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Sunday, 26 June 2011

David Mitchell, We Salute You (not for the first time)

Here is a wonderful piece by David Mitchell which critiques in actually quite even-handed way government policy towards the public sector and education since, oh, at a rough guess, about 1979.  Please read.

I especially liked these bits:
Those are the sort of questions that Carl Lygo, the chief executive of BPP, Britain's only run-for-profit university, must have to bite his tongue to stop himself asking when talking to other educators. And he has been talking to them: he's been discussing the possibility of running the business side of at least 10 publicly funded universities, going into "partnership" with them. They'd still make all the academic decisions, while BPP would deal with the admin. But isn't this an uneven partnership? It lacks a shared aim. One half wants to run a good university, the other wants to make money. If a marriage is a partnership, isn't this like getting hitched to a hooker?

 [...] Lygo [...] says: "We have got a lot of universities in the UK and not all are in a strong financial position… the private provider would add expertise in the back-office functions." What expertise? Expertise in administering, say, Bristol University that the people currently administering Bristol University don't possess but a new company that's never done it before is going to be brimming with? Won't they just employ the same people to do the job but pay them less or sack a few? Is that what he means by expertise?

The private sector caused the credit crunch, the financial crisis, the global recession. The public sector bailed out the banks and brought the world back from the brink of ruin. When our railways were in public hands, they were shabby, unreliable and loss-making. In private hands, they still are but public money ends up in the hands of shareholders and the tickets cost vastly more. The NHS is the most efficient health service of its peers despite having, up till now, much less private sector involvement than they do. The armed forces remain in the public sector and people seldom have cause to criticise their efficiency or commitment.

Just one thing (as the late Peter Falk might have said) ... Why do universities need to reform themselves?  I thought we were doing a rather good job in very trying circumstances. 

Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Unbearable Weight… More Clarifications and Explanations

Thanks for the comments posted so far, and made in conversation, which have been most useful.  They have, not least, made me realise that I launched you, dear reader, somewhat into the middle of the quagmire that is my thinking on this and then finished the post a bit prematurely.  So, a few words of clarification in advance, I hope, of something more considered.

1: I’m not making a specific claim for history, against all other disciplines.  I imagine that what I am saying would apply equally to all the humanities at least, and I wouldn’t like to say that it didn’t apply to sciences too.  If I followed the argument through, though, I would argue that history has a value for society that is different (not better or – necessarily – worse) from that of the other humanities.  The line of thought I am milling about amidst here is in some ways a separate matter but it does lead into it.  So, first, let me clarify that I’m most certainly not claiming that history is somehow a more humane and ethical discipline than any other.  What – at least in its inchoate form – my thinking leads on to is simply that there is a way in which the subject matter and the ways in which one approaches it have a direct link to that ethical demand which is – perhaps – more visible and direct (not more real) in the humanities than in some other areas of intellectual endeavour.  So really the argument is pursued through a consideration of historical methodology.  I am a staunch defender of methodology, unfashionable though that, as ever, makes me!
2: By way of background.  I came to this via reading Richard Evans’ In Defence of History and its (to my mind) somewhat muddled defence of truth.  Let me say first that I don’t think Evans’ argument was wrong as much as I think it was the wrong argument.  Indeed I think that the so-called Truth Wars of the ‘90s generally involved people wilfully speaking past each other.  In Evans’ work the argument descended into a defence of history being about simple factual accuracy.  Fine; if you are fundamentally concerned with the fight against Holocaust deniers then that is important.  There were two problems, one lesser and one greater.  The lesser is that the targets of his work, the post-structuralist philosophers like Derrida and co., whom the footnotes to In Defence of History suggest that Evans has only read at second hand (therein would lie something of an aporia within the work, but let’s leave that to one side) do not actually allow any statement about the past to stand as being as valid as anyone else’s.  Now, there are some writers about History (Keith Jenkins and his gang) who have traduced the post-structuralists as saying that, but they are wrong. The fact that Jenkins and his followers are not very good historians, or indeed historians of any sort, is, as Evans rightly says, not really a problem.  The problem (as I see it) is that they aren’t very good philosophers.  I’m not a very good philosopher either, but then unlike them I don’t pretend to be a philosopher.  Anyway, the end result of the way they have misrepresented continental philosophy as saying that anyone’s reading is as good as anyone else’s is that it has come to form the mainstream historian’s (mistaken) idea of what ‘post-modernism’ is.  That’s the lesser of the two problems.
The greater problem is that history isn’t just about truth and falsehood, what really happened and what really didn’t.  What professional historian would nowadays really claim that the discipline solely concerned the compilation of accurate descriptions of past events?  That is simply chronicling – shelf upon shelf of ‘history’ books in the high-street bookshops show that you don’t need professional historians to produce that, and indeed that non-professional historians often do it better.  But while it may be the inescapable first step of history (‘accuracy is a duty, not a virtue’, as I believe David Knowles said) history is surely about explaining and understanding – and on that front the high-street bookshops’ history sections have very little of any quality that isn’t by a proper, trained professional historian.  And that is where the issue of ‘truth’ becomes much more intractable, and where it is decidable with much more difficulty.  In that sphere, the challenges of the post-structuralists to truth-claims are more real.  It might be that these philosophers would take a position that traditional positions don’t allow you to decide whose is the correct interpretation of what – say – the Holocaust actually meant – wie es eigentlich gewesen (in Evans’ own understanding of that phrase).  They never said there were no means of deciding whether one reading wasn’t better than another. Certainly, as far as I am aware, Derrida never said as much.
And therein lies the problem that set me off on these lines of thinking.  What if you have a historian who writes not that the holocaust didn’t happen, but that it was ‘A Good Thing’?  How does the profession deal with that - assuming that the historian in question was careful not to write in a way that fell foul of ‘incitement to hate’ legislation?  Let’s assume that the historian said something like the persecution of the Jews was a rational and logical (if regrettable) response to a particular situation by a strong government that (and let’s just for the sake of argument say that this is correct) produced valuable social cohesion after the turmoil of Weimar.  What then?  Short of stifling his career through the simple employment of influence and professional standing (in which case the Jenkins argument that historical ‘truth’ was just a matter of crude power would be right), what could you do?  The task I set myself – and which I am trying out – is to suggest that, within the historical project, there is an ethical demand that any such conclusion – consigning the Jews to the gas-chambers in the name of a ‘greater good’, strong government, stability, whatever* – would flatly contradict.  And because of that contradiction we could say that this had fundamental flaws within its own argument and was therefore ‘Bad History’.
What I want to do is to keep the humanity in the Humanities. (In contrast to A.C. Grayling and the rest of N-Chumz, ‘the people who took the humanity out of The Humanities’).  Today seems a good day to write this, as the Paris Pride march goes down the Boulevard Saint-Michel, where I'm writing this...
3. Finally, there was a bit of a jump – I appreciate – between the discussion of Camus and Critchley and that of the ‘aesthetic moment’ in history.  I should clarify – because this was lazy thinking by me, or lazy expression at any rate – that the feeling of interest in history – the calling to history – is not necessarily a call to political action in just the same way as the moments of ethical demand discussed by Camus and Critchley.  Not just the same anyway.  But I would want to argue that it is in important regards analogous and can lead perfectly correctly to a desire to act and to ethical commitment in the present.  It certainly ought to lead one to support such commitment and action.

I hope this makes things a tad clearer.
* Or, and let me make this clear, happily slaughtering Kulaks or whoever in the name of Communism.  I have taken the Third Reich and the Holocaust because it does always seem to be the limit case that everyone discusses, but the same applies to any historical discussion of massacre and inhumanity.  That would be another component of my argument.  It’s not only opposed to right-wing political violence.  This is why I can only really take Critchley’s side rather than Žižek and Badiou’s, which is consciously inhuman.  This latter worries me about the trend towards the ‘post-human’.

Hats off to...

... Professors Mark Humphries and Ian Wood, representing late antique and early medieval history on the list of threatened resignations from the AHRC college of reviewers - and indeed thereby representing this field more strongly than any other area of history.  Also to medieval (including early medieval) archaeologist (and former student of the late Philip Rahtz) professor Grenville Astill.

There are very interesting clusters of specialist areas on the list, which can be found here: notably Philosophy, perhaps unsurprisingly given philosophers have been at the forefront of this campaign, but also German Studies and the University of Sheffield (especially archaeology).  Chapeau.

Also noticeable is a general absence of historians, especially modern historians.  For shame.  One could wonder whether this might result from an absence of leadership.  On the other hand, given that yesterday's Higher reported (pp.8-9) a professor of history from that bastion of historical endeavour, Imperial College*, saying that the invocation of the Haldane principle was preventing a 'grown up discussion'** of government involvement in research, maybe this is not too surprising.

I am disappointed.

* Actually, ICL came out top in History in the last RAE, perhaps because it has only 4 historians with, presumably, little or no teaching to do.  Still, fair's fair.  They are all clearly very good at what they do (history of science and technology).

** By analogy with usual usage, particularly in discussions of immigration, the phrase 'a grown up discussion' tends to mean an abandonment of any ethical principles (childish and unrealistic, you see) in the interests of crude self interest.

Friday, 24 June 2011

A Clarification for the Hard of Thinking

Since I have received some personal abuse based on the post below, might I make the following points clear (I shouldn't have to, I know, but evidently people can't be bothered to read the post properly, or at all):
1: The title is a (crap, admittedly) play on the title of Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
And therefore,
2: It is not claiming that academic historians 'have a hard life'; it is about, well, what it talks about - the difficulty of living up to the ethical standards you (implicitly) set yourself by being an historian.

Thank you for your attention, but - really - if you can't grasp that from the post below then there are plenty of blogs about bringing up kittens, or liking looking at trees, or the joys of wearing a hat, or - oh, I don't know - living in fucking Kentucky and being addicted to cheese: basically any number of things that might be further up your street.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Unbearable Weight of Being a Historian

[This is a rough attempt to sketch out an argument about the ethics of history.  It takes its starting point from the work of Albert Camus and then Simon Critchley to argue that there is an ethical demand in the moment where we decide to study the past - where, in other words, we allow the people of the past to speak to us - which is universal in its implications.  Here I am just talking about history in a very limited sense.  I hope to develop the ethical, political and historical implications of these thoughts further at a later date.]

Let me try out a preliminary sketch of a first draft of a vague idea of something that might eventually take concrete form.  As you know, I’m not a philosopher but I do find philosophy very interesting, particularly in its ‘Continental’ form.  Indeed, most of the time I find it considerably more interesting than history, at least as usually practised (by me at any rate)...  I consider ‘continental’ philosophy to be a natural ally of historical enquiry, especially in a politically engaged way. This makes me sad that so many historians, medieval historians particularly, are so frightened of (especially post-structuralist) continental philosophy that they will adopt just about any alternative, any number of self-contradictions, in order to avoid giving either of the dreaded Jacques (Derrida and Lacan) any air time.  It makes me sad that they seem to think that they are more in harmony with the ‘analytic’ tradition in philosophy, which really has very little to say to history at a fundamental level.  Unless, that is, you think that history is first and foremost about deciding what is or is not ‘meaningful’ or logically ‘true’, or engaging in what are, at base, little more than highly intellectual, abstruse parlour games, such as whether it is logically possible to have two omnipotent beings.  Actually, on reflection, maybe it is the natural ally of most historical practice…
Or not…
Albert Camus: pioneer of the
open-plan office
As is my pretentious wont, I am re-reading Camus’ L’Homme Révolté.  Currently I’d have it as my ‘Desert Island Discs’ book, instead of The Bible (as an aside, Muslims get the Qur’an on Desert Island Discs, so why do atheists still get lumbered with The Bible?); it will certainly be the core text (in the abridged English version) when I start teaching my course on ‘Terror’ on my return from the joys of research leave.  Anyhow, the point I am waffling my way towards concerns the recognition of a universal in the specific case.  Camus’ argument is that revolt, even when provoked by a very specific, personalised affront (the slave whipped once too often), even when the immediate statement made by the revolt – I’ve put up with this for so long but no further – concerns a very specific personal event or history, rapidly comes to concern a general principle: you don’t have the right to do this to me, because (and therefore) people don’t have the right to do this to other people.  But, says Camus, you don’t have to be the victim of such an infraction of the acceptable to revolt against it; you can observe it and see that it is wrong, and therefore in revolting against it you declare it to be an example of a general wrong.
This is a version of a particular strand of thought about ethics that (as far as I know) goes back at least to Kant.  It is also a good example of how ethics lie, to a certain extent at least, outside reason (as has been argued by Raymond Geuss).  Put another way, what provokes a reaction to something as ‘wrong’ is not the application of reason, whether in terms of calculations of the greater public good, or the pondering of a code of do’s and don’ts, or the striving towards virtue.  All of these things might be deployed after the event to explain or justify but the moment of revolt comes before any of that; it precedes reason.  Insofar as I understand it, it is on this sort of basis that Levinas argued that the ‘other’ precedes the self; the calling to the support of another person precedes the consciousness of oneself as an agent or the calculation of any personal benefit or loss.  At least that would be how I would make sense of it.  In that ‘non-reasonable’ demand there is space for the calling of god, or an appeal to a basic human nature, if you are so inclined, but neither is necessary to the argument.
Simon Critchley (left: currently my favourite British philosopher) brings many of these strands (and others, including Lacanian thought) together in his book Infinitely Demanding (which I thoroughly recommend) around the relationship between the demand (to ‘do the right thing’) and the acceptance of that demand, the undertaking to bear that burden.
The point that the acceptance that an individual case of a wrong should be put right implies the acceptance of the fact that that ‘wrong’ should be ‘righted’ universally is what makes life ethically difficult. It is the ‘infinite demand’ of which Critchley speaks and how one deals with that burden is the problem.  Critchley says that the options have thus far tended to resolve themselves out into a number of, to him (and me), unacceptable positions: the adherence to a religious fundamentalism and the eternal wait for a divine solution, or its secular equivalent in the sort of nihilism summed up in the phrase ‘everything’s shit and it always has been so there’s no point doing anything’ (which phrase pretty much encompasses John Gray’s life’s work), and which might otherwise find outlet in the sort of nihilism manifested in Islamic extremism and suicide bombing.  So, the way to cope with the infinite demand of an ethics of political commitment is not to constantly flay yourself with a critical super-ego – which would rapidly become intolerable – but actually to find a friend in your super-ego by standing outside things and making use of humour (‘why the super-ego is your amigo’).  You’ll never manage to bear the infinite burden but you can encourage yourself to keep trying by laughing at the hopelessness of it. 
I hope that does not mangle the argument too severely but, whether or not it does, you can see why I like Critchley!  You can also, perhaps, see where the points of contact are with Camus.  There isn’t much laughter in such of Camus’ oeuvre as I have read, I admit, but his discussion of the philosophy of the absurd brings the two thinkers closer together, I think.  Camus’ view was that the only answer to the absurdity of existence was to keep living, as much as possible, and, since the acceptance of the individual fact that you (personally) were better off alive than dead meant that you accepted that (generally) everyone was better off alive than dead, murder in a political cause could never be acceptable.  The only way round that was if, by accepting that murder was wrong, the assassin expunged his guilt for his particular action, even though it was demanded by the wrongs and injustices of political circumstance, by going happily to the gallows (hence the English title, The Fastidious Assassins).  This brings Camus close to Critchley’s stance on political violence in Infinitely Demanding, which, between it and Camus’ work, sums up my own view.(1)  Another medievalist blogger has recently proclaimed (with reference to my own work, indeed) that ‘we are all anti-Kantians’: this is lazy thinking.  We aren’t, or at least we don’t have to be.
If you’ve stayed with me thus far, you might well be thinking ‘well that’s all very well but what has it to do with the practice of history?’  As I see it this line of thinking is very germane to the study of history in a number of ways that allow us to isolate the implicit ethical demands of the historical enterprise.  That in turn permits, I would argue, a means of identifying what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ history on ethical terms.
My argument turns on this.  What calls us to study history?  I think that most if not all historians would be hard pressed to explain their interest fundamentally in ‘reasonable’ terms – of the value of an historical education, to oneself or society.  It is why one can never convince anyone who isn’t fundamentally interested in history that they should be interested in it on those grounds alone (I tried this, in a way, at a party, recently, and was roundly and personally insulted as a result – probably I should laugh at this but at the moment I’m not doing well on that front!).  You can only bring someone in to history if you manage to provide something that ‘sparks’ them, too.  So, that – as I term it – ‘aesthetic’ moment, when an ‘interest’ is sparked, precedes reason.  What that ‘something’ is, I contend, like the ethical appeal in – say – helping an old lady up the stairs with her shopping, related fundamentally to an awareness of a shared humanity: an interest in other people (and that word ‘people’ is crucial).  Now it might, for all I know, be true that some historians study, say, hats because they are interested in hats and not in people but in a way that wouldn’t affect my argument, if only because it’d just be, as I see it, representative of fundamentally analogous psychological processes (even if ones perhaps less generally regarded as signifying rude mental health). But they'd be in a minority anyway.  If you accept that call or appeal to go and study history, I would argue that you accept the principle that all human beings, and their lives and experiences, are intrinsically interesting and thus worthy of study. 
Now, this is a difficult burden to bear because (as indeed I admitted myself at the start) not all history is of interest to all of us.  I, for example, could happily spend my life without hearing another word about the parliamentary history of Disraeli or Gladstone.  The point about accepting the call to be a historian, though, is that we have to accept that those bits of history that we don’t work on are essentially as valuable and important as the bits we do study; I have to admit that there is potentially just as much value in the study of Disraeli and Gladstone as there is in the transformation of western Europe between c.560 and c.650 and that, if I can’t see that, that’s my fault and, if I cannot find it interesting, that is my problem.  Turned the other way round, if you try and argue that these periods and places or themes of history are worthwhile and important but those aren’t then you are, by implication, saying that some people’s lives, thoughts and experiences are more important than others.  That, I think, contradicts the implications of the calling you chose to accept, and the burden you thereby accepted, by becoming a historian in the first place.  These attitudes may be ‘only human’ but then to err is human and these are errors.  The point about the unbearable burden of being a historian is precisely that: it’s unbearable.  No one said it was going to be easy!
If you try and argue that these periods and places or themes of history are worthwhile and important but those aren’t then you are also, by implication, placing yourself and your agendas in the determining role in deciding who is more important than whom.  You could, I suppose, say that since you chose to study the people you study (and not others) and that their experience (and not others’) called you to study them, the implication of that was that that pre-rational calling had no more general implication about other human beings.  That, perhaps, is the weak point in my line of argument – that the universal demand is implicit in the particular.  It certainly requires a slightly different response.  I think that such a response would have to be along the lines of good historical practice.  For one thing, in examining historical evidence, pretty much all schools of thought are in agreement that one allows the documents to speak for themselves, in the first instance at least; that, in good historical practice, one tries to account for all the evidence available and that one’s argument will be shaped according to the evidence rather than vice versa.  What this implies is that actually you do subordinate your interests, in the first instance, to what the inhabitants of the past want to tell you.  But then, of course, you scrutinise what they are telling you; there is nothing in the historical calling, after all, that demands that you to agree with the position taken or the attitudes manifested in your sources (the contrary would require all historians of the Nazis to be actual Nazis, all historians of Stalin to be actual Stalinists and all historians of the Visigoths to be – well – Visigoths, I suppose…).  What is more, one would expect the same standards of good history, regardless of the period, place or theme under study. In these expectations about good historical practice, I contend, the argument against a universal historical demand being implicit in the specific, ‘aesthetic’ moment is crucially undermined.  One accepts that one’s objects of study are due the same respect, but (also) only the same respect, as any other historian’s object of study.  Furthermore, one puts oneself second; you allow the documents (the past if you like) to speak first:  ‘After you!’  This admits of a certain inability to be in a position to judge a priori who is more important than whom.
Moreover, and (you will be glad to hear) finally, I think that the demands of good practice apply – because they too are universal rather than specific – to the historian herself.  One expects to be listened to with respect, but also scrutinised carefully.  You cannot expect to be accorded more rights by the people who read your words than you are prepared to accord to the people whose words you read.  All this means, too, that you must be prepared to be shown that you are wrong, where you are, and to moderate your opinions where necessary.  I have said this before.  The demands placed on the historian – and they are ethical demands – are difficult if not impossible to bear.  We all make mistakes - some honest mistakes, some not - and we have to submit ourselves to the same law.  But the burden of the historian and the penalties for our mistakes when it gets too heavy, are or ought to be made more bearable through standing outside ourselves and our studies with humour.
If you have got this far, thank you for bearing with me.  There are many other dimensions to this argument and especially about what the impossible demands on the historian are in terms of politics and ethics in modern life.  But I will leave this here for now.  There are doubtless millions of holes, inconsistencies and flaws in the argument above, but I am interested to hear responses because this is a subject, and a line of argument that matters a great deal to me.

1: There has been subsequent debate between Slavoj Zizek and Simon Critchley about the position taken by Critchley in Infinitely Demanding, with regard to political violence, but I've not really familiarised myself with it.  Suffice it to say for now, that I am much more on Critchley's (non-violent resistance) side than on that of Zizek and Badiou, which seems to me to be quite inhuman and actually a little ridiculous.

AHRC and the Big Society: An appeal for a big push

You might have been following my intermittent reports on the campaign to get the AHRC to drop its repeated mention of 'The Big Society' (a vacuous notion dreamt up by David Cameron as a smoke screen for the Tories' final assault on the 1945 settlement).  If not, you can find them via the blogging labels 'AHRC' and 'The Big Society'. The real bottom-line, though, is not party-political, as has been made clear from the start.  The same problems would have attended the AHRC's adoption of 'The Third Way' or any of New Labour's equally vapid slogans. 

To recap: initially, this blew up as a result of a claim in an article in The Observer that the AHRC had been forced by government to accede to prioritising research on the Big Society in return for a certain exemption from The Cuts.  Prominent historians, notably professor Peter Mandler (Cambridge) and Colin Jones, the president of the RHS, weighed in against this.  The AHRC issued a fairly unconvincing and grammatically dubious 'refutation' (sic) of this claim, whereupon the suspicion emerged pretty quickly (largely on the basis of the AHRC's own statements) that what had actually happened was that the AHRC had shifted and renamed its priorities to include The Big Society itself, presumably to make itself less susceptible to the cuts.  Which of these versions of events is the accurate one has not, to my knowledge, ever been definitively established.

Be that as it may, the phrase 'The Big Society' remains in the AHRC's delivery plan, producing a petition with thousands of signatures, and an open letter supported by over 30 learned societies (not, at that point at least, including the Royal Historical Society).  I have not been able to find out whether the RHS' stance has changed.  A current statement by the Society simply says it maintains a 'watching brief', by which phrase I understand 'sitting on the fence until it is clear which way it ought to jump 'for the good of history': a prize example, if true, if the dynamics of HE politics, as I have discussed before.  Never mind.  Whatever the RHS' position, Peter Mandler, to his credit, has continued to snap around Rick Rylance's (the Head of the AHRC) heels, like a little cultural historical terrier, and Rylance and the head of the BA have not managed to issue any sort of convincing response, either to that or to the campaign mentioned above, spearheaded by philosophers James Ladyman and Thom Brooks.

To me, it seemed that by sitting tight, Rylance was going to weather this storm.  However, the tempo has changed, with Labour's shadow education minister, Gareth Thomas, weighing in, and doubts having been expressed by David Willetts himself (here, as a piece in the Higher suggested, the recent vote of no confidence in Willetts, rather than his policies, might turn out to be counter-productive).

Now, on Thom Brooks' blog, which I have recommended before, I read the following extracts from an article in the Guardian:
"[. . .] Rylance agreed with critics that the big society was "a government policy" but said that it included "a range of activities" from health to the arts which left room for many different projects and angles for research.

"People have said this is about promoting the big society. It is categorically not about that. It is indicating an area of research which will fund individuals who may well come up and be critical of it. We don't forecast outcomes of these things," Rylance said.

However Rylance said that removing all six references to the big society from the AHRC's strategy would have to involve a renegotiation with government."

It might be that, like mine, your eyebrows were immediately raised by the last statement.  If, as has been maintained all along, the AHRC weren't brow-beaten into including a priority on The Big Society, why should the term's removal require 'renegotiation' with the government?  Or, at least, why should any such 'renegotiation' be problematic?

Rylance might be on the ropes, which would make it timely to launch a big push to put an end to this once and for all.  With that in mind, I reproduce, with permission, an e-mail by Thom Brooks and urge all British historians to support these efforts according to their position vis-a-vis the AHRC.  It'd also be nice if the RHS would abandon its 'watching brief' and make a formal, public statement against the AHRC's adoption of party political slogans.  Thanks. 

Dear friends and colleagues,

My thanks again for your support in the campaign to persuade the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to remove the "Big Society" from its current delivery plan. Please take a moment to read this important message.

We have widespread support for our campaign. Our petitions have attracted over 4,000 signatures from across disciplines and political divisions. Signatories include Fellows of the British Academy and Royal Society. More than 30 learned societies agreed a joint statement in support of the petition. Hundreds of emails and letters of support have been sent to Rick Rylance, the AHRC CEO. The UCU has supported our campaign and the Rt Hon David Willetts (Minister of State for Universities and Science) has recently remarked on the "hazard" of including political campaign slogans in research council delivery plans. The support has been truly unprecedented and the issue has received much media coverage. This includes new articles published in the Guardian yesterday: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jun/19/academics-quit-over-big-society  This has encouraged the Shadow Universities minister, Gareth Thomas MP, to write to Willetts to demand action: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jun/20/labour-steps-into-big-society-row?CMP=twt_fd

The AHRC response has been disappointing. They continue to reject calls for this brief, but important, change to the AHRC Delivery Plan. We argue a point of principle, not politics: political campaign slogans have no place in research council delivery plans for strategic funding priorities. Period. I believe we are now at a critical moment and I request your help:


I am a member of the AHRC Peer Review College. If you are also a member, then please contact me ASAP by THURSDAY MORNING, 24th JUNE to confirm whether you are willing to join me with many others and resign on MONDAY, 27th JUNE if no action is taken on amending the AHRC Delivery Plan. I will offer a press release later this week. Resignation is surely a last resort, but I believe that all avenues have been explored without success. While I hope we need not act on our threat, it is clear that we must now come together and show the strength of our support for our principled position. I hope all AHRC Peer Review College members will accept this call -- and please circulate this message to anyone on the College.


Please write to the AHRC and voice your continued support for our campaign. The AHRC appears to believe our opposition is fading: in fact, it is growing and recent publicity in the Guardian confirms this. Contact information includes the AHRC CEO Professor Rick Rylance (r.rylance@ahrc.ac.uk) and AHRC Chairman Professor Sir Alan Wilson (executive@ahrc.ac.uk).


Please write to David Willetts and voice your support. You might use the following template:

Dear Rt Hon Willetts,

I want to share my support for the campaign to remove the "Big Society" from the Arts and Humanities Research Council's Delivery Plan. This is a position of principle, not politics: political campaign slogans should have no place in research council delivery plans. This position is endorsed by over 4,000 academics and 30+ learned societies as well as the UCU. Petitions (see http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/thebigsociety/) have drawn support from across disciplines and political divides. Please communicate to the AHRC the importance of taking action and removing this campaign slogan immediately.

Yours sincerely,


I believe that the momentum is on our side and positive action likely, but only if we act together and we act fast. I hope I can look forward to your support one last time. We are very close to achieving our goal and defending an important principle.

Warmest wishes,


Thursday, 16 June 2011

A little question about Von Ranke

For any of you who are either native German speakers or at least have better German than I do.

Leopold von Ranke: wie er
eigentlich gewesen
In last week's Higher there was a review by Richard Evans during which he referred to the famous quote by Leopold Von Ranke about history being about telling it 'wie es eigentlich gewesen': 'how it essentially was' (however you understand that 'eigentlich').  This is how the quote is frequently rendered (as throughout Fritz Stern's Varieties of History, etc.) and I can't imagine that Evans would get it wrong.

What puzzles me, with my very imperfect German, is this.  Shouldn't there be an auxiliary verb at the end?  Shouldn't it be 'wie es eigentlich gewesen ist' ('how it essentially was') or 'wie es eigentlich gewesen war' ('how it essentially had been')?  I don't have access to the German text, so I am wondering if any Germanophones can lay this to rest for me as it has bugged me for some time.  I did once ask Walter Pohl who seemed to think that the phrase didn't make sense without an auxiliary.  Am I missing something very obvious?

It's a minor point but it has niggled me for some years.  Thank you.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The University of Chums on Seats

It can't be called an auspicious start.  Amid much media flurry, the New College of the Humanities (hereafter NCHums) was launched this week by A.C. (Anthony) Grayling, the airport bookshops' analytic philosopher of choice, with a star-studded line-up of fellow media-dons. It's what might in other circles be called a 'super-group': A.C. 'D.C.' Grayling fronting the outfit on Philosophy; Steven Pinker on Philosophy; Niall Ferguson on lead modern history; David 'Sir David Cannadine' Cannadine on rhythm modern history; Linda Colley (Mrs Cannadine, for those not in the know) on backing modern history; Richard Dawkins on atheism or something, probably; Ronald Dworkin QC on the law(1); and Steve Jones (not that Steve Jones, by the way) on genetics. Only one woman, as more than one person has noted, but even that's more than many a supergroup.  N-Dubz (not a 'supergroup', I admit, but popular, I understand, with the young people, and similarly artificially manufactured) only has one third female membership. Let us call our lot N-Chumz.(2)

The general reaction was hardly positive.  Trawling the web for news on this development, which could let's face it represent a turning point in the history of UK higher education (or admittedly it could be a foolish damp squib but, right now, who knows?), produced one negative after another.  UCU weighed in against, for what it's worth; so did the NUS; Terry Eagleton fulminated; Boris Johnson positively exploded with enthusiasm for the project (that's a negative in my book); the economic model for the project was queried.  Even a rather silly blogger with the characteristic name of India Lenon (currently Classics - sorry - 'Greats' at Oxford and Torygraph blog, but you'd guessed) launched an attack on the idea, although simultaneously condemning herself to being put up against a wall and shot (sentence to be commuted to a good slap), after I take power, with this unutterably stupid line:
We have all seen what a burden an Eton education can be on someone trying to make a career for themselves
And there was plenty more criticism out there on the inter-web.

Then it got worse. 

It turned out that NCHums might not be able to use the title University College after all; that it wasn't offering London University degrees but international programmes of the University of London, which the university denied it had even agreed that NCHums could award or teach towards; that Birkbeck, University of London, (Grayling's erstwhile employers) at least weren't in any sort of partnership with NCHums; it emerged that N-Chumz had actually copied their syllabuses from elsewhere.  Moreover, apart from Grayling himself, none of the rest of N-Chumz had actually quit their day-job, leading to the supposition that this star-teaching might not be what it seemed. 

Oh dear, oh dear.  Poor old A.C.  Indeed he allegedly feels 'persecuted' and that criticism of his venture has turned his life's work 'on its head'

Let us think on.  In the current situation of relentless attack by the government (started under New Labour - let's not forget that - even if things have become much worse under the Coalition) it has already been noted that post-'92 institutions (Middlesex University to name one) have slashed back humanities courses, leading to comment that the implication is that the constituency of such establishments either has no interest in, or no use for, a humanities education - in itself making humanities education an affair for the elite.  Charging £18,000 per an (and remember that government loans for private degrees will only cover £6k, so you really are looking at £12k per an up front) is hardly going to redress that social inequality in access to the humanities.

Ah, but the argument goes that this will free up places at top universities for such folk.  To which my gut instinct response is 'yeah, right'.  Is it likely that the Old Etonians, etc. will forgo their place at Oxbridge for NCHums?  NCHums is, selon Boris Johnson, "such unambiguously good news that I scarcely know where to begin" because it will provide a place for the 12 good people turned away from Oxbridge for every place offered by the likes of Grayling (on his own admission) when he was an admissions tutor (I wonder when, exactly, that was, given that he and I were working in the same institution in the early 1990s).  Again.  Yeah, right.  Johnson envisages NCHums providing a place for people with impeccable records who haven't been able to get into Oxbridge.  And yet, what does this impeccable record amount to, as he sees it?  I quote:
His A-level scorecard was perfect; he held colours for rugby; he had been captain of the school debating team, keeper of the philately club, editor of the magazine
Such is Johnson's removal (rather like dear old India's) from anything remotely resembling reality that (leaving aside the fact that he sees any of these things as a qualification for university admission in the first place) he is oblivious to the point that not a single one of these activities is even open to people outside the social elite, people who, for example, have to spend their time working to earn some cash, or caring for relatives, etc.  Which is why - even with a playing field as manifestly uneven as the British education system - academic achievement is the only appropriate criterion for university entry.  In other words only the perfect A-level scorecard is relevant and the poor alleged victim of "some kind of secret Pol Pot-style persecution of the children of the bourgeoisie" probably just ran up against people who, academically, were actually better than he was. Tant pis.  These poor deprived types are those that will be benefiting from NCHums.  The better academic types (hardly from a representative cross-section of society, as we have seen before) who get the Oxbridge places will still take them up.  These will, as now, include some state school pupils but the number is hardly likely to rise as a result of 'Grayling's Folly'.  Now it might be that some of these Oxbridge rejects will choose NCHums over, say, Poppleton University (already called Rejects' College Oxbridge by some) or Durham or Bristol or Warwick or other top-ten-but-not-Oxbridge institutions, freeing up places in the humanities for students from the 'widening participation' target areas.  Is this likely?

I don't think so.  First of all, we can leave well-established places like Durham out of the equation.  It'll take a long time before NCHums or any putative private university colleges can match their prestige.  But even the new 1960s universities (Warwick etc) of the Russell Group are now a known quantity, and their degrees a  recognised 'quality product' (if we must use such awful phraseology).  NCHums will not be for a long time, and it may well be that it just gets tagged as 'Posh College London' (plc, sorry PCL), a place for over-privileged Tim Nice-But-Dim.  That might score you a job in the City, of a certain sort, but one wonders what sort of breadth of careers it would open, rather than close, if that sort of tag did get applied.

And then there's your £18 grand (12 grand per an up-front, remember).  Is it really buying you a better education?  It is characteristic of N-Chumz and their staggering arrogance that they think that no one already teaches critical thinking etc. as part of their degrees, outside the golden Loxbridge triangle.  It is also fairly typical that (like, sadly, loads of people) they subscribe to the misguided idea that small group teaching, and especially the Oxbridge-style one on one tutorial, ipso facto and always equals better tuition.  Plenty of studies have questioned this.  For myself, anecdotally, looking around at some of its 'golden boys' (and they are almost always boys) in my part of the the discipline of history the Oxbridge tutorial seems to promote the glib, superficial, 'flashy' (= bull-shitty) argument and actively to deter deep, reflective thought.  As my comment in parenthesis also suggests, it promotes (as studies have also shown) a very male, macho way of arguing and thinking.  I have friends in Oxbridge who say it doesn't benefit about 90% of the students they see.  But enough of that.  Given mine is a minority view, such things might encourage people to part with their cash in the 'HE market', provided they don't think too hard.  In short, provided they aren't the sorts of critical thinkers that NCHums says it wants to produce...

So what of its 'stellar' teaching line-up?  Well, let me say this.  Would you pay £18k a year for a lecture (as advertised) on "The birth of western Christendom AD 300-1215" given by 'Sir' David Cannadine or Linda Colley (I haven't seen any medievalists mentioned)?  If so you can gladly pay 18 grand to have me teach your spawn about WWII or modern China while you're at it.  As most of N-Chumz have stayed where they are and that even the claim made that they all have a stake in the enterprise is apparently not true,(3) then one imagines most teaching will be bought in at piece-rate from people willing to do so, possibly much further down the food-chain.  Not that I regard those of N-Chumz whose work I'm familiar with as at the top of the intellectual food-chain. People with a high media presence to be sure, people with a high count of column-inches in the TLS or the London Review of Books, people who show up a lot on Radio 4 or Channel 4, but not the best in their fields by a long chalk.  I suggest that in selecting their line-up, N-Chumz have mistaken media success for intellectual quality.  Indeed, I'd say that forking out £18,000 a year to be taught by N-Chumz would be a bit like paying £18k a year to be taught music theory by Westlife.

I've read some of Grayling's books; they're OK and, certainly, if I had to chose between him and the other purveyor of paperback philosophy, John Gray, I'd pick Grayling every time, but they aren't much to write home about.  What is Good?, for instance, is a wholly over-simplified 'whig history' of religion vs. progress with holes in the argument so wide that even someone (like me) broadly sympathetic to his line could drive a coach and horses through them.  Certainly this and establishing his credentials as 'identikit Islington man' (T. Eagleton) are hardly enough to outweigh his involvement in this insidious project, no matter how he bleats about it.  He has argued that universities will not be able to hold the line at £9k and that higher fees will come.  He has not realised (unlike Howard Hotson) that raising fees is exactly the logic of the neo-liberal ideology of HE, not a critique of, or solution to, it.  'Sir' David's involvement presumably stems from his love of the US system, made clear in his inaugural lecture at London.  He has clearly forgotten about the massive difference in funding and endowments between the Ivy League and even the wealthiest Cambridge college, to which he drew attention in that lecture, and has failed to note the comparative weakness of the NCHums business plan.  More to the point, he has failed (as he did in that lecture) to be aware that for every professor working in luxury in the Ivy League there are N academics slaving heroically, teaching Plato to Nato western Civ with one other colleague on effectively open access courses in ever-worse-funded state universities. A failure to note that inequality belies Johnson's laughable claim that Cannadine is a 'lefty'.  Ferguson, at least, is honest about his espousal of this sort of thing. 

NCHums would be an elite institution charging huge sums to deliver an unremarkable education to those (and only those) lucky enough to be able to pay.  Its only market value would be in creating a new 'in-club' for the 'already-haves'.  A University of Chums on Seats, indeed.  Grayling and co should be ashamed of themselves.  If we could place a charge of 'bringing the liberal arts and humanities into disrepute' against N-Chumz, then I for one would lay it before the CPS.

1: I have to wonder whether he wasn't invited because someone misheard and sent him Richard Dawkins' invite by mistake.  On the other hand it will give the N-Chumz rappers an easy solution to finding something that rhymes with Dawkins.
2: If I can brush up my photo-shopping skills, suitable illustration might follow...  A current straw poll suggests Niall Ferguson as favourite to be Dappy.
3: Applied ethics is supposed to be on the curriculum at NCHums - it would seem that those behind the operation and its press releases might need to sit in on the course themselves.

A Day to Feel Some Pride in the Discipline

Colin Jones and the RHS might be keeping their heads down as far as opposition to the AHRC's links with Cameron's farcical 'Big Society' project (or 'Feudalism', as we medievalists like to call it) is concerned, but this piece from the BBC News website shows that every now and then one can feel some pride in being a historian and that the discipline hasn't entirely sold out and forgotten what ethical and social stances are inherent in the calling to be a historian.  Hats off to Robert Gildea, Howard Hotson (again) and Margaret MacMillan (aunt of our chum Dan Snow, no less, by the way). 

Philip Rahtz (1921-2011)

Philip Rahtz (second right) with friends at (I think) his
retirement in 1986.  The friends include (L-R): Prof. Barrie
Dobson, Prof Richard Morris, Prof Martin Carver [Philip's
successor] and a very young Dr Dave Jennings)
A brief post to pay my respects to the memory of my old prof, Philip Rahtz, who passed away last Thursday at the ripe old age of 90.  You will doubtless be able to read elsewhere of Philip's enormously rich life and many achievements.  For now suffice it to say that, in the field, he was (alongside others, including his friend Philip Barker) one of the pioneers of the techniques of open area excavation, the big break with the Mortimer Wheeler tradition of excavation, and of the combination of rescue archaeology and academic research.  Philip was also one of the founders of serious archaeological interest in the 'sub-Roman British' side of early medieval archaeology, via his work on Somerset, and did enormous amounts for church archaeology as well.  This limits his interests and activities to a very small sample, nonetheless.  As well as field archaeology, Philip was always open to all the latest developments in archaeological theory and this made him a very fine choice as the first professor of the University of York's archaeology department - though with characteristic self-mockery he used to say that it was because they knew that, as he was then in his later 50s, they wouldn't have to put up with him for long if things didn't work out!  I don't think it's too much to describe Philip as one of the last (maybe the last) of the really 'larger-than-life', heroic figures of British archaeology.

Thus Philip was my archaeology professor at York (I tend to think of Barrie Dobson, also in the photo above, as my history professor).  Actually, I met him before I came to university when, after having taken my A-Levels I spent a couple of weeks on the York/Reading training dig at Bordesley Abbey, Redditch.  Philip retired the same year as I graduated - with the first first-class degree awarded by the still-young department - and one of my most treasured possessions is the book he gave me, inscribed 'to Guy, whose beginning coincides with my ending.'  Of course it was anything but an ending as Philip had a quarter of a century of contributions left to make.

Many, many people will be able to talk with much more qualification about Philip as an archaeologist and about all the fun and laughter that - as well as his scholarly contributions - always be associated with his memory (the photo above captures this pretty nicely).  He had a wicked sense of humour and loved to tease and shock more straight-laced members of the academic community.  Others will have a boundless fund of better stories than I can tell on that front.  The tale I want to tell is a bit different and I've chosen it because it shows just that there was a lot of sensitivity and humanity behind his sometimes mischievous exterior.  I mentioned that the first dig I ever went on was at Bordesley Abbey, in the last season (I think) that Philip oversaw the excavations.  As a result it was there that I received my A-level results.  My Dad drove across from Stourport with the fateful envelope (having been telling people the night before that I'd be lucky to get two Cs with the amount of work I'd done...).  Sensing the nerves (I think my dad's were greater than mine), Philip swooped in and swept him off to look at the traces of the rood screen ("terribly important") that had just been unearthed in the church, to leave me to open the envelope on my own - well aware that a fifteenth-century rood-screen was the last thing on my Dad's mind.  Anyway, suffice it to say that I did get the grades needed to join Philip's department and the rest, as they say, is history (or history and archaeology equal honours, to be exact).  Anyway, it made Philip one of my father's favourite people (as well as one of mine) and sums up Philip's sensitivity and charisma.

Rest in Peace, Philip.  You'll be missed.  It'll be a crowded church on Friday but you'll always have known that it would be.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

AHRC and The Big Society: UCU speaks out

Here is a link from Thom Brooks' estimable blog - which I heartily recommend, for more informed views of the politics of academe than you will find here - to a piece reporting that UCU have backed the moves to remove The Big Society from the AHRC's delivery plan.  That is either, a: good news, increasing pressure on Rylance and co, and highlighting further the curious absence of the Royal Historical Society from the roster of objectors (though I have not been able to find out what the state of play is here), leading to the supposition that Jones and co think that Rylance's excuse that he wasn't forced into this but 'done it all himself' is somehow acceptable ... or b: a disaster that will kill the movement against the AHRC's adoption of political slogans stone dead, especially if Sally Hunt and her war-cabinet get to say what the best strategies to adopt might be.  If in line with their usual tactical/strategic nouse, the latter might include blinding an orphan every day until Rick Rylance changes his mind.  That'll show 'em.