Historical decline

November 5, 1999

History is faltering, but universities must not allow it to become too insular, argues J. M. Roberts

Twenty-five years of teaching history at Oxford as a college tutor and supervising a few graduate students, of choosing entrants and examining at many levels, a little teaching in the United States and a place on the working party on history in the national curriculum are all that qualify me to get up on my soapbox.

It is, though, enough to make me sure that history in schools and in degree courses has much changed in my lifetime. All is not well with my subject. There is, for instance, its growing insularity. At the university level, the numbers qualified to study foreign history go down and so does the quality of what is done. In schools, too, many teachers seem stuck in the trenches of 1914-18 and the shelters of the "Blitz". Laziness aside, surely the decline of modern languages in schools must be part of the explanation.

To encourage more entrants from comprehensive schools, Oxford years ago dropped any requirement that degree students of modern history should pass a foreign-language test. There had been a first-year preliminary test in one modern and one classical language. Later in the course, undergraduates were asked to read a little in a foreign language for a weekly essay. Demands were not unrealistically high; I can recall my own tutor assuring me that even with my shaky Latin I could certainly get up enough Italian in a long vacation to read the texts set for the Italian renaissance special subject.

With the scrapping of language requirements went the popularity of options in history using foreign texts. Medieval history, too, suffered. My sense that insularity follows poor language qualifications, though, must be tempered; even American history, that of the one great power whose records are in English, does not seem to lure students away from Victorian politics or English social history. So other factors must matter too - perhaps the introduction of modules at A level.

The past is always golden and it is risky to invoke it. But when talking to undergraduates I have little sense that they have enjoyed the interplay between studies in their sixth-form years that I recall in my own schooldays. The Rape of the Lock (which was a set book for English) was somehow made to connect with Moliere, whom the admirable Mr Billet was explaining to us in French lessons, and to the age of Louis XIV, about which we wrote historical essays. One encountered a civilisation.

Regrettably, too, only a few fortunates from a minority of schools can now be assumed to know how to write a decent essay on coming up to university. Perhaps cultural insularity, or at least narrow-mindedness, is also reflected in the retreat from masterpieces. They are not encountered at school nowadays. Once the compulsory political science paper for Oxford's modern history school obliged one to read three masterpieces: Aristotle's Politics, Hobbes's Leviathan and Rousseau's Social Contract. Now, to their loss, young Oxford students need not read any of them.

Oxford, once a model for the study of history in British universities, has committed the folly of dissolving a once coherent syllabus. No longer does any portion of it have to be studied by everyone reading the Honour School, and it is years since the continuous study of English history from the beginning was abandoned. That convention led to all undergraduates sharing a large chunk of historical reading.

Explanations are not simple. But perhaps lecturers of history now worry too much about the subject and not enough about those whom they teach. They harp on their speciality and on training historians rather than on educating men and women. Both the near obsession with methodology - in the pages of the journal Teaching History, for instance - and the concentration in the universities with training future specialists suggest contracting horizons. For all its importance, the historical profession is not where the majority of students are going. It is we, the professionals, who are to blame if we think otherwise, for we make the crucial choices - we choose who comes to the universities and we choose what they do when they get here.

Universities ought not to abandon well-structured and prescriptive courses. An hors d'oeuvre from which the student chooses bits and pieces is never as nourishing as a proper meal. J. M. Roberts was, from 1953 to 1979, a fellow and tutor of Merton College, Oxford. He was vice-

chancellor of Southampton University and then warden of Merton. His Twentieth Century: A History of the World, 1901 to the Present (Allen Lane) is published this autumn, Pounds 20.00.

Are foreign and medieval history neglected in universities? And is it true that students cannot write decent essays nowadays?

Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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