Thursday, 18 February 2010

A Silver Lining Amongst the Gloom

Gloom has descended upon university history departments throughout Britain. Cambridge’s history faculty has followed that of Oxford in freezing all new appointments, perhaps for years to come. One senior historian has described the position outside Oxbridge as ‘near catastrophic’. Much publicity has been given to the University of Sussex’s decision to drop research and research-led teaching in early modern history in what appears to be yet another step towards the dominance of modern history at the expense of earlier periods. King’s College London is to lose its chair in palaeography, an obscure discipline certainly, but one crucial to the production of scholarly editions of, for example, Anglo- Saxon literature. Mark Goldie, reader in British intellectual history at Cambridge, is surely right when he says that a ‘decent history syllabus cannot be so present-centred’.

Yet there may be some benefits to all of this in the long run, a concentration of minds. Clearly, given current economic conditions and the loss of £950 million from higher education budgets over the next three years, historians and their departments, like other academics, will be compelled to go in search of private endowments, as has been common in the United States for decades (with remarkable success) and to forge closer links with the public (something too many historians are still reluctant to do).

Commentators such as Simon Jenkins have even suggested that some universities should seize the opportunity to privatise and charge the market rate for their courses, enabling them to provide scholarships to those unable to afford the full fees. But would government be willing to cede control of educational institutions?

The options for university departments will become more apparent when Lord Browne of Madingley’s report on the funding of higher education is published later this year. Whatever the conclusions reached, it will be wise to recall the words of the Oxford historian and President of the Board of Education H.A.L. Fisher, written in 1919, but still relevant to the teaching of history, not least because they are so utterly at odds with the current mania for ‘relevance’ and ‘utility’:

‘The business of a university is not to equip students for professional posts, but to train them in disinterested intellectual habits, to give them a vision of what real learning is, to refine taste, to form judgement, to enlarge curiosity and to substitute for a low and material outlook on life a lofty view of its resources and demands.’

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