Dr Hannah Forsyth is Senior Lecturer in History and ARC DECRA Fellow at the Australian Catholic University.
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What led you to study educational history?
I started working as an administrator at the University of Sydney when I finished my undergraduate degree. As I moved up the administrative hierarchy and began taking increased responsibility for things that seemed more and more commercialised, I began to consider the history of this place. I was interested in processes of commodification out of my cultural history training, and combining this with my work-based knowledge of higher education seemed a good idea. I did not realise, until I started, that there was a whole field of educational history to get on top of, but it was a great thing to discover. In time my interest moved from commodification to questions of inequality – or, rather, I sought to explore the effects of both sides of the ‘production-consumption’ story in higher education.
What are you currently working on, or planning to do next?
I have been working to combine my work on universities with the history of capitalism more widely. I began by exploring the political-economics of post-war research. Like my earlier move from commodification to inequality, I ended up considering the relationships between the institutions of education and work to class formation over the long twentieth century. My current project is a history of professions in Australia, exploring the ways that the growth of professional work has transformed class relations, which helps explain some aspects of the confusing political economy in which we find ourselves now.
What is the biggest challenge facing the field of educational history today?
Educational history faces challenges shared by history more widely – squeezes on funding and time that produce casualised and exploited early-career thinkers and has the potential to narrow research questions to assure achievability in reportable time frames. It has long struggled against the loss of educational history as a standard part of teacher training, which has also undermined its research base. That being said, I think we are seeing new growth in the field out of history departments that is producing more politically nuanced work than we have had in the past. The most important challenges, I think, are firstly re-negotiating the political purpose of educational history, a conversation we have around the edges of the sub-discipline that I think we could bring out more explicitly; and, I think it would be useful for educational history to develop deeper intellectual links with other, related fields – labour history, settler-colonial studies, intellectual history and so on. It seems to me that this is starting to happen among early career scholars especially, which is heartening.
If you could recommend one book or article on educational history, what would it be and why?
Gosh, just one?! Of the recent work, certainly Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days is high on the list of things I would like all my student to read, and not just in the history of schooling. The book deploys Marxist theory brilliantly to give an account of children’s labour at school that links shifts in the global economy to present levels of industriousness and anxiety. Raewyn Connell’s The Good University should be read by everyone who cares about higher education – as well as political activism, it is excellent history.
Which person from history would you most like to meet and why?
This is totally the hardest question in your list and answering it (‘I’d love to have a coffee with Marx…I wonder if he’d be as funny in person?’) seems to turn historical actors into heroes. Rather, I’d like to be immersed in historical places: gold-rush Melbourne might be high on my list, revolutionary Paris, 1920s jazz clubs; I’d like to build a humpy in one of the river-side reserves near Wilcannia or Menindee. And of course, I’d love to teach piano in 19th century girls school, run a dame school and hang out in the 1973 women’s tent embassy at Sydney Uni.