The Classroom as the Laboratory of Global Modernism


Anja Laukötter

Published in 1960, Philipp Aries’ comprehensive book, "L’enfant et al vie familiale sous l’ancien régime", traced the discovery and long history of childhood from the middle ages to the 18th century. For social history, this book was hugely influential and inspirational, and this project connects with Aries' ideas by concentrating on the classroom as a specific area of childhood experience from the second half of the nineteenth to the twentieth century. The historisation of the classroom should be understood as an entangled history: While this project is, for the main part, focused on Germany, key developments in the German colonies, in Europe and in the USA are also accorded importance, especially from the late nineteenth century onwards.  

Using approaches from the histories of emotions, of space and objects, of daily life and of science, this specific place is shown to be an important site of central processes of societal change in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The classroom, so the hypothesis, is a laboratory of global modernism. The laboratory of the classroom was the place where not only the relationships between parents/children and teaching staff were tried and tested, and theories of class status and background substantiated, but also where concepts about intelligence, talent and merit were formed and declared the new goals in life.

This project does not aim to create a history of concepts in a narrow sense, but rather aims to examine the place of emotions in these constructs, in the way these constructs were measured, in the daily routine of the classroom and in the way children experienced their environment. Here, emotions according to this assumption play a varying but central role in the late nineteenth century and in the twentieth century, and continue to do so today. The immense popularity of the term "emotional intelligence" is a case in point. These processual changes were not just the result of the "transformation of the world" (Jürgen Osterhammel), they also produced the figure of the school child and its problematization, which is still relevant today. In this way, the project will be in the position to show how scientific disciplines (from psychology to empirical research on human development) have influenced our concepts and knowledge of the "education of youth" and what role this played in daily life – how did this scientification of daily (school) life work, and what effects did this have on school as an area of experience and on expectations. Today, education, so the theory, is not a "l’éducation sentimentale" in a Flaubertian sense, but a laboratory in which specific experimental practices serve to safeguard education.

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