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Wednesday, 30 April 2014

If not in the academy, then where?

I have been thinking a lot about the comment left on the post before last, essentially saying - if I understand it correctly - that we need to face up to the 'fact' that, if students don't want to take medieval history in the current fees regime, medieval history and other 'unpopular' areas of history will have to cease being studied 'in the academy'.  In the free market, competition and choice are king.  

But, as we all know, as in pretty much every other sphere, it isn't actually a free market.  The reason most students want modern history is that school history is overwhelmingly modern history, and that predisposes them, with £27k at stake, to be risk averse about other areas they feel less at home in.  As I alluded to last time, other reasons have been advanced for the current crisis of medieval history at Poppleton (in my own case the fact that I have been on sabbatical and students have always been wary of tutors they don't know), but they are, in my view, exacerbated by the new regime and not sufficient in themselves.  After all, when I came back from my Leverhulme my courses still recruited.  I can't discuss the other supposed factors but suffice it to say that they never played such a dramatic part before.  

So the fees regime makes the student less intellectually curious, more risk-averse (as I said), and more concerned to get the courses s/he wants, and the NSS predisposes universities to treat the student as a customer who is always right, but that is not the same as assuming that 'free choice' is what is at stake.  If most students solidly took early modern history (or medieval) between the ages of 13 and 18, with a little twentieth-century history before the age of 8, modern history would face the same issues.  And if no student were ever exposed to non-British history between primary school and university, all those of us who teach non-British history would be up against it.  So, no - this is not about free choice in a competitive market.  That is not to say that vested interests within universities and departments won't spin it that way for all the reasons of petty departmental politics and local advantage.

Think, too, about where you might get that expertise back again if 'choice' shifted again.  Suppose everyone became heartily sick and tired of the twentieth century  (a moment which may come sooner than some people think; I already have a sense that everything important that can be said about Hitler and Stalin has been said).  It is one thing to lop off a department or a section of a department if it fails to recruit; it is something entirely different to grow one back again if the 'landscape' changes back.  Where are the staff going to come from?  What cost restocking the library?  Universities gaily cutting language departments or (in other places) other types of department (not just in the arts and humanities) need to remember that.

But, what concerns me is the idea that we could all be sanguine about areas of scholarly endeavour 'leaving the academy'.  And going where exactly?  Into the private sector?  There are essentially two types of medieval historical research carried on outside the academy.  One is carried out by 'independent scholars', who are mostly academically-trained scholars who either were unable to get an academic post, or who didn't want to take their career in that direction after their PhD, or who cut their losses and got out.  These people (cp. Mark Handley) produce good work, but remember they have been trained in universities and done their early research there.  That form of work would be impossible in an academy without medieval history.  The second category is - for want of a better word - 'amateur' history.  I have wide experience of this, from my work on Arthur and post-imperial Britain, from participation in wargaming discussion-groups and fora, and similar areas.  And my experience is that, with some notable exceptions, it is overwhelmingly very bad indeed.  Source criticism is pretty much absent, awareness of recent scholarly research minimal, knowledge of scholarly research outside the UK, or not in English, almost non-existent.  In terms of thought and analysis it is very poor.  Now, it must be said that even some of the perpetrators of this history have BAs in history.  With no university-level medieval history, much of this work would be even worse.  Let's be clear, if research in certain areas of history was forced out of the academy in the UK, it would to all intents and purposes be forced out of the UK in general.

Those of you who have read Middlemarch will remember the figure of Edward Casaubon, the English clergyman wearing himself out on his life's work, a 'Key to All Mythologies'.  And yet, as Will Ladislaw points out to Dorothea, Casaubon is wasting his time because he is entirely unaware of the 'modern' (in 1830) academic scholarship in Germany that is condemning his work to obsolescence even before it is finished.  Applying a cut-throat (and nonsensical) 'market principle' to UKHE threatens to leave us a nation of Casaubons.