Measuring Nostalgia

Adam Edgerton
Monday, February 27, 2017


Our assumptions about the world define how we implement broadly defined public policies. In the case of education policy, we are constrained by the confines of our own educational memories. But before making policy, we often fail to quantify or quantitize[1] this emotional context because there is no easy answer to the problem of measuring it. Although such a measure of context may be difficult to ascertain, what can be known are factors, such as demography, history, and governance, that most influence the implementation of a single policy. We can work backward from there. And if we can quantify context, we can deepen our understanding of the policymaking relationships between states, districts, and schools. Often we search for a “better” policy without fully understanding what went awry with the last one’s implementation and how much of that can be attributed to the disconnect between policy and context.

What if there is a latent variable that defines the hostile or friendly nature of an institution’s preconceptions of policy, one that can be determined by combining scholarship on standards-based reform, distributed governance, the history of schooling, and political psychology? Such knowledge would help us understand how people react to policy and broad patterns of prior schooling experiences.

Quantifying these pre-existing assumptions can better inform the construction of future policy. As recent confirmation hearings demonstrate, few areas of policymaking inspire as much public, collective passion as education. Thus education policy is perhaps more vulnerable to context than many other areas of public policy. The little red schoolhouse, a fictional ideal of American education, retains its hold on our national imagination. Standards-based reform is an attempt to ensure a guaranteed quality of schooling for all. Education also serves an important role in undergirding American meritocracy and convincing the public that the arbitrary distribution of wealth is unnecessary, as Horace Mann successfully argued during his advocacy for common schools. This confidence invested by the public in the mythology of schooling endures.

What should we call this social phenomenon, this act of mythologizing? Collective nostalgia.  Nostalgia and progress are intertwined – nostalgia is the sentiment at the heart of the modern human condition, a longing for an ahistorical past. It often surfaces during times of great change and was even treated as an illness during the 18th century. Restorative nostalgia, more specifically, thinks of itself as truth and tradition, and it mingles with socioeconomic conditions to determine policy preferences. Thus we should try to measure nostalgia in a set population and, perhaps, individually. Quantifying nostalgia could also allow us to measure the strength of networks, both within a state and within a school. These emotional networks can weaken hierarchies by both concentrating and dispersing knowledge and change. Understanding emotion is more critical than ever to understanding the reality of implementation.

This lens could allow us to better anticipate local reactions to the next wave of standards-based reform, or whatever new education policy may be on the horizon. Measuring nostalgia could help us anticipate how states might react to new federal policy, how districts might react to new state policy, and how schools might react to new district policy. If we can better understand the nostalgia baked into a policy environment, we can better help policymakers understand how to build authority and lessen resistance to future reform.

[1] Quantitizing refers to the numerical translation, transformation, or conversion of qualitative data, and has become a staple of mixed methods research. Source