Tuesday in New York, a roundtable panel presented a 20-year retrospective on Jim Anderson's The Education of Blacks in the South, 1865-1935, chaired by Joy Williamson (U. Washington). In this entry, I'll summarize some of the perspectives of the panelists. In the next entry (tomorrow, I hope), I'll present my personal engagement with the book.

Rubén Donato (University of Colorado) noted that students who read the book for the first time generally have bimodal responses. Many of them react to Anderson's argument as if they've never heard such a radical idea. Donato called these the "Oh, wow" reactions. But he also said a slice of students react with a little more cynicism: "Of course," because of their experiences or their friends' and families' experiences with schooling.

Donato also noted that most readers of Anderson's book come to it as graduate students, and he is worried that its arguments rarely filter into undergraduate history courses. While I think he's wrong in terms of Anderson's broader arguments (I'll explain this in my more personal post), he is correct about the readership for the book.

John Rury (Kansas) noted first that Anderson's book represents the maturation of revisionist education historiography. The book is sophisticated, nuanced, and detailed, and it carries an argument more successfully than almost any other challenging/radical history of education published in the prior 20 years. (This last weekend, Anderson and a whole bunch of new scholars were at Penn for the 40th-year anniversary of Michael Katz's Irony of Early School Reform/non-Festschrift conference.)

Rury also noted that for much of the book, Anderson was writing an elite history, a "reform by imposition" story that focused on the network of foundations active in the late 19th and early 20th century. While he shifted later in the book to discuss community efforts (see below on Vanessa Siddle Walker's comments), Anderson's book was remarkable in its focus.

Finally (at least in my notes), Rury noted that Anderson's book left a huge agenda in its wake, and scholars have been either riding that wake or trying to catch up to it since.

Eileen Tamura (Hawaii) focused on the part of the book Rury avoided, where Anderson discusses human agency. Tamura pointed out that while the elites involved in foundation work discussed how education could tame the political and economic aspirations of African Americans, Black communities were willing to tax themselves a second time through voluntary contributions to raise buildings and pay for operating expenses of schools. In this way, Tamura argues, Anderson pointed out how there were multiple discourses, with the local discourse undercutting the foundations' efforts to impose a tame sort of education. Tamura suggested that one of the chunks on the agenda left by the book was the way that cultural capital works in networks (my awkwardness not hers).

Vanessa Siddle Walker (Emory) also focused on the actions of Black communities and community members, and Siddle Walker focused on several historiographical points: First, Anderson identified the undercurrents in a way that would not have been possible with a single storyline. Her language was that Anderson identified a "story within a story" rather than just recycling old ideas. Second, Siddle Walker pointed out how Anderson was patient with his work ("lingered with an idea"), something you can identify if you look at the 42 newspaper series, 63 government publication series, and 30+ pages of bibliographic references in the book, as well as the acknowledgments that note the broad professional network Anderson used in working on the book.

Third, Siddle Walker argued that Anderson's work showed the importance of believing in the value of community perspective. She argued that this is the ethic of good oral historians, and couched a warning as well: often enough, historians are confronted with relatively little response, which does not mean that there isn't a story so much as the fact that the historian may not have gained entree to the community's trust.

Finally, Siddle Walker argued that Anderson's book made the story (stories?) accessible, readable and free of jargon that some others indulge in. (Was she referring here to Aronowitz or Giroux?)

Anderson then responded, gave credit to David Tyack for raising questions he had not considered when looking at Southern education after the Civil War, and then made four general points. First, he said that he should have paid more attention to the members of those communities who were still living in the 1970s and 1980s. He said that his own mother read the book and then told him, "You should have talked to me before you wrote it." If he had the chance to do it over, he said, he'd include oral history (which he did not).

Second, Anderson explained the background behind his book's not receiving the History of Education Society Outstanding Book Award for that year: he was on the award committee, and when his book was mentioned, he said that it wasn't that worthy a book and he'd have to recuse himself anyway. So the committee chose another book (I forget which...). The larger point here is that Anderson had no idea how positive the reception would be over time.

Third, Anderson was skeptical that his book was as definitive as some have implied. It was a broad overview, he said, and there is so much more to be done and so much that has been since, from Sieglinde Lim's work on Chinese immigrants in the Mississippi Delta to Siddle Walker's work, Adam Fairclough, David Cecelski, and so forth.

Finally, Anderson pointed out that Rury was essentially correct in terms of the origins of the book as a top-down perspective, and only in the middle of the work did he discover community culture, and then had to revise his views.

The discussion afterwards was mostly warm and fuzzy recollections, but there was one sharp question by Tyrone Freeman, asking Anderson's views on today's education foundations, from Gates to Broad, and whether they, too, were trying to impose a specific view that might be as pernicious as what he described. Anderson demurred, saying that the key to his work was discovering that the public representation of white philanthropists' work was dramatically different from the private work that was detailed in their papers. Since we don't know that private conversation going on today, he said, he couldn't comment.

For the most part, I sat back, took sketchy notes, and just enjoyed the conversation. Now, don't you wish someone was taking better notes, or that you were there yourself?

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Posted in History on March 31, 2008 10:44 PM |