Sunday, 4 August 2019

The study of history is in decline in Britain:A Reply

One of the most annoying things about the Economist magazine is not having the authors byline on its articles. It seems the only exception to this rule is the articles written by Bagehot who happens to be dead and dead a long time.

A recent article by this author called The study of history is in decline in Britain is a very right-wing evaluation of the state of historical study in this country. The author correctly notes that England is moving through one of its most difficult historical moments. Bagehot bemoans the fact that England “ is losing its skill at interpreting the past”.

I do not agree with Bagehot’s evaluation, which looks likes a ruse to cover the Economist’s increasingly right-wing position over Brexit. While warning against right-wing populism, the Economist’s real fear is that the crisis will provoke a response in the working class. It is also important to challenge his pessimism. A more optimistic evaluation of the state of historical study comes from the mind and pen of Margaret Macmillan in her excellent book The Uses and Abuses of History. For the Macmillan the historian's role no matter where they are “ must do our best to raise the public awareness of the past in all its richness and complexity”.

The article begins with a political summation of this situation, stating” Whatever you think about recent events in Britain, you cannot deny that they qualify as historic. The country is trying to make a fundamental change in its relationship with the continent. The Conservative Party is in danger of splitting asunder and handing power to a far-left Labour Party. All this is taking place against the backdrop of a fracturing of the Western alliance and a resurgence of authoritarian populism”.

It is true that after two on the and a half years after the 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union (EU), the British ruling elite “is mired in crisis”.  However I prefer a more Marxist presentation of what is going on as Chris Marsden points out “The dominant pro-Remain faction is desperately manoeuvring to either overturn the result or at least secure a deal preserving tariff-free access to the Single European Market on which it depends for 40 per cent of trade and London’s role as a centre of financial speculation. The pro-Brexit faction, led by right-wing Tories and the sectarian thugs of the Democratic Unionist Party, resists all entreaties to compromise. They believe the EU can be forced to accept the UK’s terms through an alliance with the Trump administration in Washington. Such an arrangement would free Britain to strike unilateral trade deals internationally and refashion Britain as a Singapore-style free trade zone in Europe based on crushing levels of exploitation. The working class has no interest in backing either right-wing faction.[1]

Bagehot’s somewhat simplistic and right-wing evaluation of the political situation allows the writer to call into question any other study of history that does not deal with the elites of any given century. Bagehot is of the firm opinion that the study of history should be by the elites for the elites. As he states “ A scholarship to read history at one of the ancient universities was both a rite of passage for established members of the elite and a ticket into the elite for clever provincial boys, as Alan Bennett documented so touchingly in his play “The History Boys”. Prominent historians such as A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper were public figures who spoke to the nation about both historical and contemporary events”.

Bagehot makes another point that “ the study of history has shrivelled” and the number reading it at university has declined by about a tenth in the past decade”. Even if you take the figures cited by Bagehot at face value and some have not you have to ask yourself what is the reason. It is not that there is a decline in the interest in history; it is because of the severe difficulty of getting a decent job with a history degree. As Brodie Waddell on his blog[2] states the chance of getting a job in academia with a PhD has become extraordinarily hard. Once in, things are not much better as universities have in many ways become intellectual prisons.

There is one point that I agree with, and that is  Bagehot’s complaint about the over specialisation and that “the historical profession has turned in on itself. Historians spend their lives learning more and more about less and less, producing narrow PhDs and turning them into monographs and academic articles, in the hamster-wheel pursuit of tenure and promotion. The need to fill endless forms to access government funding adds the nightmare of official bureaucracy to the nightmare of hyper-specialisation”.

Much as I would like to blame the government as Bagehot does there is a much more political reason for this slide into obscure historical study. Bagehot would not agree, but this specialisation has occurred because of the turn away from “Grand Narratives” in the study of history. One of the most critical “Grand Narrative” has been the study of history using a historical materialist method or as it is sometimes called the Marxist method. One of the by-products in the decade's prolonged attack on Marxism has been to move away from any historical study that smacks of Marxism.

Led by a large number of revisionist historians the attack on any Marxist conception has almost become a new genre. Like Bagehot, these revisionists bemoan “History from below” with its studies of the "the marginal", "the poor" & " every day". They believe that history study should be about the haves and not the have nots.

To conclude you have to ask yourself why has the Economist commission this article in the first place. The reason is that there is a real fear now taking place in ruling circles that the growing economic crisis is leading to a growing radicalisation around the world. The universities have always been at the forefront of the attack on Marxism. The Economist article is crude in its attempt to stifle any study of an alternative to capitalism.

[1] The Brexit crisis and the struggle for socialism-By Chris Marsden -23 January 2019-