What ancient desks tell us about the history of education


Most of us have sat in front of a blackboard. In our classroom there were tables, chairs, shelves, books, and other materials. Older children remember school desks , inkwells, writing pens, Franco’s photos or maps hanging on the walls.

All these objects are valuable for the study of the past of education and can give us information that we will hardly know if we do not resort to them. From the desks arranged in rows in the traditional school to the movable tables that allow grouping for group work, there is a major shift in educational ideas.

School activity takes place in spaces that include objects. The characteristics of these objects, their placement and the use made of them conditions and determines educational practice. Many pedagogical methods and systems have developed specific materials for use in schools.

Desk model of the National Pedagogical Museum.

Educational historiography focuses on the material

The interest in material sources has been one of the outstanding themes of research in the history of education in recent decades in Spain. A greater sensitivity to the conservation of heritage in general has increased support for historical research on education related to the materiality of the school.

It is time to move from simply conserving these objects to using them as sources. These testimonies can be documents to address new or old topics in the history of education. Material sources can improve our knowledge of very diverse aspects of the educational past.

The day to day of the past

Like all historical sources, they must be properly placed in context, analyzed, and subjected to criticism. For example, material sources help us to learn more about school practice, the day to day of school. An everyday life in schools that is more difficult to study from more traditional sources.

In order to give new values ​​to the material aspects of the history of the school, it is necessary to insist on something already recommended by F. Herman; To Van Gorp, F. Simon and M. Depaede, in an article entitled The School Desk: from Concept to Object , published in 2011. These authors raise the need to further study the circumstances of design, production, marketing, distribution, consumption, and other conditions of the existence of school objects. A set of factors that A. Viñao , a year later, called the biography of the object.

Other historical dimensions

To advance in a history that pays attention to and values ​​the historical objects of education, it is also necessary to include other orientations: their study from different historical dimensions beyond the strictly educational ones. Educational objects have been produced and marketed, and these processes have conditioned them as much as their educational purpose.

In this case, as in other facets of contemporary history, the approach to other sciences such as economics, ethnography and sociology is also imposed. Likewise, it is necessary to approach other branches of history such as archeology or the history of industry.

Drawing made by Ramón Hernández Amigó at age 12, in 1937. The drawing reads: ‘My partner Durán and I looking at the course of operations on a map of Spain, the master prepares the work’ BNE – Biblioteca Digital Hispánica

Dialogue with other sources

We must also make objects dialogue with other sources to interrogate them more effectively and to improve the information we obtain from them, opening new perspectives to the investigation of history.

The complementarity of sources, objects, texts, images and personal testimonies can greatly enrich our interpretations of the past. We must not forget that the claim of historical research is to know, explain and interpret the past of men as a whole and globally. The sources, the new and the old, are nothing more than clues, clues, testimonies that we can question in order to improve our knowledge of what has happened.

A public history of education

The importance given to material elements has also led to a strong expansion of public history activities related to school materials. The collection of school objects has led to exhibitions and the creation of museum spaces. In recent decades, a large number of school and museum collections have been created that host, preserve, study and disseminate this heritage.

The objects and the materiality of the educational processes, the audiovisual sources together with personal testimonies, give great visibility to the history of education. This fact has its advantages and disadvantages. They are sources that can be very susceptible to being used in manipulative stories to shape opinions and identities at the service of the interests of power, but at the same time this disclosure facilitates the communication of scientists and specialists with the general public.

This open door to public history must be crossed without misgivings. We must not let the space that can be covered with verified information and the result of scientific research be occupied by others with more frivolous or ill-intentioned intentions. On this subject, the collaboration of historians with communication specialists can be very helpful.

Classroom present at the exhibition in the Wall of Materials of the Arxiu Museu de l’Educació de les Illes Balears in Inca.

Conserve the material

Finally, a plea. Do not throw old school objects that you may have around the house. Before consulting a specialist. These objects can have heritage value and be very interesting to historians. The Spanish Society for the Study of Historical-Educational Heritage (SEPHE) has on its website a directory with the centers in Spain that are dedicated to the conservation of the historical heritage of education.

Author Bio: Bernat Sureda Garcia is Professor at the University of Theory and History of Education at the Universitat de les Illes Balears