Cliopatria: A Group Blog
Aaron Bady (∞); Chris Bray (∞); Brett Holman (∞); Jonathan Jarrett (∞); Robert KC Johnson (∞); Rachel Leow (∞); Ralph E. Luker (∞); Scott McLemee (∞); Claire B. Potter (∞); Jonathan T. Reynolds (∞)
For the latest on the Irish Republican Army/Boston College oral history scandal, see: "Called to Account," Chris Bray, 26 February; Questions over exactly who made money from the book ‘Voices from the Grave'," RTE radio, 25 February; transcript, Boston College Subpeona News, 26 February; Travis Anderson, "2 at BC profited from book based on Troubles tapes," Boston Globe, 27 February; and Ed Moloney, "RTE Exposes Shenanigans And Falsehoods At Boston College," The Broken Elbow, 28 February.
Toby Wilkinson reviews Joyce Tyldesley's Tutankhamen's Curse: The developing history of an Egyptian king for the Guardian, 24 February.
Christopher Caldwell, "Bring Out the Spanish Tickler," Literary Review, February, reviews Cullen Murphy's God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World.
Richard S. Wortman, "Great Catherine's Many Dimensions," National Interest, 28 February, reviews Robert K. Massie's Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.
Kathryn Hughes reviews Peter Ackroyd's Wilkie Collins for the Guardian, 22 February.
Paul Bew, "One Day in Derry," Literary Review, February, reviews Douglas Murray's Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry.
Michael Korda, "Peter Caddick-Adams's Dual Biography of Rommel and Montgomery Is Doubly Good," Daily Beast, 28 February, reviews Caddick-Adams's Monty and Rommel -- Parallel Lives.
Joshua Yaffa, "The Indignity of Labor," The Book, 28 February, reviews Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky's Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir, trans. & ed. by Deborah Kaple.
Donald Rayfield, "Menace in Minsk," Literary Review, February, reviews Andrew Wilson's Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship.
Marc Parry, "A Digital Humanist Puts New Tools in the Hands of Scholars," CHE, 26 February, features GMU's Dan Cohen.
Michael Kazin, "Why Don't Liberals Write Big Books Any More?" TNR, 28 February, asks where are today's James Baldwins, Rachel Carsons, Michael Harringtons, and Jane Jacobses.
Edward Luttwak, "Homer, Inc.," LRB, 23 February, reviews Stephen Mitchell, trans., The Iliad by Homer.
Jonathan Lopez, "Bed, Bath, and Before," WSJ, 25 February, reviews Lucy Worsley's If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home.
Charles Nicholl, "Death in Florence," LRB, 23 February, explores a 15th century mystery.
Raymond Zhong, "The Emperor of Vanished Kingdoms," WSJ, 25 February, interviews Norman Davies, the author of Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations. Stephen Marche, "That Time We Beat the Americans," The Walrus, March, sees the War of 1812 as the defining moment for Canada.
John Stauffer, "Outlaws Together," WSJ, 24 February, reviews Sydney Nathans's To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker.
Robert Dorment, "Beautiful, Aesthetic, Erotic," NYRB, 23 February, reviews Fiona MacCarthy's The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, Allen Staley's The New Painting of the 1860s: Between the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement , John Christian's Edward Burne-Jones: The Hidden Humorist, "The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement in Britain, 1860–1900," an exhibit at San Francisco's Legion of Honor, and Lynn Federle Orr's and Stephen Calloway's The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement in Britain, 1860–1900. Michael Dirda reviews MacCarthy's Last Pre-Raphaelite for the Washington Post, 24 February.
Lara Feigel reviews Michael Hofmann, trans. & ed., Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, for the Guardian, 24 February. Caroline Moorhead, "The life of Irène Némirovsky, imagined by her daughter," TLS, 22 February, reviews Élisabeth Gille's The Mirador: Dreamed memories of Irène Némirovsky by her daughter, trans. by Marina Harss.
Michael J. Ybarra, "Help Came Over the Himalayas," WSJ, 25 February, reviews Gregory Crouch's China's Wings: War, Intrigue, Romance, and Adventure in the Middle Kingdom During the Golden Age of Flight.
Steve Fraser, "More Than Greed," Dissent, Winter, reviews Jeff Madrick's Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present. Gordon M. Goldstein reviews James G. Hershberg's Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam for the Washington Post, 24 February. Jack Shafer, "What made Deep Throat leak?" Reuters, 21 February, previews Max Holland's Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat.
Jonathan Yardley reviews Raymond Bonner's Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong for the Washington Post, 24 February.
Kelly Hignett hosts History Carnival CVII at The View East on Thursday 1 March. Send nominations of the best in February's history blogging to thevieweast*at*gmail*dot*com or use the form. David Silby hosts Military History Carnival XXX here at Cliopatria on Thursday 1 March. Use the form to submit nominations of the best in military history blogging since 1 December 2011.
James Polchin, "A Portrait of the Merchant as an Important Man," Smart Set, 21 February, reviews "The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini," an exhibit at Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Edward Rothstein, "Authors in Rooms of Their Own," NYT, 23 February, reviews "Shakespeare's Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700," an exhibit at Washington, DC's Folger Shakespeare Library. David Bromwich, "The Pox Beneath the Powder," NYRblog, 28 February, reviews "Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine," an exhibit at Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
David A. Bell, "Poker Lessons From Richelieu," Foreign Policy, March/April, reviews Jean-Vincent Blanchard's Eminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France. Lawrence Lipking, "Facts and Dreams," The Book, 23 February, reviews Frédérique Aït-Touati's Fictions of the Cosmos: Science and Literature in the Seventeenth Century, translated by Susan Emanuel.
Alan Taylor, "How the East Was Won," WSJ, 16 February, reviews Scott Weidensaul's The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America. Ari Kelman, "From Civil War to Civil Rights," TLS, reviews David Blight's American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights era, Gary W. Gallagher's The Union War, Stephanie McCurry's Confederate Reckoning: Power and politics in the Civil War South, and David Stoker's The Grand Design: Strategy and the US Civil War. Candice Millard, "Looking for a Fight A New History of the Philippine-American War," NYT, 17 February, reviews Gregg Jones's Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America's Imperial Dream.
Allan Massie, "Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggars Both," Standpoint, March, reviews Michael Hofmann, trans. & ed., Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters and Oliver Matuschek's Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig, trans. by Allan Blunden. Ron Rosenbaum, "Errol Morris: The Thinking Man's Detective," Smithsonian, March, sketches "America's most surprising and provocative public intellectual."
"A Most Welcome Development," Chris Bray, 21 February, and Ted Folkman, "Breaking: BC Appeals In The Belfast Project Case," Letters Blogatory, 21 February, have the latest on the legal issues in the Boston College/Irish Republican Army oral history controversy. See also: Peter Monaghan, "'Our Storehouse of Knowledge About Social Movements ... Is Going to Be Left Bare'," CHE, 19 February; and "Statement by the Council of the American Sociological Association on the Protection of Human Subjects from the Subpoena of Confidential Belfast Project Research Data," 21 February. Where is the AHA's statement?
Carnivalesque #82, an early modern edition of the festival, is up at M. H. Beals's Demography and the Imperial Public Sphere Before Victoria. Giants' Shoulders #44, a Grand Bazaar Edition of the history of science festival, is up at Thony C's Renaissance Mathematicus.
Thomas Wide reviews Kwasi Kwarteng's Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World for the Daily Beast, 16 February.
Roger Moorhouse, "Germania: Hitler's Dream Capital," History Today, March, considers Albert Speer's dystopic vision for Berlin.
Jonathan Yardley for the Washington Post, 17 February, and Gerard Baker for the WSJ, 18 February, review Jean Edward Smith's Eisenhower in War and Peace. Mitch Smith, "'Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement'," IHE, 22 February, interviews Randal Jelks about his new biography of Mays.
Timothy Noah, "The Two Americas," TNR, 20 February, reviews Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Matthew Iglesias, "Krugman vs. Brooks," Slate, 17 February, reviews other reviewers. Demetria Gallegos, "Charles Murray Answers Questions on America's Growing Class Divide," WSJ, 4 February, is a transcript of readers' questions to Murray and his replies. Jennifer Schuessler, "A Lightning Rod in the Storm Over America's Class Divide," NYT, 5 February, is a feature sketch of Murray.
Paula Findlen, "Galileo's Credo," Nation, 14 February, reviews John L. Heilbron's Galileo and David Wootton's Galileo: Watcher of the Skies.
Brian Vickers, "Ben Jonson, Britain's first literary celebrity?" TLS, 15 February, reviews Ian Donaldson's Ben Jonson: A Life.
John Barrell reviews Faramerz Dabhoiwala's The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution for the Guardian, 10 February.
David A. Bell reviews Piers Paul Read's The Dreyfus Affair: The Story of the Most Infamous Miscarriage of Justice in French History for the Guardian, 16 February.
Michael Dirda reviews Michael Hofmann, trans. & ed., Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters for the Washington Post, 15 February.
Ben Jacobs, "J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI's War on Americans' Civil Liberties," Daily Beast, 14 February, reviews Tim Weiner's Enemies: A History of the FBI.
Blake Morrison reviews Joanna Hodgkins's Amateurs In Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage: Nancy and Lawrence Durrell for the Guardian, 10 February.
Daisy Banks interviews "Antony Beevor on World War II," The Browser, 15 February, for his recommendation of five essential books on the subject.
James Romm, "The Greeks' Daring Experiment," WSJ, 11 February, reviews Christian Meier's A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece and the Origins of Europe.
Mike Dash, "The Monster of Glamis," Past Imperfect, 10 February, looks at the history of the castle's mystery.
Jeffrey Wasserstram, "The Battle for China's Soul," WSJ, 11 February, reviews Stephen Platt's Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War.
Timothy Messer-Kruse, "The 'Undue Weight' of Truth on Wikipedia," CHE, 12 February, reports his scholarship about Chicago's Haymarket riot took a beating on Wikipedia.
Giles Milton, "A Tale of Two Towers," Surviving History, 14 February, reports on Edward Watkin's Folly.
Henrik Bering, "A Penchant for Dreaming," WSJ, 11 February, reviews Fiona MacCarthy's The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination. Mark Kingwell, "Van Gogh vs. ‘truthiness'," Globe and Mail, 10 February, reviews Modris Eksteins's Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery, and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age.
David P. Goldman, "Fool's Gold," Tablet, 9 February, and Michiko Kakutani, "Historian Who Influences Both Obama and Romney," NYT, 13 February, review Robert Kagan's The World America Made. Kagan, "Why the World Needs America," WSJ, 11 February, is excerpted from the book. Jennifer Rubin, Right Turn, 14 February, interviews Kagan about the book. Daniel Drezner, Gideon Rachman, and Kagan, "The Rise or Fall of the American Empire," Foreign Policy, 14 February, is a roundtable about the book.
After the grinding pessimism of my previous post, I think it rather behoves me to also look at the question, what can we do, and specifically for this audience, what's the role of the historian in this? I'm much less certain I have any answers here, but I have some thoughts so I thought I would put them up to be shot at.
I suspect, myself, that the morally correct response for the committed democrat in a situation like this is to quit his or her job, whatever it may be, start and then manage and fund-raise for a new party eschewing the principles they'd actually like to see mattering in politics. It wouldn't work, probably, but it would be ethical, and I honestly think that's what I should do. But I really really don't want to, I want to pay someone else to run the country for me so I can get on with my research, which is what I'm actually passionate about. So hopefully there is a rôle for a historian in this, right?
There are some obvious reflections. History is about politics, as often as not, and ever more so since we have increasingly taken on board that the personal is political. Study after study reflects the influence of contemporary politics on historiography, such that an apolitical historian is likely a conformist one without realising.1 Even if consciously opposed, however, the publicly-funded historian is ethically crippled by the fact that they are paid by the people they critique. But sold out to the service of the ruling order, even history done properly, where no-one is a hero and the facts are always complex, has no friends in politics, for all the reasons of the previous post. As a result, history is never really used; it is misused. We at Cliopatria have increasingly seen this with the special, simple, versions of history in play among the Tea Party movement and, well, Sarah Palin's brain, and we could go on back to Hitler's primitive Germanism and the weird pseudo-Norse paganism of the SS, and British teleological `Whig' history, as well as more recently the nasty argument in UK medieval history circles about people who refer to the barbarians who supposedly caused the fall of Rome as `immigrants' or the less obvious one in US circles about the pejorative senses of the words `medieval' or `feudal'.2
These issues are live, and almost anything in the history we study bears on some similarly live issue, be it the place of women, religion or indeed education, the rights of man, the way power works. So if we consider our subject or our practice of it apolitical, we damn ourselves to irrelevance. But if we think we're relevant and politically engaged, then firstly we're probably doing bad history, and secondly we're probably selling something, and quite possibly to ourselves.
So, as yet, I haven't found a way out of this; as long as we make a living out of history it's predictable that we'll speak in protection of the order that permits us to do so, or to move back towards one that permitted it more, and of course what we are seeing with the politics, if I'm right in my suspicions in the previous post, is exactly the same self-serving instinct on the part of the politicians. Perhaps, then, the problem is in twenty-first-century Western man, and in that case, I think it might be fair to ask for help from the philosophers, for as long as they're allowed to continue! But meanwhile, given that we cannot suspend judgement as well as we think we can, we are either going to have to learn most of all to pitch that perfect balance between density and digestibility, or else accept our decreasing relevance, because it seems to me that good historians have no place in politics.
1. The most recent one of these I read was Catherine Hills, Origins of the English, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology (London 2003, repr. 2006), where the second chapter covers, for example, the way that UK archaeologists became much more ready to believe that Britons might have survived the Anglo-Saxon invasions, and that maybe those invasions weren't very large, after their country had faced off against Germany in two World Wars without getting invaded.
2. Beyond the links above I don't think the former of those has resulted as yet in publication anywhere, though Bryan Ward-Perkins, "The Decline and Fall Industry" in Standpoint (September 2009), http://standpointmag.co.uk/node/2038/full, is perhaps one of the starting points. On the latter question, however, there is the repetitive but important Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularism govern the politics of time (Philadelphia 2008).
Stacey Patton, "Historians Face New Pressures to Track Ph.D.'s," Thomas Bender, "What's Been Lost in History," and Leonard Cassuto, "Making a Public Ph.D.," CHE, 12 February, look at the prospect for change in graduate programs in history.
William Fitzgerald, "Gods, emperors and insects," TLS, 23 January, reviews Andrew Feldherr's Playing Gods: Ovid's "Metamorphoses" and the politics of fiction.
Miranda Seymour, "If It Pleases Her Majesty," NYT, 10 February, reviews Trea Martyn's Queen Elizabeth in the Garden: A Story of Love, Rivalry, and Spectacular Gardens.
Troy Patterson, "No Hetero," Slate, 9 February, reviews Hanne Blank's "chewy piece of scholarship" Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality.
Kevin Levin, "The Battlefield as Classroom," Opinionator, 12 February, discusses battlefield trips in teaching.
Michelle Goldberg, "Awakenings," Nation, 7 February, reviews Jean H. Baker's Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion.
Anthony Heilbut, "Joseph Roth's Letters Reveal a Great Forgotten Writer," Daily Beast, 10 February, reviews Michael Hofmann, trans. & ed., Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters.
Timothy R. Smith reviews Sally Denton's The Plots Against the President: FDR, A Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right.
John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, "J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Spy? No. But a Communist Once? Yes." Washington Decoded, 11 February, is the latest argument in a long debate.
Steven Levingston, "Sex and political polarization," Washington Post, 10 February, reviews Nancy L. Cohen's Delerium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America.
Andrew Hacker, "We're More Unequal Than You Think," NYRB, 23 February, reviews Richard Wilkinson's and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Robert H. Frank's The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, Thomas Byrne Edsall's The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics, and James Gilligan's Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others. See also: Alex Gourevitch and Aziz Rana, "America's Failed Promise of Equal Opportunity," Salon, 12 February.
Finally, Cliopatria sends condolences Robert and Robin Stacey of the University of Washington's history department. Their son, Marine Corps Sargent Will Stacey, was killed in Afghanistan on 31 January.
Michael Schapira interviews "Chris Lehmann," Full Stop, 7 February, about the peculiarity of studying history at Rochester with Christopher Lasch.
Vladimir Shiltsev, "Mikhail Lomonosov and the dawn of Russian science," Physics Today, February, features the Russian pioneer in physics, chemistry, and astronomy. Little known in the West, Lomonosov also wrote poetry and history.
Charles Rosen, "The Super Power of Franz Liszt," NYRB, 23 February, reviews Jonathan Kregor's Liszt as Transcriber.
Adam Kirsch, "The New World of William Carlos Williams," NYRB, 23 February, reviews Herbert Leibowitz's "Something Urgent I Have to Say to You": The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams, Wendell Berry's The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford, and Williams, By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish, 1916–1959. Lisa Levy, "A Peaceful, but Very Interesting Pursuit," The Rumpus, 31 January, reviews The Letters of T.S. Eliot, I, 1898-1922; II, 1923-5.
Toby Ash interviews "Wade Davis on Legacies of World War One," The Browser, 9 February, for his recommendation of five essential books on the subject.
Molly Worthen, "The Complicated History of Catholics, Protestants, and Contraceptives," Slate, 9 February, features historical background to yesterday's headlines.
Karen Abbott, "The Man Who Wouldn't Die," Past Imperfect, 7 February, recalls the repeated attempts to murder one of New York's homeless bums.
William H. McNeill, "The Doges of War," WSJ, 4 February, reviews Roger Crowley's City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas. Marina Warner, "Monsters, magic and miracles," TLS, 8 February, reviews Wes Williams's Monsters and Their Meanings in Early Modern Culture: Mighty magic.
Claire Harman, "What an amazing man!" TLS, 8 February, reviews Jenny Hartley, ed., The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens. Michael Levenson, "Read Dickens Now!" Slate, 7 February, reviews Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life; and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist. Catherine Peters, "Sparkler of Albion," Literary Digest, February, reviews other important additions to Dickens scholarship.
Dwight Garner, "A Chinese Civil War to Dwarf All Others," NYT, 6 February, reviews Stephen R. Platt's Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War.
Daniel Johnson, "Wandering Jew," Literary Digest, February, reviews Michael Hofmann, ed. & trans., Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters.
Mark Schmitt, "Ancient History," The Book, 9 February, reviews Geoffrey Kabaservice's Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party.
Dwight Garner, "Writers at the Ramparts in a Gay Revolution," NYT, 2 February, reviews Christopher Bram's Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America.
Tracy Lee Simmons reviews John M. Barry's Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty for the Washington Post, 3 February. Lucy Worsley, "First Stirrings," Financial Times, 3 February, reviews Faramerz Dabhoiwala's The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution. Frances Wilson, "Jokes of Old," Literary Review, February, reviews Simon Dickie's Cruelty & Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century. The new Common-Place is up. Its theme is "Scientific Americans" in the 18th & 19th centuries.
Joanna Scutts reviews John Matteson's The Lives of Margaret Fuller for the Washington Post, 3 February.
Pankaj Mishra, "Orwell's heir?" Prospect, 25 January, Neal Ascherson for the Guardian, 2 February, and Francis Fukuyama, "One Man's History," NYT, 3 February, review Tony Judt's Thinking the Twentieth Century. Adam Kirsch, "Half Human," The Book, 1 February, reviews Michael Hofmann, ed. & trans., Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters. Daisy Banks interviews "Paul Preston on the Spanish Civil War" for his recommendations of five essential books on the subject. John Spurling, "The Aftermath," The Book, 1 February, reviews Kwasi Kwarteng's Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacy in the Modern World.
Perry Anderson, "Sino-Americana," LRB, 9 February, reviews Ezra Vogel's Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, Henry Kissinger's On China, and Jay Taylor's The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China.
The infrequency with which I post at Cliopatria has a lot to do with my not really understanding what I have to say that might be of interest to its largely-silent audience, but I had at least hoped to keep that audience updated on the developments in the defunding of the humanities in UK universities. Unfortunately, since I last did that, there have been no changes worth reporting. The widespread student protesting, the Oxford vote of no confidence and similar actions elsewhere, the subsequent meetings of vice-chancellors with the UK Prime Minister David Cameron,1 all made no difference at all to the state of the government's policy, which remains to cut all support for teaching in the humanities and to hang much of what research is funded on its social impact. Admittedly, the terms in which `impact' has finally been defined could be liberally interpreted merely as, "having readers not at university", which we might all hope for, especially the bloggers, but the general odour of marketisation makes us view it with justifiable fear and suspicion anyway.
Instead, the academic community appears largely to have disappeared into navel-gazing (not least at Oxford, which has the signal problem of having taught much of the current government, so that their views of how much the humanities could be worth in their personal development must partly originate here) about our failure to combine and make a decent statement of the point of a university. There was a spirited conference in London in December, including a contribution by Keith Thomas that went into the London Review of Books and the Oxford Magazine, but it can justly be argued, and has been, that defences in terms of tradition and its values are never going to impress those who have already stepped away from those values as they were taught them.2 If times are held to be a-changing, arguments that nothing need change probably cut little ice.
All the same, it is rather embarrassing that our assembled philosophers, economists, lawyers and, yea, historians, can't get our heads together and come up with a working model for a practical and self-evidently worthwhile modern humanities education that doesn't date back to the circumstances of the 1850s.3 It's all the more embarrassing because the opposition to it is so illogical and incoherent. Vast schemes have been constructed by David Willets and his cronies to relieve the burden on the UK taxpayer of paying for all this damn education, and yet what has resulted from it is a scheme that will apparently cost the government more up front, and has even less chance of being eventually paid back than did the original Conservative student loans scheme, adjusted many times since its inception in 1991. This one, on the other hand, was being adjusted even before it was made law. We have all kinds of instructions about improving access, and yet the sector is being starved of money and penalised for charging fees at the same time as being required to. What is supposed to lead to a diversification of `the student experience' is in fact a force for its homogenisation as a market-led degree system competes in a system where increasingly, the only metric of success is salary-added, something that the situation of the wider economy hobbles before we can get started. If this is what we're up against, it's pretty shoddy that we can't offer something obviously better.4
More deeply than this, however, I have for some time been worrying about what on earth the government think they're doing. These are, by the metrics I'm pre-disposed to use at least—as in, the place where I teach at degree-level gave many of them degrees—not stupid men. (Though they are mostly men, plus ça change.) The flaws in their plans are obvious to anyone who does the maths or knows the history, and they should be able to see this, or have people handy who can; how can these things be missed? Can they really be this incompetent?
The trouble is, of course, the alternative, which is that there is a purpose. In my darker moments, when reflecting on the awful passivity of the British voter and the way in which probable criminals who ignore public expressions of opinion can be returned to office simply because there's no-one better, I have wondered if that state of quiescence isn't actually what the current ruling class in the UK want, the lack of protest that will allow them to feather their personal nests quickly enough to get out of office safely before the shell they've hollowed out in the public sphere collapses in their wake. I thought this was unduly cynical, however, until I came across this excellent piece by Alun Salt, entitled "The UK government's attack on the humanities is an attack on democratic accountability". Do read it, not just for the satire—Alun writes much better than I do—but for this, towards the end:
"Education has been reduced to a purely economic commodity, and so the mantra is that it must be economically justified. There is no recognition that an educated electorate is necessary for a functioning democracy. I benefit from large numbers of people being educated and able to spot when a policy is a fantasy, because it has consequences at the ballot box. This is a function of education that isn’t an economic asset because democracy isn’t inherently an economic asset. If it were inherently an asset then we wouldn’t be spending billions supporting dictators around the world, and overseas tycoons wouldn’t be spending large amounts of money on electoral campaigns to block equal access to the electorate. David Cameron is firmly establishing that education is not something he admires in an electorate, and that’s why it's necessary to tax it."
The alarming thing is that Alun originally wrote this in 2010, before all the pieces of the puzzle were in place. I increasingly begin to think that this is really the heart of it, though. The things we preach the humanities as providing, critical thinking, independence of mind, the ability to evaluate sources against each other, spotting precedent, not "believing rubbish": why on earth have we ever thought that these are things a government in power wants more of in its electorate? How could it possibly advantage them and make it easier for them to stay in power or profit from power? As for history, the benefits of a historical perspective in public policy are so bluntly obvious that the Onion has taken the chance to point them out to the US public:
"... one thing we can do, before making a choice that has permanent consequences for our entire civilization, is check real quick first to see if human beings have ever done anything like it previously, and see if it turned out to be a good idea or not."
But our policy-makers don't need or want to think about how things will turn out in the long-term. Even if they did want to be rewarded for doing good, they would need that benefit inside a five-year cycle, before re-election. (Perhaps it's no wonder they have made academia jump the same repetitive rope, they have been raised to think it natural and game it.) Education is a much more slow-burning gain than that, and if it is to be reflected in greater inventiveness, creativity, wealth, health and, not least folks, not least, HAPPINESS—that will all come round in two, maybe three, governments' time, or even more, when this lot will be well out of it, or at least I assume that they presume they will be. So they would see little gain from their good efforts.
But I don't even credit them with that much good intent; I see what is effectively, as Alun says, a sabotaging of democracy leading to a continuation of the political disengagement of the electorate and the persistent ignoring of popular calls to change that, even when those calls were met with manifesto pledges now long abandoned. And this is being done by intelligent, educated people. Can they all be incompetent? Oblivious? Unconcernedly amoral? Or is this actually a successful policy? I don't like any of the answers but only the last one seems sustainable as this situation rolls onwards. The current generation have worked out that they can get away with murder if people don't criticise on the basis of knowledge. The pacifying resignation of messages like, "things were ever thus", "there is nothing new under the sun", and so forth, legitimise them. If it's ineluctable, people, ya may as well elect it, amirite? So we can expect bad history, written quickly by people with only a casual acquaintance with the sources and debates, to be encouraged (especially since it may pay for itself via book sales) and good, critical, academic history, to be defunded, and voilà, so it is being. I'm afraid that it makes sense after all.
* The title comes from a song by Hawkwind, 'Coded Languages', whose words were written by Michael Moorcock; it first appeared on their album Sonic Attack (RCA 1981).
1. Though given the fact that the vice-chancellors have been essentially passive and assimilative about the whole thing, it's a pity we couldn't have got someone else sent instead, as the results were probably predictable as was.
2. Keith Thomas's "Universities under attack", in London Review of Books Vol. 33 no. 24 (London 2011), pp. 9-10, was reprinted in Oxford Magazine no. 320 (Oxford 2012), pp. 7-9, along with two other papers from the same conference, Rachel Malik, "Universities under attack: from within", ibid. pp. 3-5, and Peter Scott, "What kind of University?", ibid. pp. 5-7, the last of which is an absolutely excellently clear review of the situation, but cf. Martin Davies, "Quis custodiet...?", ibid. pp. 12-13, which points out the likely problems with idealistic approaches like Thomas's.
3. Many of the participants in the debate (if I can call such a one-way traffic a debate) have invoked John Henry Cardinal Newman's The Idea of a University, ed. G. N. Shuster (New York City 1959) or Frank M. Turner (London 1996) but originally given as lectures in 1852; Laurence Brockliss, "In Search of the New Newman", Oxford Magazine no. 319 (Oxford 2012), pp. 4-6, is most detailed. Cf. again however Davies, "Quis custodiet".
4. It might, of course, be that we don't like the likely costs of workable alternatives: David Palfreyman proposes some fairly dire but arguably coherent reforms to Oxford in a letter to the editor of the Oxford Magazine, no. 319, p. 22.