Tuesday, 16 February 2010

British historians in the US

A number of columnists [Simon Heffer in the Saturday Telegraph; William Rees-Mogg in yesterday’s Times] express bafflement at Sussex University’s decision to axe the teaching of British history pre-1700 and European history pre-1900. Only last month I was in conversation with Mark Kishlansky, Professor of History at Harvard University and an authority on early-modern Britain. We were discussing his former teacher David Underdown [Guardian obituary], one of the first British historians to pursue a distinguished career across the Atlantic. There are now many more of them, not least in Kishlansky’s own, world-class institution. ‘Your universities are just so damned good at creating top-class historians,’ Kishlansky said. ‘That’s why we like taking them.’ But for how much longer?

7 comments:

Simon said...

I am glad to see the respected magazine History Today take up this cause. Sussex's decision seems very short-sighted to me. It is likely to train shallow hitorians. I know of many First World War enthusiasts who believe that the horror of war begins in 1914. Why do they believe this? Because they haven't looked further back in history. They haven't realised that most of the major texts regulating behaviour in war were already present before the First World War in response to horrific Nineteenth Century battles like the Battle of Solferino which future generations of Sussex students will have no opportunity to study. Not to mention that the Reformation, the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the Unification of Germany (all things which are being cut at Sussex) were vital to the formation of Modern Europe. Ignore these and you lose the integrity of your degree. Hopefully History Today will join us in our campaign to stop this ridiculous folly from happening.

History Today magazine said...

History Today is committed to the long view. The further one goes back, the more one understands. For example, the current debate on climate change would be advanced considerably by a greater historical understanding of the vagaries of climate over the last few thousand years. And certainly Britain's current democratic crisis could be illuminated greatly by a more widespread understanding of the civil war and the Glorious Revolution and the political divisions and traditions born then.

Marisa said...

I find the proposed mutilation of the Sussex History degree disturbing in its implications for the future of history in this country. Speaking as someone who has taught aspects of early modern history for many years at university level, I have always found such subjects to be successful and popular options, well able to hold their own in a wide-ranging syllabus. Many students report that they find early modern history exciting and a breath of fresh air after their A level and GCSE experiences, which so often focus almost exclusively on a narrow range of options within the twentieth century. If even at university level now the teaching of British history before 1700 and European history before 1900 are deemed to be 'too difficult', and future students to be confined to the very recent past, then this will have a knock on effect. Many students with history degrees themselves become teachers. They cannot pass on to school children what they themselves do not know. If short-term decisions are taken about history degrees based on what is perceived to be 'popular' or 'easy', then for future generations the past may indeed become a foreign country.

Sean Lang said...

This decision reflects the widespread misconception that 'relevant' in history = 'recent'. This assumption displays ignorance not merely of history but of the operation of human affairs more generally. If the university authorities at Sussex believe, to take one example, that the current situation in Northern Ireland (which touched their town with such deadly effect in 1984) can be understood, still less resolved, without a secure grasp of events long before 1700, then they have some major surprises in store. This decision is not just short-sighted and crass: if it starts a trend, it is positively dangerous.

i.brooks said...

Marisa aptly paraphrases The Go-Between, but the idea of a curriculum from which all but recent history is excluded reminds me of a quotation from Howards End(in which Forster describes the dishonesty of a short-sighted materialist): "All was so solid and spruce that the past flew up out of sight like a spring-blind, leaving only the last five minutes unrolled." It's deplorable, not least because it will mean that the Civil War and Republic - a vital part of this country's long and honourable tradition of radical dissent - don't get taught.

malcolm crook said...

I am deeply unimpressed by the justification offered by Sussex University for the cruel cuts to be imposed upon History. The claim that earlier periods are not popular with students has not been supported with any evidence and is disputed by History colleagues at the institution. Ironically, alleged student preference at present will severely reduce student choice in future. The truncated programme does not make intellectual sense and will surely deter applicants from choosing Sussex.

malcolm crook said...

I am deeply unimpressed by the justification which has been offered for the cruel cuts to be imposed on History at Sussex. The earlier periods are said to be unpopular with students, though no evidence has been offered to this effect and the assertion has been contested by colleagues at the institution. Ironically, alleged student preference at present is being used to justify severely restricting student choice in future. The truncated curriculum does not make intellectual sense and is likely to deter applicants from choosing Sussex.

 
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