Research in Comparative and International Education, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2006 doi: 10.2304/rcie.2006.1.1.2
The Theme of Educational Transfer in
Comparative Education: a view over time
Universidad de San Andrés, Argentina
ABSTRACT This article analyses notions of ‘transfer’ in the literature of comparative education,
searching for continuities and discontinuities in the way that the process of educational transfer has
been construed. The analysis shows that the theme of transfer has been fundamental in comparative
education from the early nineteenth century until the present day. Although some of the questions
addressed in the field since its origins are still crucial today, it is suggested in the final part of the study
that these problems should now be addressed in a world in which educational space has become more
complex, as supra-national and sub-national actors become increasingly important in the production
and reproduction of specialised knowledge about education.
In the field of comparative education ‘foreign influences’ have been studied through the notion of
‘educational transfer’. This has been a fundamental theme in comparative education, to the point
that Cowen (2002) identifies ‘transfer’ as one of the unit ideas of the field. Overall, the concept of
‘educational transfer’ can be defined as the movement of educational ideas, institutions or practices
across international borders. This article offers an analysis of the mainstream literature in
comparative education, identifying the key changes over time in the way in which processes of
educational transfer were understood.
It will be argued that some continuities can be traced in the way that the process of
educational transfer has been understood in the comparative education literature. Although
different scholars had different views about educational transfer, overall they followed an
interpretation of this process in which educational transfer was construed as responding to the
following pattern: (1) a local problem was identified; (2) solutions were sought in foreign
educational systems; and (3) a ‘tested’ institution or educational practice (that had worked or was
believed to have worked) was adapted to the new context and then implemented. These processes
occurred in a chronological order as described above.
Educational Transfer in the Literature of Comparative Education
Interpretations of the process of educational transfer can be traced back to the early nineteenth
century, when Jullien de Paris (1775-1848) started with efforts to create a ‘science’ of education.
Although the theme of transfer was mostly implicit in his writings, it was one of the major
concerns within Jullien’s work.
From Jullien’s point of view, education was an independent ‘aspect’ of social reality that could
be analysed separately from its socio-historical contexts. For example, when establishing his ‘series
of questions on comparative education’ (Fraser, 1964, p. 50), no explicit consideration was given to
the socio-historical context of education. Since education – in Jullien’s view – was independent
from its context, then educational ‘improvements [were] capable of being transported from one
country to another’ (Fraser, 1964, p. 37). Jullien saw educational transfer as a desirable process, and
this was the ultimate goal of his Plan. He believed that educational comparisons would ‘give birth
to the idea of borrowing from one another what ... is good and useful’ (Fraser, 1964, p. 46).
Educational Transfer in Comparative Education
Consequently, Jullien interpreted the ‘faithful imitations’ of the Ecole Polytechnique of Paris in Russia
and Austria, and the propagation of the English method of elementary teaching as being positive
signs (Fraser, 1964, p. 36).
Furthermore, Jullien thought that general educational principles could be deduced and
applied to improve education in most contexts (Fraser, 1964, p. 37). He saw the ‘regeneration and
perfection of public education’ as a ‘universal tendency towards a similar goal’ (Fraser, 1964, p. 36).
He believed that once a universal ideal of education was established from a series of ‘comparative
tables’, it was possible to use this model to ‘judge with ease’ the educational deficiencies of each
country, and then to deduce the improvements that could be transferred from other countries to
‘solve’ these deviations from the ideal model (Fraser, 1964, p. 37).
Finally, as has been mentioned, Jullien wished to create a science of (comparative) education.
The new science would have a practical aim: ‘to procure prompt and sure means for regenerating
and improving private and public education, in all conditions of society’ (Fraser, 1964, p. 37). The
science of education needed to be based on facts and observations that would permit the deduction
of ‘certain principles, determined rules, so that education might become almost nearly a positive
science’ (Fraser, 1964, p. 40). Thus, Jullien envisaged comparative education as a practical, positive
science. Jullien operated within the logic of the Enlightenment – in the sense of a ‘unitary idea of
history and of the subject’ (Lyotard, 1984, p. 72), and so did Victor Cousin some years later.
However, rather than trying to establish a set of general educational principles that could be
applied in most contexts to improve education – as in Jullien’s work – Cousin was concerned with
using foreign examples for the development and ‘improvement’ of the system of education in
France. In this, Cousin represented the spirit of his times more than Jullien (whose search for
general educational principles would only be resumed with the creation of international agencies).
The aim of improving national educational systems dominated comparative studies and
educational transfer during the nineteenth century, as exemplified by the works of administrators
such as Horace Mann, John Griscom and William T. Harris from the USA, Matthew Arnold and
J.P. Kay-Shuttleworth from England, and Leo N. Tolstoy from Russia, amongst many others (Noah
& Eckstein, 1969).
These men (sic) were in most cases appointed by their governments to develop their own
systems of education (Holmes, 1981). Following linear notions of progress, these travellers and
reformers believed in the evolution of educational systems. Thus, they believed that by borrowing
from abroad they could avoid some of the ‘mistakes’ made by other countries in their linear
progress towards an ideal educational system.
For example, after his tour through some selected European countries, Horace Mann, in his
Report to the Board of Education of the State of Massachusetts, noted:
if we are wise enough to learn from the experience of others, rather than await the infliction
consequent upon our own errors, we may yet escape ... those calamities under which some other
communities are now suffering. On the other hand, ... there are many things abroad which we,
at home, should do well to imitate; things, some of which are here, as yet, mere matters of
speculation and theory, but which, there have long been in operation, and are now producing a
harvest of rich and abundant blessings. (Cited in Noah & Eckstein, 1969, pp. 17-18)
The belief in the linear progress of educational systems was also clear in the work of French
statistician P.E. Levasseur. One of his contributions to comparative education in the 1880s
consisted of a series of comparative statistical tables which allowed him to rank countries according
to certain educational criteria (Noah & Eckstein, 1969). His conclusion was that although individual
countries had made ‘considerable advances’, the positions in the ranking had remained almost
unchanged during two decades: ‘it is certain that the Scandinavian states are at the head, that
Germany and Switzerland follow closely; and that the Low Countries, France and Belgium come in
third place’ (Levasseur, cited in Noah & Eckstein, 1969, p. 44). A similar analysis was offered by
Kay-Shuttleworth who, after taking charge of elementary education in England, travelled widely
throughout Europe and argued that, with the exception of England, Protestant countries were
more advanced in their provision of education than Catholic countries (Spolton, 1968).
Much of the work of these men was used in their own countries for educational reform.
Cousin’s Report on the State of Public Instruction in Prussia, for example, ended with a plea for
educational transfer to take place: ‘Such are the most general causes of the prosperity of primary
instruction in Prussia … May causes so simple and so prolific be speedily naturalized in our beloved
country, and bring forth the same fruits!’ (Cousin, 1836, p. 327). Consequently, the Guizot Law of
1833 that established the French system of primary education was based on Cousin’s work (Noah
& Eckstein, 1969). This report was also translated into English and became quite popular in the
USA and England (although its influence on actual developments in these places is not so clear)
(Noah & Eckstein, 1969; Holmes, 1981). Similarly, Mann’s Report cited above was very influential
in Massachusetts (Holmes, 1981).
However, nineteenth-century comparativists were not always in favour of educational
borrowing. Some negative aspects of foreign educational systems were also noted. For example,
Russian writer and educator Leo N. Tolstoy travelled to western Europe to study educational
institutions and their applicability in Russia. On his return to Russia in 1862 he asserted:
what historical right have we Russians to say that our schools for the people should be like
European schools, when we have none? Having studied the European history of education we
are convinced that we Russians cannot build up teachers’ seminars on a German model, or
transfer here German methods, the English Infant School, the French lycée ... and in this way
overtake Europe. (Tolstoy, cited in Hans, 1963, p. 92)
Nevertheless, a linear notion of progress is still present in Tolstoy’s conclusion: ‘In consequence
any imitation of European legislation on compulsory school attendance would be a step backwards
and not forwards’ (Tolstoy, cited in Hans, 1963, p. 93). Similarly, Francis Wayland, President of
Brown University in the USA who visited England at in the mid-nineteenth century, disapproved of
the imitation of the Oxford-Cambridge model by pointing out ‘how utterly unsuited to our
condition must be [these] institutions founded for the education of the medieval clergy’ (Noah &
Eckstein, 1969, p. 20).
Thus, the general idea of the feasibility of transfer was not denied. Rather, certain institutions
or practices were not considered to be worthy of transfer. Mann, for example, noted that in his visit
to Europe the learning had been twofold, ‘that of warning as well as that of example. Europe
exhibits beacons to terrify, as well as lights to guide’ (Mann, 1968, p. 168). He was very critical of
education in many countries of Europe (except Prussia), and took England as an example that
should not be imitated in the USA (Mann, 1968).
Furthermore, it was believed amongst nineteenth-century comparativists that the process of
selection also included the need to adapt what was being transferred to the new context. As noted
by A.D. Bache, who reported to the Trustees of Girard College for Orphans in 1839 after his visit to
Differences in political and social organization, in habits and manners, require corresponding
changes to adapt a system of education to the nation; and, without such modifications, success in
the institutions of one country is no guarantee for the same result in those of another. (Bache,
1968, p. 124)
Likewise, Mann noted that ‘if Prussia can pervert the benign influences of education to the support
of arbitrary power, we surely can employ them for the support and perpetuation of republican
institutions’ (Noah & Eckstein, 1969, p. 23). Cousin followed a similar position towards the need
The true greatness of a people does not consist in borrowing nothing from others, but in
borrowing everywhere what is good, and in perfecting whatever it appropriates.
I am as great enemy as anyone of artificial imitations; but ... With the promptitude and
justness of the French understanding, and the indestructible unity of our national character, we
may assimilate all that is good in other countries without fear of ceasing to be ourselves. (Cousin,
1836, p. 293)
In this way, institutions and pedagogic practices were seen as potentially neutral technologies that
could be used in different contexts with very different objectives and philosophies (Noah &
This view on the feasibility of transfer and on the practical aims of comparative education has
been followed by some authors since Jullien up to the present day, as represented by books such as
Trace’s What Ivan Knows that Johnny Doesn’t (1961), Rickover’s Swiss Schools and Ours: why theirs are
Educational Transfer in Comparative Education
better (1962), the United States Department of Education’s report on Japanese Education Today
(1987), and Stevenson and Stigler’s The Learning Gap: why our schools are failing and what we can learn
from Japanese and Chinese education (1993).
One of the most paradigmatic cases of the continuation of the kind of work carried out by
Cousin, Mann and others in the contemporary period was Chubb & Moe’s A Lesson in School Reform
from Great Britain (1992). Very much in the spirit of its predecessors, Chubb & Moe went to
England in an ‘effort to see what the British experience has to teach’ (Chubb & Moe, 1992, p. v).
After stating that the problems, the reforms and the conflicts of British and US education are
‘roughly the same’, the authors conclude with a statement that shows their implicit belief in the
linear progress of educational systems:
The only real difference is that Britain, owing to its parliamentary form of government, has been
able to move farther and faster towards a radical overhaul of its educational system – and is far
more likely to succeed. We can only hope it does, and that America can some day follow in
Britain’s footsteps. (Chubb & Moe, 1992, p. 50)
However, a different view to Julien’s appeared by the mid-nineteenth century with the work of
Russian scholar, K.D. Ushinsky. Like Cousin, Mann and others, Ushinsky studied the systems of
education of a number of European countries (which he also visited) and of the ‘North American
States’ (Piskunov & Dneprov, 1975, pp. 11-13). In 1857 he published an essay ‘On National
Character of Public Education’ (Ushinsky, 1975) in which he described in detail the different
‘national characters’ of education in Germany, England, France and the USA. One of the
propositions that he ‘set out to prove’ with his article was that: ‘Every nation has its own particular
national system of education; therefore, the borrowing by one nation of educational systems from
another is impossible’ (Ushinsky, 1975, p. 205).
Ushinsky also addressed explicitly the question of whether a universal model of education
But perhaps it is possible to put together a universal and perfect system by taking from each
national system of education whatever is worthy of imitation? Perhaps it is possible to borrow
from the Germans the richness of their scientific and philosophical development, from the
English the ability to forge the power of intellect and character, from the French their ability to
transmit technological knowledge ... and out of all the different facets of the same concept to
create a system of education which, achieving all these aims, would in its functioning attain the
highest ideal of human perfection? (Ushinsky, 1975, p. 186)
His answer was negative: ‘It is impossible to so isolate education that the life surrounding it on all
sides would have no influence upon it’ (Ushinsky, 1975, p. 187).
A similar position emerged in English-language comparative education with the work of
Michael Sadler, specifically, with Sadler’s famous lecture at the Guildford Educational Conference
in 1900 (Sadler, 1979a). In this conference Sadler explicitly addressed the issue of educational
transfer. The title of his lecture was: ‘How Far Can We Learn Anything of Practical Value Form
the Study of Foreign Systems of Education?’ And his answer was opposite to the answer that Jullien
had offered one century before.
Sadler’s view of the importance of context in the shaping of educational institutions and
practices was expressed in his definition of an educational system. He noted that educational
systems should not be seen as ‘nothing more or less than a system of schools’ (1979a, p. 49). When
studying foreign systems of education ‘we must not keep our eyes on the brick and mortar
institutions, nor on the teachers and pupils only’ (1979a, p. 49). On the contrary, the fundamental
task in studying foreign education was to understand what is the ‘intangible, impalpable, spiritual
force’ which upholds the school system (1979a, p. 49). For example, Sadler argued that Germany’s
great school system was upheld by the ‘national interest in education’ (1979a, p. 49), and that the
strong public interest in organised education in the USA resulted from the belief that by means of
‘schools alone’ all those ‘alien elements’ could be brought together (1979a, p. 49).
He stated that if socio-historical context was more important than actual educational
institutions and practices, particular parts of an educational system could not be successfully
transferred to a different context:
In studying foreign systems of Education we should not forget that the things outside the schools
matter even more than the things inside the schools, and govern and interpret the things inside.
We cannot wander at pleasure among the educational systems of the world, like a child strolling
through a garden, and pick off a flower from one bush and some leaves from another, and then
expect that if we stick what we have gathered into the soil at home, we shall have a living plant.
A national system of Education is a living thing, the outcome of forgotten struggles and
difficulties, and of ‘battles long ago’. (1979a, p. 49)
Thus, from Sadler’s point of view, successful educational transfer (in those terms) was not possible.
As he said when referring to the positive aspects that he saw in US education: ‘Imitate it in any
mechanical or literal way we cannot: profit by it we can’ (Sadler, 1979b, p. 53). For example, Sadler
referred in a positive tone to the foreign influences that English ‘thought and institutions’ had
received from Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and, especially, from France (Sadler, 1979c). Along
these lines he affirmed that ‘there are some points in foreign systems of education ... which, even if
they cannot be actually reproduced here, will at any rate suggest improvements in our own
practice’ (Sadler, 1979a, p. 50). However, for Sadler the most important benefit that could be
obtained from studying foreign systems of education was a better understanding of one’s own
educational system. He placed the possible suggestions that could result from studying foreign
systems of education on a lower plane of importance (Sadler, 1979a).
For Sadler, comparative education should not stress practical aims, rather, he suggested,
comparative education should seek to learn by understanding foreign systems of education. For
example, he proposed to send personnel of the English School Boards, principals and teachers on
study trips to Switzerland in order to stimulate the ‘public interest in the welfare of our own
schools’ (Sadler, 1979a, p. 50). Similarly, he suggested that more E ...
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