Tuesday, August 28, 2012

awkward friends

I'm here at the CASE2012 conference in Birmingham - a gathering of over a thousand people involved in fundraising in higher education and its related concerns.

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.


the_exile said...

Excellent point. I must confess that I had never thought about it that way so my education (esoteric or otherwise) is more complete now.

Here in the US, the rewriting of history both recent and more distant is in full flow in the run-up to the election. In such a polarised political environment this does nothing to sway anyone because everyone listens to the commentators that they agree with. The effect is rather to sustain and nourish the polarisation because everyone is left thinking worse and worse of those on the 'other side'. Sigh.

Matthew J Jones said...

I think you're right. I also think, possibly because I seem to interpret everything as concepts, one can (and should) take the argument further. History is important because it gives a sense of collective identity, who were are as a people, which I think you touched upon ("Long-dead Persians...no one wins.") By knowing and defending what truly happened, freedom is preserved and the history cannot be hijacked by tyrants looking to legitimise their own position.

I would like to argue from the same point that history gives us a collective identity, but take it in a different direction. I want to say all knowledge from whatever discipline must be interpreted historically, because without an historical context, the argument of the original source is distorted. When that distorted argument is taught, the collective identity of those receiving it is distorted too.

I'll use an example. During my MA, I had to take a module with philosophy students (nasty in itself!). You could tell who was an historian and who was a philosopher from their arguments. The philosophers had no idea why the texts we were studying had been written. Not a clue. They were simply ignorant of the historical context. If I were a studying John Milton's political philosophy without an understanding of the nation state, Puritan culture, the civil war, etc. I would still be able to argue Milton was a republican, a poet and didn't like episcopal polity, but I wouldn't be able to say why. I would be able to argue that Milton didn't like tyrants or kings and the people had a right to depose them (See The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates), but I wouldn't know the reason why he thought this. I would know he was an advocate of divorce on the grounds of mutual incompatibility (See The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce), but I would assume he thought this because he was a liberal republican. Rights are what liberal republicans are concerned with.

No. Sadly, that's wrong. Milton was a liberal republican (liberal by the standards of his contemporaries), but that's not what formed his views. Ideas cannot spontaneously arise out of a vacuum. There needs to be a context. The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates was written two weeks after King Charles I's execution, in order to justify the regicide to the Presbyterian party, who thought the Rump and tribunal had gone too far. That's why Presbyterian, Calvinist and Scottish sources are used in the text and the Calvinist understanding of the right to resist is subverted. That's why he is so concerned with deposing tyrants. The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce was published a year after Milton's wife left him. The link is so obvious it doesn't need an explanation.

Every philosophy student in that room ignorant of those facts, giving them an inaccurate understanding of the argument. How that is possible at MA level, I don't know. The only way to prevent this distortion is an awareness of the context. Oh my goodness, I'm going to need a bigger soap box.

KWRegan said...

In case you've heard of the lamentable affair over the peremptory sacking and then re-hiring of the University of Virginia president, the departments bandied about as "economically inutile" and "not profitable" which some wanted to close were Classics and German!

I replied to a few that in Oxford, Classics was the classic "captains of industry" subject, even shouldering PPE.

You could also note that medieval history (economic, Far East) was Prince Hiro's subject.