17 SES 09, Thinking about Equality in History
Recently two of us headlined with the statement that in historiography, as well in historiography of education, everything revolves around interpretation. Because an ‘objective’ reconstruction based on facts - an illusion frequently attributed to Ranke - seems impossible. The mere selection of facts is already part of a process of interpretation, even if we are not always as aware of it. This is why we have repeatedly called for the greatest possible exchange of viewpoints, because without diversity in the ‘ways of seeing’, multiple reading (in terms of the multi-layered, for example) of history, which is inherently complex, is virtually excluded. Consequently we believe that it is best to work with a collective team of researchers that complement each other perfectly in terms of content and on the methodological and/or disciplinary level. Nevertheless, this dismisses the fact that researchers do not remain focused on the historical reality in their representation of the past - each historical narrative constructs a story. Today, much of the so-called ‘grand theory’ - however inspiring it may be - appears to be very far removed from this empirical basis.
Obviously the biographic approach constitutes an excellent opportunity for bringing historical research closer to the reality once more, at least if one starts with the chronology that determines personal life. All too often subjects - educational celebrities included - are deemed to possess relatively stable ideals, motives, views, attitudes, personal characteristics and so on. But is this actually the case? In reality, interaction with the environment largely determines life; in other words, experiences that people undergo when confronted with specific historical circumstances.
Years ago, when we began our study of the role and significance of the Belgian educational reformer Ovide Decroly, we immediately came up against the need to dispel the ‘myths’, which led to fanciful ‘Dichtung’ about him, which not infrequently arose from self-interest, prompting appropriations from his environment (Depaepe, Simon & Van Gorp, 2003). Compiling a biographical ‘laundry list’ - a type of chronological, a posteriori agenda of Decroly - already appeared to be an important tool, which also created the need to produce a more reliable biography. Since confrontation with the everyday alone appeared capable of piercing the stereotype and hagiographic perceptions about Decroly, the question arose: where had he actually been? To which meetings, which conferences? What was he actually concerned with? And what was the input from his environment in all this? To what extent did he still have time to conduct his own research? For practical educational work? For the writing of books and articles?
The preparatory stage of our biography project ‘Ovide Decroly’ has essentially, in the meantime, come to an end. The time-consuming expeditions to numerous archives at home and abroad (Paris, Madrid, The Hague, Rotterdam, London and Geneva) are behind us. We have reviewed the primary (including the scientific oeuvre) and secondary literature, and - last but not least - our ‘laundry list biography’ (Tuchmann, 1981, 89) is almost ready for use. This chronologically ordered database of Decroly’s biographical data comprises approximately 1,100 items, primarily data from meetings, conferences and many other activities, up to and including sending and receiving letters. The Decroly agenda should soon enable a ‘traditional’ biography to be written that will also, in the context of history of science, shed new light on a figure that, through the careless use of evidence, was to some extent rashly branded as an ‘educational innovator’, educational ‘reformer’ and ‘pioneer’ of the testing movement or care of the disabled, independent of his medical expertise (Depaepe, Simon & Van Gorp, 2011).
Our predominantly theoretical and methodologically based conference paper will explore the ‘Decroly’ biography project in more detail.
P. Backscheider, Reflections on Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. P. Bourdieu, « L'illusion biographique », Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 62-63 (juin 1986) 69-72. B. Caine, Biography and History. Houndmills: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2010. M. Depaepe & F. Simon, “Sources in the Making of Histories of Education: proofs, arguments, and other reasonings from the historian’s workplace”, in: P. Smeyers & M. Depaepe (ed.), Educational Research: Proofs, Arguments, and Other Reasonings. Dordrecht: Springer, 2009, 23-39. M. Depaepe, F. Simon & A. Van Gorp, “The canonization of Ovide Decroly to a “saint” of the New Education”, History of Education Quarterly, XLIII, 2 (2003), 224-249. M. Depaepe, F. Simon & A. Van Gorp, « L’expertise médicale et psycho-pédagogique d’Ovide Decroly en action. Utiliser le “fardeau” qu’engendre inadaptation sociale au profit de la société », in: A. François, V. Massin & D. Niget (dir.), Violences juvéniles sous expertise(s) XIXe-XXIe siècles. Expertise and Juvenile Violence 19th-21st Century. Louvain-la-neuve : UCL Presses Universitaires de Louvain, 2011, 39-54. F. Dosse, Le pari biographique. Ecrire une vie, Paris: La Découverte, 2005. Th. Etzemüller, Biographien. Lesen-erforschen-erzählen, Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag, 2012. C. Klein, (Hrsg.), Handbuch Biographie. Methoden, Traditionen, Theorien. Stuttgart/Weimar: J.B. Metzler, 2009. D. Livingstone, Putting Science in its Place. Geographies of Scientific Knowledge, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. J. Burr Margadant (ed.), The New Biography. Performing Femininity in Nineteenth-Century France. Berkeley/London: University of California Press, 2000. María del Mar del Pozo Andrés, Justa Freire o la passion de educar. Biografía de una maestro atrapada en la historia de España (1896-1965), Barcelona: Octaedro, 2013. H. Renders & B. De Haan (eds.), Theoretical Discussions of Biography. Approaches. from History, Microhistory, and Life Writing, Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2013. L. Rollet & Ph. Nabonnand (dir.), Les uns et les autres…Biographie et prosopographie en histoire des sciences, Nancy: PUN/Editions universitaires de Lorraine, 2012. M. Rouvroy, Revue belge de pédagogie, XIV, 1 (1er octobre 1932). B. Tuchmann, “Biography as a Prism of History”, in Id., Practicing History: Selected Writings, New York/Toronto: Random House Publishing Group, 1981. A. Van Gorp, Tussen mythe en wetenschap: Ovide Decroly (1871-1932), Leuven/Voorburg: Acco, 2005. S. Wagnon, Ovide Decroly, un pédagogue de l’Education nouvelle, 1871-1932. Bruxelles/…: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2013. S. Wagnon & J.Ch. Lemaire (dir.), L’Alternative Decroly. Bruxelles: La Pensée et les Hommes, 2013.
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