Tuesday, August 28, 2012
I came last year, when I'd just started at Leeds, and when I felt like I had no idea what I was doing in my new career. Now that I'm fairly confident I can fool some of the people all of the time, it's great to be back - to listen, to learn, to meet others involved in the trade.
The conference kicked off with a plenary session at which Mark Damazer, former head of Radio 4 and now Master of St Peter's Oxford, spoke. His main theme was the necessity for creativity in what we do, a creativity which can appear messy but which produces vital results.
However, during his address he said something which has been rattling around my mind all afternoon & through the evening. I've been listening to others, chatting with people, consuming wine & sociably munching nibbles - and this has been churning away within me.
Mark made a point about how the value of an academic subject was not simply economic. There is still a point to studying the purely esoteric - for example mediaeval history - even if it doesn't add to UK plc's bottom line.
His example is what has made my mind whir away all day.
My undergraduate college at Oxford was Merton. But for my mediaeval history, I was tutored at - you've guessed it - St Peter's. I'm pretty sure my old tutor Henry Mayr-Harting still haunts the corridors there.
And I would want to suggest in the strongest terms that mediaeval history - any history - is not an esoteric pleasure to be indulged in by academic Byronists, but is as necessary to the effective running of UK plc as any more obviously mechanical subject that one might care to mention. Listen, this is what happens when there is no history taught:
Someone makes it up.
Throughout history, tyrants in need of quick legitimacy have simply resorted to burning the past, sacking the history teachers, and employing new creatives to re-write something more palatable instead. Long dead Persians, popes and protestant Tudors, as well as proper evil men of the political left and right in the all too recent past - all of them knew that if no-one really knows what actually happened, propaganda wins.
Propaganda should never win. Historians are the awkward friends of freedom.
History is not an esoteric subject that is allowed to remain in the syllabus out of nostalgia; it is a social necessity. Unless freedom, perspective, honesty, understanding, morality, and careful restraint on those who would condemn us to cheap future slaveries are all things we hold lightly, things for which UK plc has now no nor ever will possess any need.
Memory, and the nuance it gives to society, has a very real economic value. And a very much greater societal worth. Without it, you might teach all the physics you like but the physicists with any creativity get locked up. You can teach all the maths you like - except you won't, for fear that someone will eventually realise that when the state teaches that 2+2=7, there is a basic logical flaw.
It's not Mark's argument with which I disagree. Good argument. Badly made. Mediaeval history - any history - is at the core of the wellbeing of a free state. Without it, the loudest voice gets to set the framework for all of our lives. With it, truth quietly wins.
That's not esoteric. It's essential.