What major historical and technological influences have shaped how we now approach education research in the U.S.?


Education research has not developed in a historical vacuum. Rather, what we research, why we research, and how we go about researching are all influenced by social, economic, technological, and other forces, and hopefully, all education researchers work to ensure that their research is modern in the sense that it is actually being used to solve problems that are facing today's learners and educational institutions.

The identification of and relationship between such historical forces, though, is complex and difficult to trace, requiring lengthy treatment by historians and sociologists, and a single chapter in an introductory textbook like this cannot provide a thorough treatment on the history of education research in the U.S. Yet, it is important for readers to understand some of the undercurrents of thought, historical tensions, and assumed values that have come to influence the practices, beliefs, and attitudes of researchers today at least in generalist terms.

Toward this end, this chapter will provide an extremely brief overview of some major historical and technological influences that have shaped education, research, and the hybrid domain of education research both in the Western world and in the U.S. in particular. This chapter is not intended to provide an exhaustive treatment of any of these topics but merely provides some groundwork so that readers can generally acknowledge how education research has changed over the years and how we have come to be where we are today.

To achieve this, I will proceed by providing brief vignettes of specific occurrences, movements, and eras, organized in a loosely chronological manner. I will attempt to briefly explain some of each section's dominant characteristics and suggest how it still influences education research in the U.S. today as well as provide some core suggested readings to guide the reader in developing a deeper understanding of the topic if desired.


From its Latin origins, the word university means a group, society, or guild, and in English, the word has close ties to the word universe, meaning wholeness and completeness. From its early days, the purpose of a university was to unite people in the search for whole and complete understanding as they separated themselves from the mundane or plebeian demands of life and focused on ideas, knowledge, and truth.

Connected to notions of mind-body dualism, the university represented an escape from the physical world, or body, into the mental world, or mind - a place where the knowledge seeker, or scholar, could experience the intellectual freedom necessary to more fully explore, grow, and develop the faculties of the mind.

This separation from the world (or the body) often took the form of erecting elaborate, cathedral-like structures with walls, gates, and rigid entry and induction requirements, as well as the generation of novel rites and identifiers to separate graduates from the uninitiated, untrained masses. After lengthy, laborious study, most graduates were enabled to pass through specific (sometimes esoteric) rites to take their new, enlightened place in society, while the most committed and studious might be permitted to remain in the university as dedicated scholars. As Sir Ken Robinson has argued, the ultimate purpose of the academy seems to be the creation of academics, making it a closed, cloistered system.

Similar to monastic religious views wherein God-servants separate themselves entirely from the world to a life of isolation and separation, such monastic views of the scholar have been perpetuated for centuries. We still have very specific, ancient ceremonies (involving robes, tassels, oddly-shaped hats, unique words, and more); we still largely separate scholars from the outside world via "ivory tower-like" policies and physical structures; and we still structure education such that the final, culminating achievements are preparing new scholars (via terminal degrees, doctoral work, post-doctoral fellowships, etc.).

The necessity of such separation, traditions, and norms remains an ongoing question, as the role of the university, certain types of education (e.g., liberal arts vs. vocational), and the role of the scholar in society have perpetually been challenged by political shifts (e.g., whether scientific experts should inform policy) and technological advancements (e.g., online degree programs, MOOCs). Additionally, the monastic view of higher education, wherein scholars are seen as dispassionate, politically neutral, and disconnected from society, may be seen to perpetuate persistent problems of research, wherein scholarly work may not be readily applicable and is unresponsive to the needs of the real world.

Counterexamples to this are obvious, as scholars in the U.S. and elsewhere have regularly taken it upon themselves or been called upon by society to address major problems, such as fighting Nazism in World War II, challenging Soviets in the space race, providing guidance on public health and economic concerns, and so forth, but most of the more prestigious higher education institutions have nonetheless remained at least somewhat resilient to these needs and have largely maintained environments that allow scholars to pursue intellectual endeavors with relative isolation and resilience to the outside world.

In many fields, practice-based and community-based partnerships have become increasingly common and important, such as K-12 school partnerships in teacher preparation and hospital partnerships in nursing education, but it is noteworthy that these are typically seen as important supplements to academia proper and not as the heart of the university experience itself.

Education researchers today benefit in many ways from this monastery-like tradition, which provides some elevated prestige from society, academic freedom, emphases on graduate work and funding, and so forth, but it also provides a number of persistent challenges to education researchers that must be addressed, including "ivory tower" disconnects between scholarship and practice, a concomitant distrust by the uninitiated, and a perpetual need to show that scholarly work is legitimate, worthwhile, and practical to a larger audience.


schooling as freeing or development of the mind

mind/body dualism

amateur scholars

printing press

scientific determinism?



schooling as the harbinger and defender of civilization (specifically, white, European civilization)

imperialism, colonization

genocide, sterilization, subtractive schooling


schooling as democratic enculturation

informed citizenry




public schools

"Children are engaged in learning every minute they are awake. It is the wise guiding of this learning that ensures a wise citizenry." (Goodlad, p. 5)


schooling as group identity development

group identity

melting pot




schooling as an actualizer of economic development and progress





schooling as an equalizer of the classes




responses to Nazism, communism


schooling as an equalizer of the sexes


Protestors march for civil rights

schooling as an equalizer of the races


Jim Crowe



forms of scholarship


schooling as a connector of humanity

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