IN his recent autobiography, the historian Eric Hobsbawm observes that all history writing is partly about the present, using the past to understand how the present came about, and perhaps also to find signposts for the path we are now on. If that is true of history written by professional historians, it is even more true when it comes from sociologists, whom historians sometimes regard as plundering the past only to illuminate the present.
Whether that prevents sociologists writing proper history is for the historians to decide. But I have no doubt that fully understanding the present does require us to look to the past. Our preoccupations in Scottish education today have specific sources that are not the same as the origins of apparently similar concerns in other countries. To begin with, what has happened since the aftermath of the 1872 Act that first put Scottish schooling on a fully statutory basis?
The first point, most mundane but also most astonishing, is expansion.
Participation in secondary education rose fivefold in the 40 years between the eve of the First World War and the 1950s, and eightfold in the century as a whole. Higher education is now on the same trajectory, participation in it having grown fivefold in the past four decades. Moreover - despite claims to the contrary - access to school courses, to school examination passes and to higher education is now less, usually much less, socially unequal than ever before, whether in respect of class, gender, religion or ethnicity. We have come to accept that most people are capable of learning far more than tradition expected of them.
Expansion always raises questions about the kinds of institutions and educational experiences to which wider access is to be given. In all sectors, the variety of institutional types has progressively declined.
Before the First World War, there were five major kinds of post-elementary schooling - private, endowed, Higher class (some of the old burgh schools), Higher grade (the first significant attempt to extend secondary opportunities to a wider segment of the population), and two-year supplementary courses which were not at secondary level. Cutting across this was religious denomination.
By the end of the century, the variety had dwindled to two - high schools that were public or private - and the latter are now relatively much less extensive than the private and endowed schools of a century ago. Even the denominational influence is weaker than before the 1918 Act, which took most of the Catholic schools into the public sector in return for giving up most of the Church's influence.
To critics, this may seem like a loss of variety. But equally clear throughout the century has been the growth of individual attention to students. The dominant Scottish view came to be that educational democracy required people to have access to common institutions, because only through these could there be an appropriate sensitivity to individual differences.
Through the Higher grade schools (the predecessors of around a half of Scottish secondaries today) and later through the ending of selection after 1965, Scots sought to adapt to the modern age the legacy of accessible parish schools. But, in part because an accessible education could be felt to have such deep roots, the character of the learning to which a more democratic system was intended to give access was, at least until the 1980s, interpreted as quite traditional - general, academic, liberal.
Thus the main aim of primary schooling throughout the century was to socialise children into a morally respectable citizenship, despite the undoubted growth of individualism. The Scottish reforms of the 1960s never went so far as the most enthusiastic supporters of child-centredness would have wanted, or as its detractors later alleged (usually basing their rhetoric on no Scottish evidence whatsoever).
The courses built up in the slowly extending secondary sector - whether in the 1930s, the 1950s or the 1980s - ultimately were defined academically, and thus were shaped by another tradition which Scots tended to believe was invaluable - the putatively democratic university.
or most of the century, Scotland did not accept that academic education was undemo-cratic, and had little time for theories which claimed that academic knowledge was intrinsically a middle-class, white, male, English-language conspiracy against oppressed groups. It was wrong, most Scots gradually came to believe, to deny the majority access to academic study, but they drew from their traditions a belief that there was no reason, in principle, why broad, academic learning could not and should not be made available very widely indeed.
That brings us back to our present dilemmas. Academic courses are now widely deplored - by employers, by most of the submissions to the national debate and to the Scottish Parliament's inquiry, by a great deal of the officially offered case for Higher Still and for the current expansion of higher education, and by ostensibly radical educationists offering a particular interpretation of evidence mostly gathered from elsewhere.
Yet for at least nine-tenths of the period since 1872, Scottish expansion has been inspired by a belief that the only kind of democratic education worth striving for is one that tries, however imperfectly, to give universal access to intellectually demanding and somewhat conservative courses of general academic study. Has that tradition really ceased to offer us relevant guidance on where we are going?
Lindsay Paterson is professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University. This article draws on his recently published "Scottish Education in the Twentieth Century" (Edinburgh University Press, pound;16.99).