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Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Why Sixth-Century History Doesn't Matter (any more or less than any other history)

I'm a sixth-century historian ... and let me tell you I look good for my age.  Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.  I'll be here all week.  Now please welcome Miss Elaine Page.


Be all that as it may, the VC of Queens University Belfast, Patrick Johnston (an oncologist) has recently said that 'society' (that thing that Thatcherites like him don't believe in, remember?) doesn't need people who specialise in the history of the sixth century.
"Society doesn't need a sixth century historian. It needs a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership [ahem: irony klaxon] and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to drive society forward."
OK. There are a lot of things you can wonder on the basis of this interview.  One might ask why, given his utilitarian obsession, Johnston is running a University and not still working to cure cancer (might one assume that, like most university managers, he ran out of ideas in his area of academic specialisation and took the soft route to a £250,000 salary instead?); one might wonder whether Durham and Newcastle (QUB's partners in the 'Northern Bridge' post-graduate funding consortium) are not now asking themselves what kind of idiot they have got into bed with; one might seriously sit down and ask what this man really thinks education is about, or what mind-numbingly limited range of things he thinks can 'benefit society'; one might ponder what sort of grey, cultureless, dystopian hell his vision of a society 'benefited' and 'led' by his idea of Higher Education resembles*; and finally one would be forgiven for thinking on the basis of this interview that, if this is an example of the sort of people who manage (for they certainly don't lead) UKHE, the sorts of people, the sorts of intellectual second-raters (amongst whom there are more than a few historians), into whose hands British Higher Education has fallen, we should all just put our heads in our hands and weep.

Such is Johnston's staggering ignorance that one assumes he picked on 'sixth century history' (he doesn't actually specify BC or AD) because he thought it was a sort of obscure Dark Age topic that no one could possibly see as valuable and that no one would stand up for (that is, again, typical of the sort of bullying these people do).  In that, at least, he was wrong.  Various responses have sprung up which have led Johnston to issue a hasty statement clarifying how much 'respect' he has for history graduates. The details need not detain us; it is corporate bullshit.  It is a sort of superficial climb-down at least but he dropped the veil on his real opinions and, one assumes, his real intentions if push comes to shove. (And he already has form in cutting back on the arts and humanities.)


Johnston's philistine, corporate dribblings are, however, no more than some of us have come to expect from University managers. It's the replies that I really despair about, for they give a pretty bleak indication of what historians think their discipline is about - or rather that, typically, they haven't got a clue what their discipline might be there for, other than as some sort of hobby or middle-class divertissement.  Charles West, to his credit, asks what history is about, if not thinking and analysis.  If one wants to be narrowly utilitarian, one can specify the ability to sift information critically, reach a conclusion and present that conclusion via reasoned argument in (in theory at any rate) cogent written or oral form, to a deadline.  Ideally that is what a history graduate should be able to do, and it is very important (maybe in practice it's the most important thing; I don't know), but it is not, of course, something that is limited to History graduates.  At that point, however, the serious argument for sixth-century history presented thus far fizzles out.

For where does it go after that, generally non-history-specific, justification?  Sadly, West retreats into an argument that important stuff happened in the sixth century that is, allegedly, 'relevant' today, and that knowing the history of these things gives them 'context'.  Do you really need to know about the rise of Islam to understand ISIS (other than, as here [and ff.], to refute the dangerous banalities of 'top historian' Tom Holland)?  What kind of meaningful context does a simple knowledge of the sixth century add to understanding the modern world?  The response to Johnstone from QUB's own Immo Warntjes, however, doesn't even get as far as West's.  All it is is a list of (to him at least) interesting things that happened in the sixth century.  Mostly they are things of some interest to me too, as you'd expect, but I would hesitate to ascribe to any of them an innate importance. But is that all history has to differentiate it from any other humanities discipline?  Knowing facts about the past?  Chronicling and antiquarianism?  Readers of this blog know full well that I do not accept that even knowing the 20th-century history of the Middle East helps you understand the rise of ISIS in and of itself.  That too reduces history to simple chronicling and raises some pretty difficult (I'd say insurmountable) epistemological questions about causation and narrative.

Does, however, the defence of history need to go anywhere beyond the intrinsic interest of things that happened in the past?  Is not knowledge for its own sake a valid defence?  Obviously I sympathise with that ideal but in practice it has severe limitations.  For, if just knowing about stuff is its own justification, then why not degrees in stamp-collecting, car-recognition, arithmetic or French vocabulary?  If knowing facts about the past is qualitatively different from being able to, say, identify the date, origin and value of any stamp, sufficient to justify the payment of university salaries etc, one needs to have a cogent argument as to why, which goes beyond mere intellectual snobbery.

I have set out why I think history does matter before and I don't want to repeat all that, but do please read that post if you have not read it before.  Suffice it to say that what matters about history applies to sixth-century history no more and no less than to the history of any other century.  Why does it matter to train 21-year-olds in history?  To help them critique sources of evidence - as Charles West says - and not just accept what they are told; to help them think about humanity and understand other human beings in other contexts too.  But these things are not unique to history.  What is (I propose)unique to history is not simply the knowledge of things that happened in the past, but the investigation of why they happened, of why people said they happened and of why they want you to think they happened; more so (perhaps) the knowledge of understanding why things happened involves the awareness of the other options that were available - the things that could have happened but didn't (and grasping why they didn't) - and of how no one historical state of affairs or set of outcomes is preordained to be the only, natural one.  It didn't have to be like that then; it doesn't have to be like this now.  This is the emancipatory potential of history, specifically.

To sum up, then, the history of the sixth century matters as much as the history of any other century not so much for the knowledge of all the things that happened so much as for the understanding of all the things that didn't.


* This is what I imagine: a society in which disease is a thing of the past and businesses are all well led but in which no one has any capacity to create or critique culture or think sophisticated, questioning thoughts about the inevitable finitude of life, disease or no (there might, I suppose, be a core of characteristically pointless analytical philosophers providing cod-logically-truthful, cod-ethical arguments for the turning off of life-support systems, under the ironic banner of 'medical humanities'), or about whether business and capitalism are good things, or by what right people with 'useful' degrees claim to lead society, or whether 'driving society forward' is ipso facto a 'Good Thing', or by what criteria we judge what a Good Thing might be, or what the alternatives are; where no one has the sort of training that might help them improve the sophistication of that society's cultural life, or indeed do anything non-utilitarian except as some form of hobby. Or maybe that is what the 'non-leaders' do in their spare time, when not working zero-hours contracts for the businesses of the drivers and leaders or watching 1000 versions of strictly on the 1000 quality-free business- and utility-driven deregulated TV channels and getting their view of the world from the sorts of 'leaders' and 'drivers' that created Fox News and the Daily Mail.  A society stuck in this rut ad infinitum for lack of anyone with the wit or imagination to challenge it and its models.  That, I imagine, is the society that technocrats like Johnston and his ilk think universities are there to produce and maintain.