Commemoration, Memory and Remembrance in the History of Education: Full Introduction

Heather Ellis

In focusing on commemoration and memory, this virtual special issue (VSI) echoes the theme of the History of Education Society UK’s 2017 conference – ‘Celebration, Commemoration and Collaboration – Milestones in the History of Education’. This theme seems particularly appropriate as  the Society marks its fiftieth anniversary this year. While the majority of articles presented here are taken from History of Education, pieces from other journals have also been included such as Paedagogica Historica, Social History, Scandinavian Journal of History and The International Journal of the History of Sport

The VSI attempts to bring together a range of scholarship in the history of education over three decades with a view to exploring the ways in which thinking about the ideas of commemoration, memory and the marking of anniversaries has changed in that period.

The public celebration of anniversaries, jubilees and centenaries is a relatively recent phenomenon. As Roland Quinault has pointed out, ‘centennial commemorations of events or people were rare before 1850’.[1] Since the middle of the nineteenth century, however, particularly in Britain and the West, public recognition of centenaries and other anniversaries has grown significantly in popularity. Historical scholarship has had an important role to play in this trend, with many biographies, institutional histories, commemorative editions and special museum and gallery exhibitions designed to remember and celebrate prominent individuals, institutions and events. Most recently, we have seen the wide range of books, articles, research projects, exhibitions, conferences and public art work designed to mark the centenary of the First World War.

Yet this kind of scholarship is not without its difficulties for those who undertake it. In 2012, the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, called for communities across Ireland to ‘study and commemorate’ the events of 1912-1922 as part of what was termed the ‘Decade of Centenaries’.[2] These two words - ‘study and commemorate’ - do not fit easily together. ‘Study’ calls for a critical analysis and exploration of an individual, institution or event and its legacy, whereas ‘commemorate’ seems to carry with it an implicit bias towards positive remembrance or even an overt celebration of the subject matter. Anniversaries, therefore, can be tricky things for historians to address.

Recent years have seen a burgeoning interest in subjecting the whole notion of centenaries and jubilees to historical scrutiny.  In 1998, Roland Quinault wrote an article for Historical Research which sought to examine critically the celebration of centenaries in Britain and beyond. He showed that as early as 1908, people were growing weary of near constant anniversary celebrations and sceptical about the motivations behind them. In this year, the Rev. William Hunt, then president of the Royal Historical Society, stated his view that ‘commemorations have been done to death’ and were interruptions to the historian’s ‘regular work’.[3] In a 2012 article for History of Education (included in this VSI), Heather Sharp deliberately chose the lead-up to the bicentennial of the British colonisation of the Australian continent to explore the role of multiculturalism in primary History teaching in Australia.[4]

In 2013, an interdisciplinary AHRC Network – ‘The Significance of the Centenary’ – was set up to investigate the power of centenaries in shaping how history is written.[5] In a piece for the University of Sheffield History Department’s blog, History Matters, one of the Network’s members, Charles West, referred to what he described as a ‘fetishisation of round numbers’ in both academic history writing and the museum sector which distorts the historical importance of particular dates. ‘What kinds of history can’t be written if the focus is on centenaries’?, he asks.[6] In particular, the Network  stresses that modern events (which are easily dated) are privileged over events in the more distant past whose specific date may be uncertain. Likewise, long-term processes which do not fall into an easily retrievable set of years are marginalised at the expense of one-off events and short-term developments. This sort of criticism echoes similar points directed against historians for relying on familiar (yet frequently irrelevant) chronologies framed around particular centuries or the reigns of kings and queens. As West states, there is ‘no reason to think that hundred-year chunks of time, or any other pre-fabricated lengths, are intrinsically well-suited to appreciating’ historical developments.[7] Yet the tendency persists with the Heritage Lottery Fund announcing as recently as 2014 that it would set aside £10 million to support events designed to ensure that ‘some of the UK’s most important anniversaries’ are ‘commemorated and understood’.[8]

There is a strong argument to be made in any case that focusing on centenaries and other anniversaries tells us considerably more about present concerns than it does about the particular event, person or institution being commemorated. Historians have frequently pointed to a close relationship between nostalgia and periods of rapid social and cultural change, when society is widely perceived to be in crisis.[9]  

The challenges raised by commemorations and anniversaries have been particularly acute for historians of education. Perhaps more than any other cultural process, education has been seen to be bound up with the generation, transmission and preservation of memory, individual and private as well as collective and public. Formal educational institutions such as schools, colleges and universities are frequently treated as prime agents of cultural transmission and identity formation. As such, there has been a longstanding tradition of producing specially commissioned institutional histories to celebrate the anniversaries of schools and universities. As Sylvia Palatschek has written, university history has often been seen as ‘some sort of casual remittance work, carried out on the occasion of a jubilee by historians who were chosen rather for their local availability than for their special knowledge’.[10] While there are clearly exceptions, many of these volumes have been written explicitly as celebrations – sometimes approaching eulogy – of the particular institution under review.

Writing back in 1990 on the occasion of the centenary of the Welsh Intermediate and Technical Education Act, W. Gareth Evans referred to his article (included in the VSI) as a ‘celebration’ and ‘appreciation’ of the Act.[11] It was a piece of writing which deliberately took advantage of a centenary to try to ‘encourage a sense of history’ in teacher-education courses and in educational debate more broadly which he considered unduly limited in scope by ‘the parochialism of the present.’[12]

More recently, however, historians of education, particularly those working on the history of universities, have sought to avoid making explicit use of anniversaries in this way. Indeed, there has been a drive to produce a new critical university history which attempts to look at universities as embedded social and cultural institutions which perform a variety of roles in society at multiple levels – local, regional, national and transnational.[13] One of the articles included here by Pieter Dhondt examines the historical significance and cultural impact of university jubilees and the celebrations held to mark them across Europe at the end of the nineteenth century.[14] Alexander Clarkson asks similar questions about the role of Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University in shaping debates about national identity and historical memory in the Kaliningrad region in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.[15]  

The articles included in this VSI span nearly three decades of research in the history of education. They are intended to give a sense of the range and variety of approaches taken towards the themes of commemoration and memory by scholars working in the field. To a large degree, they reflect the characteristics of history of education research more broadly identified by Mark Freeman and Alice Kirke in the recently published Review of Periodical Literature (RPL) for 2016 in History of Education.[16]

Most significantly, perhaps, the articles selected showcase research exploring developments within a wide geographical spread. In addition to articles on the UK,[17] there are also pieces focused on the Netherlands,[18] Sweden,[19] Finland,[20] Belgium,[21] Japan,[22] the USA,[23] Australia,[24] New Zealand[25] and Russia.[26] While an effort has been made to include articles which focus on earlier periods of history (one as early as the ninth century),[27] the chronological spread of pieces in the VSI broadly maps onto the tendency identified in the RPL, namely for scholarship in history of education to become more chronologically restricted, focused increasingly on the post-1750 period, in particular, the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[28] Some of the most recent articles included in this VSI reflect a growing trend to concentrate research on the postwar period.[29]

Another key feature of the articles chosen is the tendency to understand education in a much wider sense than was traditionally the case. While about half of the articles focus on formal educational institutions (both schools and universities), the remainder concentrate on alternative spaces and modes of education, broadly understood. As Willem Frijhoff writes in an article included in this VSI, ‘education is more than schooling alone: family, kinship, friends, working conditions, self-teaching, the street and the church, culture and leisure all contribute to the formation of the individual or the group’.[30] Thus we have included pieces exploring the relationship between memory, commemoration and education in the royal court of Alfred of Wessex, early modern Dutch autobiography, seventeenth-century closed convents in England and nineteenth-century church missionary societies active in Australia and New Zealand, as well as a range of sites in the twentieth century including local ecumenical projects, community pageants and special summer schools set up for workers.

As might be expected, this range of contexts and periods highlights the wide variety of source materials which historians of education are engaging with. Alongside more traditional sources such as government legislation, school and university archives, textbooks and curricula, we see articles drawing insights from a wide range of primary materials. Autobiography and other ego documents play a central role in both Rudolf Dekker’s study of constructions of childhood in the Netherlands between 1600 and 1850 and Maria Tamboukou’s reconstruction of the intellectual lives of women workers in the early twentieth-century USA.[31] Oral history techniques and the challenges they pose play a central role in a number of articles including Philip Gardner’s reflections on collecting and archiving the professional memories of classroom teachers in the twentieth century and Sarah Van Ruyskensvelde’s exploration of the war-time memories of priest-teachers in Belgium’s Catholic secondary schools.[32] Visual sources, meanwhile, play a central role in Marjo Nieminen’s study of representations of secondary education in photographs included in the anniversary books of a Finnish girls’ school between 1882 and 2007.[33] Mark Freeman’s study of historical pageants in twentieth-century Britain makes use not only of scripts, press reports and printed ephemera, but also analyses of staging, costume and set design and theories of performativity.[34]

This variety of source material is central to the attempts being made to write better, more nuanced accounts of the role of memory and commemoration in the history of education. As Willem Frijhoff has pointed out, traditional sources tend to ‘reflect predominantly administrative goals, scientific ideals, and political ideologies rather than social or cultural realities, and still less personal considerations’.[35] If we are to come closer to the messier reality and grapple with the malleability of memory, we must, he continues, ‘pay due attention…to the meaning given to education in a person's life and in the social group, and to its cultivation by memory. The reception of education by the persons educated may not entirely, or not at all, correspond to the intentions of the educator.’[36] In different ways, all the articles included in this VSI make a contribution to this important task.


[1] Roland Quinault, ‘The Cult of the Centenary, c. 1784-1914’, Historical Research 71 (1998): 303.

[2] See Tomás Irish, Trinity in War and Revolution 1912-1923 (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2015), ix.

[3] Quinault, ‘The Cult of the Centenary’, 320.

[4] Heather Sharp, ‘Australia’s 1988 Bicentennial: National History and Multiculturalism in the Primary School Curriculum’, History of Education 41 2012): 405-421.

[5] For the work of the Network, see (accessed 21 October 2017).

[6] Charles West, ‘It’s About Time: On Centenaries and History Writing’, History Matters (29 May 2013). (accessed 21 October 2017).

[7] Ibid.

[9] See, for example, Paul Readman, ‘The Place of the Past in English Culture, c. 1890-1914’, Past and Present 186 (2005): 147-199. 

[10] See, for example, Sylvia Paletschek, ‘The Writing of University History and University Jubilees: German Examples’ Studium 5 (2013): 142.  

[11] W. Gareth Evans, ‘The Welsh Intermediate and Technical Education Act, 1889: A Centenary Appreciation’, History of Education 19 (1990): 195-210.

[12] Ibid., 195.

[13] On recent developments in the writing of university history in different parts of the world, see the historiographical review ‘Revista de Historia de las Universidades’, CIAN 20:1 (2017). See in particular Gian Paolo Brizzi and Elisa Signori, ‘Historiografía sobre universidades: una mirada a la investigación europea y sus resultados’, CIAN 20:1 (2017): 11-16.

[14] Pieter Dhondt, ‘The Echo of the Quatercentenary of Uppsala University in 1877: Nordic universities as examples in Europe?’, Scandinavian Journal of History 35 (2010): 21-43.

[15] Alexander Clarkson, ‘Russian Dreams and Prussian Ghosts: Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University and Debates over Historical Memory and Identity in Kaliningrad’, History of Education 46 (2017): 256-72.

[16] Mark Freeman and Alice Kirke, ‘Review of Periodical Literature on the History of Education Published in 2016’, History of Education 46 (2017): 826-53

[17] Evans, ‘The Welsh Intermediate and Technical Education Act, 1889’; Philip Gardner, ‘Oral History in Education: Teachers’ Memory and Teachers’ History’, History of Education 32 (2003): 175-88; Caroline Bowden, ‘Community Space and Cultural Transmission: Formation and Schooling in English Enclosed Convents in the Seventeenth Century’, History of Education 34 (2005): 365-86; Kevin Myers, ‘Faith in History: Memory, Multiculturalism and the Legacies of Empire in Postwar England’, History of Education 40 (2011): 779-93; Janet L. Nelson, ‘Alfred of Wessex at a Cross-roads in the History of Education’, History of Education 42 (2013): 697-712; Mark Freeman, ‘“Splendid Display; Pompous Spectacle”: Historical Pageants in Twentieth-Century Britain’, Social History 38 (2013): 423-455.

[18] Rudolf Dekker, ‘Childhood in Dutch Autobiographies, 1600-1850: Changing Memory Strategies’, Paedagogica Historica 32 (1996): 65-76.

[19] Dhondt, ‘The Echo of the Quatercentenary of Uppsala University in 1877’.

[20] Marjo Nieminen, ‘From Elite Traditions to Middle Class Cultures: Images of Secondary Education in the Anniversary Books of a Finnish Girls’ School, 1882-2007’, Paedagogica Historica 52 (2016): 236-51.

[21] Sarah Van Ruyskensvelde, ‘Remembering Wartime Schooling…Catholic Education, Teacher Memory and World War II in Belgium’, Paedagogica Historica 49 (2013): 149-59.

[22] Margaret Mehl, ‘Lessons from History? Obara Keniyoshi (1877-1987), New Education and the Role of Japan’s Educational Traditions’, History of Education 38 (2009): 525-43.

[23] Stephen Hardy, ‘Memory, Performance, and History: The Making of American Ice Hockey at St Paul's School, 1860–1915’, International Journal of the History of Sport 14 (1997): 97-115; Maria Tamboukou, ‘Educating the Seamstress: Studying and Writing the Memory of Work’, History of Education 42 (2013): 509-27.

[24] Sharp, ‘Australia’s 1988 Bicentennial’.

[25] Tanya Fitzgerald, ‘Archives of Memory and Memory of Archive: CMS Women’s Letters and Diaries, 1823-35’, History of Education 34 (2005): 657-74.

[26] Clarkson, ‘Russian Dreams and Prussian Ghosts’.

[27] Nelson, ‘Alfred of Wessex at a Cross-roads in the History of Education’.

[28] Freeman and Kirke, ‘Review of Periodical Literature’, 828-9.

[29] See, for example, Myers, ‘Faith in History’; Clarkson, ‘Russian Dreams and Prussian Ghosts’; Sharp, ‘Australia’s 1988 Bicentennial’.

[30] Willem Frijhoff, ‘Education’s Memory’, Paedagogica Historica 32 (1996): 339.

[31] See Dekker, ‘Childhood in Dutch Autobiographies, 1600-1850’; Tamboukou, ’Educating the Seamstress’.

[32] See Gardner, ‘Oral History in Education’; Van Ruyskensvelde, ‘Remembering Wartime Schooling’.

[33] Nieminen, ‘From Elite Traditions to Middle Class Cultures’.

[34] Freeman, ‘“Splendid Display; Pompous Spectacle”’.

[35] Frijhoff, ‘Education’s Memory’, 347.

[36] Ibid., 352.