A look to the future for Britain's past masters

January 21, 2000

History will remain a popular choice among students, says William Rubinstein, because it is a soft option.

Most of today's students are the first from their families to have gone to any university; nearly all, apart from those at Oxbridge and a few other places, have attended a comprehensive school. All have grown up at a time when, in most schools, old-fashioned literacy is virtually a lost art and all are in the midst of postmodern, post-ideology pop culture.

I lecture at a university that, according to the accepted rankings, is in the top third of all 110 or so universities. I have no reason to suppose that any of my students has received an abnormally inferior education at their schools. Yet it is rare - I do not exaggerate in any way - to find a student who can write a paragraph in an essay without making several grammatical and spelling mistakes. It is difficult, for example, to count the number of times a week I encounter the word "it's" used as a possessive.

Some of my students, especially at the first-year level, simply cannot express themselves cogently in writing. In the essays they hand in, it is often almost impossible to understand what they are talking about, and it seems inconceivable that they would have been accepted at any university 20 years ago.

By and large, today's students also lack the self-confidence to be original, almost invariably sticking, in their written work, to the parroting of their assigned reading. At Oxbridge, clever-cleverness may still prevail: at my university, which is unlikely to be different from most, a competent regurgitation of the assigned reading is the best that can be hoped for.

Few students start history degree courses having studied much more than a few obvious areas, usually the Nazi era and the cold war. It is difficult to discern a sense that the 20th century was a relatively minor appendage to what came before, or that anything before, at the earliest, the Victorian period, holds the slightest importance.

This melancholy picture is, of course, primarily the fault of the schools and we do our best to build on what we find. By the third year, at a rough estimate, about one-third of undergraduates reading history can be termed able, a figure considerably higher than among first-years.

I am not arguing for a reversal of the inevitable pattern of ever-higher enrolments in universities and colleges. Education is a fundamental right for anyone who is able to benefit from it. In the United States, about 65 per cent of 18-year-olds begin tertiary-level education, manifestly with no harm done.

This situation is simply the background ether in which the historians and other academics conduct their business.

It seems to me, however, that claims that schools are improving bear the same relation to reality as did tractor production statistics under Stalin, and while Stalin might well have shot the most inefficient factory managers, we cannot do the same with British teachers.

Paradoxically, too, the expansion of student numbers has meant that history at university level is doing reasonably well. Obviously historians are overworked and underpaid, but there are more of them than ever before, covering a wider range of fields. The Teachers of History guide to Britain's universities, produced by the Institute of Historical Research in London, lists about 2,900 lecturers, an amazing total (although but a fraction of the 25,000 tertiary-level historians in the US).

Crucially, with such a large and disparate number it is obviously impossible for there to be, in any sense, a disciplinary core. The situation a generation ago, when the celebrated debates between A. J. P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor Roper on the origins of the second world war, and academic quarrels over the 17th-century gentry became well known to the general public, is difficult to imagine today. One has the feeling, too, that there are many fewer "public intellectuals" among today's historians than a generation ago.

I would be surprised if 2 per cent of the 2,900 history lecturers in Britain write regularly for any organ of the national press. There are, no doubt, academic debates galore, but they mainly take place in footnotes. Given the pluralism of the profession, each historian is free to create his own paradigm, and the death of ideology, especially Marxism, has removed the spine of debate. There are, however, still some taboo subjects known to me, such as some areas of modern Jewish history.

This situation parallels the contemporary universe described by postmodernism, even if most academic historians rightly deplore the implications of postmodernism and have never met an actual postmodernist. Whatever the realities of history might be, historical debate is simply too fragmented and pluralistic for anyone to notice an attack on someone else's grand narrative.

Is this melange likely to appeal to students? History is still very popular, although, in common with many other arts disciplines, probably less so than in the past. It is still arguably the backbone of the liberal arts, and, despite everything, offers the same academic benefits as before: a sense of the sweep of time and human development, the barrister's ability to use evidence to advance an argument and undermine the arguments of others, the critical appraisal of documents, the thrill of new discoveries.

Yet the underlying situation in which academic history finds itself means that many of these traditional merits are being vitiated in a discipline without a core but with an endless array of sub-areas and a student body that is largely oblivious to - indeed largely uncomprehending of and utterly insensitive to - the qualities that academic history has traditionally tried to instill.

History is, however, likely to retain a favourable position in universities because, to put it bluntly, it is a relatively soft option, demanding little or no technical knowledge.

It is difficult to know what can be done about this and probably nothing will be done. It would probably be helpful if there were more basic courses at British universities outlining the whole of world history - "History 101: Plato to Nato" and the like so ubiquitous at US colleges.

Self-evidently, more stress should be laid wherever possible on improving students' writing and expression. More effort, too, might be made to listen to the ordinary person's conception of history, invariably framed in terms of "kings, dates and battles" and in terms of historical mysteries.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth.

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