MONTHLY BLOG 35, DONS AND STUDENT-CUSTOMERS? OR THE COMMUNITY OF LEARNERS?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

Names matter. Identifying  things – people – events – in realistic terminology means that they are being fully understood and taken seriously. Conversely, it’s warping to the mind and eventually corrosive of good thought to be constantly urged to give lip-service to the ‘wrong’ terms. People who live under dictatorial systems of would-be thought-control often testify to the ‘dead’ feeling that results from public censorship, especially when it is internalised as self-censorship.

By the way, I wrote that paragraph before remembering that this sentiment dovetailed with something I’d read about Confucius. A quick Google-check confirmed my half-memory.  Confucius long ago specified that: ‘The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names’. It’s a great dictum. It doesn’t claim too much. Naming is only the ‘beginning of wisdom’, not the entirety. And there is often scope for debating what is or should be the ‘proper’ name. Nonetheless, Confucius not only highlights the good effect of clear vision, accurately acknowledged to others, but equally implies the malign effects of the reverse. The beginning of madness is to delude oneself and others about the true state of affairs.

Which brings me to my current question: are University students ‘customers’? If so, an interesting implication follows. If ‘the customer is always right’, as the business world asserts but does not always uphold, should not all students get top marks for having completed an assignment or an exam paper? Or, at very least not get bad marks?

Interestingly, now that student payments for tuition are very much up-front and personal in the form of fees (which are funded as repayable loans), so the standard of degrees is gradually rising. Indeed, grade inflation has become noticeable ever since Britain’s Universities began to be expanded into a mass system. A survey undertaken in 2003 found that the third-class degree has been in steady decline since 1960 and was nearing extinction by 2000. And a decade on, the lower second (2.2) in some subjects is following the same trajectory. Better teaching, better study skills, and/or improved exam preparation may account for some of this development. But rising expectations on the part of students – and increasing reputational ambitions on the part of the Universities – also exert subtle pressures upon examiners to be generous.

Nonetheless, even allowing for a changing framework of inputs and outputs, a degree cannot properly be ‘bought’. Students within any given University course are learners, not customers. Their own input is an essential part of the process. They can gain a better degree not by more money but by better effort, well directed, and by better ability, suitably honed.

People learn massively from teachers, but also much from private study, and much too from their fellow-learners (who offer both positive and negative exemplars). Hence the tutors, the individual student, and other students all contribute to each individual’s result.2

A classic phrase for this integrated learning process was ‘the community of scholars’. That phrase now sounds quaint and possibly rather boring. Popularly, scholarship is assumed to be quintessentially dull and pedantic, with the added detriment of causing its devotees to ‘scorn delights and live laborious days,’ in Milton’s killing phrase.3  In fact, of course, learning isn’t dull. Milton, himself a very learned man, knew so too. Nonetheless, ‘the community of scholars’ doesn’t cut the twenty-first century terminological mustard.

But ‘learning’ has a better vibe. It commands ‘light’. People may lust for it, without losing their dignity. And it implies a continually interactive process. So it’s good for students to think of themselves as part of a community of learners. Compared with their pupils, the dons are generally older, sometimes wiser, always much better informed about the curriculum, much more experienced in teaching, and ideally seasoned by their own research efforts. But the academics too are learners, if more advanced along the pathway. They are sharing the experience and their expertise with the students. Advances in knowledge can come from any individual at any level, often emerging from debates and questions, no matter how naive. So it’s not mere pretension that causes many academics to thank in their scholarly prefaces not only their fellow researchers but also their students.

Equally, it’s good for the hard-pressed dons to think of themselves as part of an intellectual community that extends to the students. That concept reasserts an essential solidarity. It also serves to reaffirm the core commitment of the University to the inter-linked aims of teaching and research. Otherwise, the students, who are integral to the process, are seemingly in danger of getting overlooked while the dons are increasingly tugged between the rival pressures of specialist research in the age of Research Assessment, and of managerial business-speak in the age of the University-plc.4

Lastly, reference to ‘community’ need not be too starry-eyed. Ideals may not always work perfectly in practice. ‘Community’ is a warm, comforting word. It’s always assumed to be a ‘good thing’. Politicians, when seeking to commend a policy such as mental health care, refer to locating it in ‘the community’ as though that concept can resolve all the problems. (As is now well proven, it can’t). And history readily demonstrates that not all congregations of people form a genuine community. Social cohesion needs more than just a good name.

That’s why it’s good to think of Universities as containing communities of learners, in order to encourage everyone to provide the best conditions for that basic truth to flourish at its best. That’s far from an easy task in a mass higher-education system. It runs counter to attempts at viewing students as individual consumers. But it’s more realistic as to how teaching actually works well. And calling things by their proper names makes a proper start.

William Hogarth’s satirical Scholars at a Lecture (1736) offers a wry reminder to tutors not to be boring and to students to pay attention1 ‘Third Class Degree Dying Out’, Times Higher Education, 5 Sept. 2003: www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/178955/article: consulted 4 Nov. 2013.

2 That’s one reason why performance-related-pay (PRP) for teachers, based upon examination results for their taught courses, remains a very blunt tool for rewarding teaching achievements. Furthermore, all calculations for PRP (to work even approximately justly) need to take account of the base-line from which the students began, to measure the educational ‘value-added’. Without that proviso, teachers (if incentivised purely by monetary reward) should logically clamour to teach only the best, brightest, and most committed students, who will deliver the ‘best’ results.

3 John Milton, Lycidas: A Lament for a Friend, Drowned in his Passage from Chester on the Irish Seas (1637), lines 70-72: ‘Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise/ (That last Infirmity of Noble mind)/ To scorn delights and live laborious days.’

4 On the marketisation of higher education, see film entitled Universities Plc? Enterprise in Higher Education, made by film students at the University of Warwick (2013): www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac

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MONTHLY BLOG 33, CONTRACTING OUT SERVICES IS KILLING REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

‘Contracting out’ is a policy mantra especially of financial/services capitalism (as opposed to industrial capitalism or landowner capitalism), which has been gaining greater support year by year. As an ideal, it was succinctly formulated by Nicholas Ridley (1929-93), who held various ministerial posts under Margaret Thatcher government. Theoretically, he hated government expenditure of all kinds: ‘I was against all but the most minimal use of the taxpayer’s purse’.1

For Ridley – himself from a titled family with business interests in ship-owning – the ideal form of local democracy would be one in which the Councillors met no more than once yearly. At the annual meeting, they should set the rate and agree the fees for contracting out municipal services. Then they could all go home. His was an extreme version of what is known in political theory as a preference for the minimal ‘night-watchman state’.2

C17 print of night-watchman and dog. No mention from Ridley of Town Hall debates as providing a sounding-board for local opinion. No mention of community identity and pride in collective institutions. No mention of a proper scope for in-house services. No mention of elected control of key tasks, including regulatory and quasi-judicial functions. No mention even of scrutinising the contracted-out services. No mention therefore of accountability.

Above all, no mention from Ridley of what Edmund Burke called the ‘little platoons’3 (‘local platoons’ would have been better, as their sizes are variable) that bridge between private individuals and the central state. Hence no mention of representative democracy at a local level. This was aristocratic disdain worthy of Marie Antoinette before the French Revolution. Moreover, without representative politics at all levels of society, then popular democracy will, when provoked, burst through into direct action. Often, though not invariably, in an uncoordinated and violent manner.

France, in fact, provides an excellent historical example of the eventual follies of contracting out. The absolute monarchs before 1789 presided over a weak central bureaucracy. As a result, one of the key functions of the state, the collection of taxes, was ‘farmed out’, in the jargon of the eighteenth century. The Ferme Générale undertook the humdrum tasks of administration, absorbing the risks of fluctuating returns, while assuring the monarchy of a regular income. And, to be sure, this system survived for many years. Nonetheless, the French monarchy faced chronic financial problems by the later eighteenth century. And the great political problem was that all the tax profits went to the Tax Farmers, while popular hatred at high payments and harsh collection methods remained directed at the kings.4

In twenty-first century Britain, something of the same situation is developing. The state still has to provide basic services; and remains the guarantor of last resort, if and when private service firms fail. Thus the faults of the system are still the government’s faults, while the profits go to private companies. The other long-term costs are borne by the general public, left to face cut-to-the-bone services, provided by poorly-paid and demoralised casual labour. No-one is popular, in such a system. But the secretive and unaccountable world of the private providers, sheltered by commercial ‘secrecy’, saves them for a while from the wrath to come.

One notorious example is known to everyone. It occurred in July 2012, just before the start of the Olympic Games. The private firm G4S promised but failed to deliver security. The contract was worth £284 million. Two weeks before the opening ceremony, the same role was transferred to the publicly-funded army. It did the task well, to tremendous applause. G4S forfeited £88 million for its failure on this part of the contract.5 Yet, despite this ‘humiliating shambles’ in the words of its chief executive, who resigned just over six months later with a huge payoff,6 the firm remains a major player in the world of security services.

The British army on security patrol at the London Olympics August 2012 – replacing the failed private security firm G4S.So G4S today advertises itself as ‘the world’s leading international security solutions group, which specialises in secure outsourcing in countries and sectors where security and safety risks are considered a strategic threat’.7 No mention of regular overview and scrutiny, because there is none. It’s another of those businesses which are considered (wrongly, in practice) as ‘too big to fail’. The point of scrutiny comes only after an embarrassing failure or at the renewal of the contract, when nervous governments, having invested their prestige and money in privatisation programmes, don’t care or dare to rethink their strategy. In August 2013, G4S is being investigated by the Ministry of Justice for alleged over-charging on electronic ‘tagging’ schemes for offenders.8 Yet, alas, this costly imbroglio is unlikely to halt the firm’s commercial advance for long.

Overall, there is a huge shadow world of out-sourced businesses. They include firms like Serco, Capita, Interserve, Sodexo, and the Compass Group. As the journalist John Harris comments: ‘their names seem anonymously stylised, in keeping with the sense that they seemed both omni-present, and barely known’.9 Their non-executive directors often serve on the board of more than one firm at a time, linking them in an emergent international contractocracy. Collectively, they constitute a powerful vested interest.

Where will it end? The current system is killing representative democracy. Elected ministers and councillors find themselves in charge of dwindling bureaucracies. So much the better, cry some. But quis custodiet? The current system is not properly accountable. It is especially dangerous when private firms are taking over the regulatory functions, which need the guarantee of impartiality. (More on that point in a later BLOG). Successful states need efficient bureaucracies, that are meritocratic, impartial, non-corrupt, flexible, and answerable regularly (and not just at contract-awarding intervals) to political scrutiny. The boundaries between what should be state-provided and what should be commercially-provided are always open to political debate. But, given  that the state often funds and ultimately guarantees many functions, its interest in what is going on in its name cannot be abrogated.

The outcome will not be the same as the French Revolution, because history does not repeat itself exactly. Indeed, the trend nowadays is towards contracting-out rather than the reverse. Yet nothing is fixed in stone. Wearing my long-term hat, I prophecy that eventually many of the profit-motive ‘Service Farmers’ will have to go, rejected by democratic citizens, just as the ‘Tax Farmers’ went before them.

1 Patrick Cosgrave, ‘Obituary: Lord Ridley of Liddesdale’, Independent, 6 March 1993.

2 Another term for this minimal-government philosophy is ‘Minarchism’ or limited government libertarianism, often associated with free-marketry. Minarchism should be distinguished from anarchism or no-government, which has different ideological roots.

3 ‘To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind’: E. Burke, Reflections upon the Revolution in France (1790), ed. C.C. O’Brien (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 135.

4 E.N. White, ‘From Privatised to Government-Administered Tax-Collection: Tax Farming in Eighteenth-Century France’, Economic History Review, 57 (2004), pp. 636-63.

5 Reported in Event, 14 Feb. 2013.

6 Daily Mail, 21 May 2013, from Mail-online: www.dailymail.co.uk, viewed 9 Aug. 2013.

7 See ‘Who we are’ in website www.g4s.com.

8 Daily Telegraph, 6 August 2013, from Telegraph-online: www.telegraph.co.uk, viewed on 9 Aug. 2013.

9 John Harris on Serco, ‘The Biggest Company you’ve never heard of’, Guardian, 30 July 2013: supplement, pp. 6-9.

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MONTHLY BLOG 30, BUT PEOPLE OFTEN ASK: HISTORY IS REALLY POLITICS, ISN’T IT? SO WHY SHOULDN’T POLITICIANS HAVE THEIR SAY ABOUT WHAT’S TAUGHT IN SCHOOLS?

 If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

Two fascinating questions, to which my response to the first is: No – History is bigger than any specific branch of knowledge – it covers everything that humans have done, which includes lots besides Politics. Needless to say, such a subject lends itself to healthy arguments, including debates about ideologically-freighted religious and political issues.

But it would be dangerous if the study of History were to be forced into a strait-jacket by the adherents of particular viewpoints, buttressed by power of the state. (See my April 2013 BLOG). By the way, the first question can also be differently interpreted to ask whether all knowledge is really political? I return to that subtly different issue below.*

Meanwhile, in response to the second question: I agree that politicians could do with saying and knowing more about History. Indeed, there’s always more to learn. History is an open-ended subject, and all the better for it. Because it deals with humans in ever-unfolding Time, there is always more basic data to incorporate. And perspectives upon the past can gain significant new dimensions when reconsidered in the light of changing circumstances.

Yet the case for an improved public understanding of History is completely different from arguing that each incoming Education Secretary should re-write the Schools’ History syllabus. Politicians are elected to represent their constituents and to take legislative and executive decisions on their behalf – a noble calling. In democracies, they are also charged to preserve freedom of speech. Hence space for public and peaceful dissent is supposed to be safeguarded, whether the protesters be many or few.

The principled reason for opposing attempts at political control of the History syllabus is based upon the need for pluralism in democratic societies. No one ‘side’ or other should exercise control. There is a practical reason too. Large political parties are always, whether visibly or otherwise, based upon coalitions of people and ideas. They do not have one ‘standard’ view of the past. In effect, to hand control to one senior politician means endorsing one particular strand within one political party: a sort of internal warfare, not only against the wider culture but the wider reaches of his or her own political movement.

When I first began teaching, I encountered a disapproving professor of markedly conservative views. When I told him that the subject for my next class was Oliver Cromwell, he expressed double discontent. He didn’t like either my gender or my politics. He thought it deplorable that a young female member of the Labour party, and an elected councillor to boot, should be indoctrinating impressionable students with the ‘Labour line on Cromwell’. I was staggered. And laughed immoderately. Actually, I should have rebuked him but his view of the Labour movement was so awry that it didn’t seem worth pursuing. Not only do the comrades constantly disagree (at that point I was deep within the 1971 Housing Finance Act disputes) but too many Labour activists show a distressing lack of interest in History.

Moreover, Oliver Cromwell is hard to assimilate into a simplistic narrative of Labour populism. On the one hand, he was the ‘goodie’ who led the soldiers of the New Model Army against an oppressive king. On the other hand, he was the ‘baddie’ who suppressed the embryonic democrats known as the Levellers and whose record in Ireland was deeply controversial. Conservative history, incidentally, has the reverse problem. Cromwell was damned by the royalists as a Regicide – but simultaneously admired as a successful leader who consolidated British control in Ireland, expanded the overseas empire, and generally stood up to foreign powers.1

Interestingly, the statue of Oliver Cromwell, prominently sited in Westminster outside the Houses of Parliament, was proposed in 1895 by a Liberal prime minister (Lord Rosebery), unveiled in 1899 under a Conservative administration, and renovated in 2008 by a Labour government, despite a serious proposal in 2004 from a Labour backbencher (Tony Banks) that the statue be destroyed. As it stands, it highlights Cromwell the warrior, rather than (say) Cromwell the Puritan or Cromwell the man who brought domestic order after civil war. And, at his feet, there is a vigilant lion, whose British symbolism is hard to miss.2

Cromwell statue with lion
Or take the very much more recent case of Margaret Thatcher’s reputation. That is now beginning its long transition from political immediacy into the slow ruminations of History. Officially, the Conservative line is one of high approval, even, in some quarters, of untrammelled adulation. On the other hand, she was toppled in 1990 not by the opposition party but by her own Tory cabinet, in a famous act of ‘matricide’. There is a not-very concealed Conservative strand that rejects Thatcher outright. Her policies are charged with destroying the social cohesion that ‘true’ conservatism is supposed to nurture; and with strengthening the centralised state, which ‘true’ conservatism is supposed to resist.3 Labour’s responses are also variable, all the way from moral outrage to political admiration.

Either way, a straightforward narrative that Thatcher ‘saved’ Britain is looking questionable in 2013, when the national economy is obstinately ‘unsaved’. It may be that, in the long term, she will feature more prominently in the narrative of Britain’s conflicted relationship with Europe. Or, indeed, as a janus-figure within the slow story of the political emergence of women. Emmeline Pankhurst (below L) would have disagreed with Thatcher’s policies but would have cheered her arrival in Downing Street. Thatcher, meanwhile, was never enthusiastic about the suffragettes but never doubted that a woman could lead.4

Emmeline Pankhurst and Thatcher statue parliament
Such meditations are a constituent part of the historians’ debates, as instant journalism moves into long-term analysis, and as partisan heat subsides into cooler judgment. All schoolchildren should know the history of their country and how to discuss its meanings. They should not, however, be pressurised into accepting one particular set of conclusions.

I often meet people who tell me that, in their school History classes, they were taught something doctrinaire – only to discover years later that there were reasonable alternatives to discuss. To that, my reply is always: well, bad luck, you weren’t well taught; but congratulations on discovering that there is a debate and deciding for yourself.

Even in the relatively technical social-scientific areas of History (such as demography) there are always arguments. And even more so in political, social, cultural, and intellectual history. But the arguments are never along simple party-political lines, because, as argued above, democratic political parties don’t have agreed ‘lines’ about the entirety of the past, let alone about the complexities of the present and recent-past.

Lastly * how about broadening the opening question? Is all knowledge, including the study of History, really ‘political’ – not in the party-political sense – but as expressing an engaged worldview? Again, the answer is No. That extended definition of ‘political’ takes the term, which usefully refers to government and civics, too far.

Human knowledge, which does stem from, reflect and inform human worldviews, is hard gained not from dogma but from research and debate, followed by more research and debate. It’s human, not just political. It’s shared down the generations. And between cultures. That’s why it’s vital that knowledge acquisition be not dictated by any temporary power-holders, of any political-ideological or religious hue.

1 Christopher Hill has a good chapter on Cromwell’s Janus-faced reputation over time, in God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1970), pp. 251-76.

2 Statue of Cromwell (1599-1658), erected outside Parliament in 1899 at the tercentenary of his birth: see www.flickr.com, kev747’s photostream, photo taken Dec. 2007.

3 Contrast the favourable but not uncritical account by C. Moore, Margaret Thatcher, the Authorised Biography, Vol. 1: Not for Turning (2013) with tough critiques from Christopher Hitchens and Karl Naylor: see www.Karl-Naylor.blogspot.co.uk, entry for 23 April 2013.

4 Illustrations (L) photo of Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), suffragette leader, orating in Trafalgar Square; (R) statue of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), Britain’s first woman prime minister (1979-90), orating in the Commons: see www.parliament.uk.

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MONTHLY BLOG 29, SHOULD EACH SECRETARY OF STATE FOR EDUCATION REWRITE THE UK SCHOOLS HISTORY SYLLABUS?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

The answer is unequivocally No. (Obvious really but worth saying still?)

History as a subject is far, far too important to become a political football. It teaches about conflict as well as compromise; but that’s not the same as being turned into a source of conflict in its own right. Direct intervention by individual politicians in framing the History syllabus is actively dangerous.

2013-4 Cavaliers and Roundheads

Rival supporters of King and Parliament in the 1640s civil wars, berating their opponents as ‘Roundhead curs’ and ‘Cavalier dogs’: the civil wars should certainly appear in the Schools History syllabus but they don’t provide a model for how the syllabus should be devised.

There are several different issues at stake. For a start, many people believe that the Schools curriculum, or prescriptive framework, currently allots too little time to the study of History. There should be more classes per week. And the subject should be compulsory to the age of sixteen.1  Those changes would in themselves greatly enhance children’s historical knowledge, reducing their recourse to a mixture of prevalent myths and cheerful ignorance.

A second issue relates to the balance of topics within the current History syllabus, which specifies the course contents. I personally do favour some constructive changes. There is a good case for greater attention to long-term narrative frameworks,2  alongside high-quality in-depth studies.

But the point here is: who should actually write the detailed syllabus? Not individual historians and, above all, not individual politicians. However well-intentioned such power-brokers may or may not be, writing the Schools History syllabus should be ultra-vires: beyond their legal and political competence.

The need for wide consultation would seem obvious; and such a process was indeed launched. However, things have just moved into new territory. It is reported that Education Secretary has unilaterally aborted the public discussions. Instead, the final version of the Schools History syllabus, revealed on 7 February 2013, bears little relation to previous drafts and discussions.3 It has appeared out of the (political) blue.

Either the current Education Secretary acted alone, or perhaps had some unnamed advisers, working behind the scenes. Where is the accountability in this mode of procedure? Even some initial supporters of syllabus revision have expressed their dismay and alarm.

Imagine what Conservative MPs would have said in 2002 if David Blunkett (to take the best known of Blair’s over-many Education Ministers) had not only inserted the teaching of Civics into the Schools curriculum as a separate subject;4 but had written the Civics syllabus as well. Or if Blunkett had chosen to rewrite the History syllabus at the same time?

Or imagine what Edmund Burke, the apostle of moderate Toryism, would have said. This eighteenth-century politician-cum-political theorist, who was reportedly identified in 2008 as ‘the greatest conservative ever’ by the current Education Secretary,5 was happy to accept the positive role of the state. Yet he consistently warned of the dangers of high-handed executive power. The authority of central government should not be untrammelled. It should not be used to smash through policies in an arbitrary manner. Instead Burke specifically praised the art of compromise or – a better word – of mutuality:

All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.6

An arbitrary determination of the Schools History syllabus further seems to imply that the subject not only can but ought to be moulded by political fiat. Such an approach puts knowledge itself onto a slippery slope. ‘Fixing’ subjects by political will (plus the backing of the state) leads to intellectual atrophy.

To take a notoriously extreme example, Soviet biology was frozen for at least two generations by Stalin’s doctrinaire endorsement of Lysenko’s environmental genetics.7 A dramatic rise in agrarian productivity was promised, without the need for fertilisers (or more scientific research). Stalin was delighted. Down with the egg-heads and their slow research. Lysenko’s critics were dismissed or imprisoned. But Lysenkoism did not work. And, after unduly long delays, his pseudo-science was finally discredited.
2013-4 Lysenko_with_Stalin - Copy

A rare photo of Stalin (back R) gazing approvingly at Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976)
speaking from the rostrum in the Kremlin, 1935

In this case, the Education Secretary is seeking to improve schoolchildren’s minds rather than to improve crop yields. But declaring the ‘right’ answer from the centre is no way to achieve enlightenment. Without the support of the ‘little platoons’ (to borrow another key phrase from Burke), the proposed changes may well prove counter-productive in the class-room. Many teachers, who have to teach the syllabus, are already alienated. And, given that History as a subject lends itself to debate and disagreement, pupils will often learn different lessons from those intended.

Intellectual interests in an Education Secretary are admirable. The anti-intellectualism of numerous past ministers (including too many Labour ones) has been horribly depressing. But intellectual confidence, tipped into arrogance, can be taken too far. Another quotation to that effect is often web-attributed to Edmund Burke, though it seems to come from Albert Einstein. He warned that powerful people should wisely appreciate the limits of their power:

Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.8

1 That viewpoint was supported in my monthly BLOG no.23 ‘Why do Politicians Undervalue History in Schools’ (Oct. 2012): see www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk.

2 I proposed a long-span course on ‘The Peopling of Britain’ in History Today, 62/11 (Nov. 2012), pp. 52-3.

3 See D. Cannadine, ‘Making History: Opportunities Missed in Reforming the National Curriculum’, Times Literary Supplement, 15 March 2013, pp. 14-15; plus further responses and a link to the original proposals in www.historyworks.tv

4 For the relationships of History and Civics, see my monthly BLOG no.24 ‘History as the Staple of a Civic Education’, www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk.

5 Michael Gove speech to 2008 Conservative Party Annual Conference, as reported in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Gove, consulted 3 April 2013.

6 Quotation from Edmund Burke (1729-97), Second Speech on Conciliation with America (1775). For further context, see D. O’Keeffe, Edmund Burke (2010); I. Kramnick, The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative (New York, 1977); and F. O’Gorman (ed.), British Conservatism: Conservative Thought from Burke to Thatcher (1986).

7 Z. Medvedev, The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko (New York, 1969).

8 Albert Einstein (1879-1955), in Essays Presented to Leo Baeck on the Occasion of his Eightieth Birthday (1954), p. 26. The quotation is sometimes (but wrongly) web-attributed to Edmund Burke’s critique of Jacobin arrogance in his Preface to Brissot’s Address to his Constituents (1794).

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MONTHLY BLOG 25, CHAMPIONING THE STUDY OF HISTORY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2012)

How do we champion (not merely defend) the study of History in schools and Universities? Against those who wrongly claim that the subject is not commercially ‘useful’.

Here are three recommendations. Firstly, we should stress the obvious: that a knowledge of history and an interconnected view of past and present (cause and consequence) is essential to the well-functioning not only of every individual but also of every society. The subject roots people successfully in time and place. Individuals with lost memories become shadowy, needing help and compassion. Communities with broken memories, for example through forced uprooting, exhibit plentiful signs of trauma, often handed down through successive generations. Civics as well as economics thus demands that people have a strong sense of a sustained past. That entails learning about the history their own and other societies, in order to gain an understanding of the human condition. All knowledge comes from the past and remains essential in the present. Nothing could be more ‘useful’ than history, viewed broadly.

december003The second recommendation links with the first. We should define the subject as the study not of the ‘dead past’ but of ‘living history’.

In fact, there’s a good case for either usage. Historians often like to stress the many differences between past and present. That’s because studying the contrasts sets a good challenge – and also because an awareness of ‘otherness’ alerts students not simply to project today’s attitudes and assumptions backwards in time. The quotation of choice for the ‘difference’ protagonists comes from an elegiac novel, which looked back at England in 1900 from the vantage point of a saddened older man in the 1940s. Entitled The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley (1953), it began with the following words: The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

It’s an evocative turn of phrase that has inspired book titles.1 It’s also widely quoted, often in the variant form of ‘the past is another country’. These phrases draw their potency from the fact that other places can indeed be different – sometimes very much so. It is also true that numerous historic cultures are not just different but have physically vanished, leaving imperfect traces in the contemporary world. ‘Ancient Ur of the Chaldees is covered by the sands of southern Iraq. … And the site of the once-great Alexandrian port of Herakleion lies four miles off-shore, under the blue seas of the Mediterranean’.2

december002On the other hand, while some elements of history are ‘lost’, past cultures are not necessarily inaccessible to later study. Just as travellers can make an effort to understand foreign countries, so historians and archaeologists have found many ingenious ways to analyse the ‘dead past’.

There are common attributes of humanity that can be found everywhere. We all share a living human history.3 Ancient cultures may have vanished but plenty of their ideas, mathematics, traditions, religions, and languages survive and evolve. Anyone who divides a minute into sixty seconds, an hour into sixty minutes, and a circle into 360 degrees, is paying an unacknowledged tribute to the mathematics of ancient Babylon.4

december001So there is an alternative quotation of choice for those who stress the connectivity of past and present. It too comes from a novelist, this time from the American Deep South, who was preoccupied by the legacies of history. William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun (1951) made famous his dictum that:
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

No doubt there are circumstances when such sentiments are dangerous. There are times when historic grievances have to be overcome. But, before reconciliation, it’s best to acknowledge the reality of such legacies, rather than dismissing them. As it happens, that was the argument of Barack Obama when giving a resonant speech in 2008 about America’s festering ethnic divisions.5

Historians rightly observe that history contains intertwined elements of life and death. But when campaigning for the subject, it’s best to highlight the elements that survive through time. That is not romanticising history, since hatreds and conflicts are among the legacies from the past. It’s just a good method for convincing the doubters. Since we are all part of living history, for good and ill, we all need to study the subject in all its complexity.

Thirdly and finally: historians must make common cause with champions of other subjects. Obvious allies come from the Arts and Humanities. But we should appeal especially to the Pure Sciences. They too fail to meet the test of immediate economic ‘usefulness’. There is no instant value in a new mathematical equation. No immediate gain from the study of String Theory in physics. (Indeed, some physicists argue that this entire field is turning into a blind alley).6 But the pure sciences need essential scope for creativity and theoretical innovation. Some new ideas have become ‘useful’ (or dangerous) only many years after the initial intellectual breakthrough. Others have as yet no direct application. And some may never have.

Humans, however, are capable of thinking long. It is one of our leading characteristics. So we must not be bullied into judging the value of subjects to study solely or even chiefly in terms of short-term criteria. The Pure Sciences, alongside the Arts and Humanities, must combat this blinkered approach. There are multiple values in a rounded education, combining the theoretical and the practical. In the case of History, the blend must include knowledge as well as skills. In the sciences, it must include the theoretical as well as the applied. One without the other will fail. And that in the long-term is not remotely useful. In fact, it’s positively dangerous. History confirms the long-term usefulness of the sciences. Let the scientists repay the compliment by joining those who reject crude utilitarianism – hence in turn championing the study of History.

1 Notably by David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, 1983)

2 Quoting from an essay by myself, entitled ‘Cities in Time’, in Peter Clark (ed.), Oxford Handbook on Cities in World History (Oxford, forthcoming May 2013).

3 See Ivar Lissner, The Living Past (1957), transl. from German So Habt Ihr Geleb = literally Thus Have They Lived; and my personal response in PJC Discussion-Point Nov. 2011.

4 For the social and intellectual context of Babylonian mathematics, see Eleonor Robson, Mathematics in Ancient Iraq: A Social History (Princeton, 2008).

5 For Barack Obama’s speech ‘A More Perfect Union’, delivered at Philadelphia, PA, 18 March 2008: see video on www.youtube.com.

6 See references to the usefulness or otherwise of pure maths in PJC Blog Oct. 2012.

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MONTHLY BLOG 24, HISTORY AS THE STAPLE OF A CIVIC EDUCATION

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2012)

Politicians have a duty to attend to civics as well as to economics. Indeed, we all do. So talking about whether the study of History is ‘useful’ for the economy is a very partial way of approaching an essential component of human’s collective living. We all need to be rooted in space and time. Politicians should therefore be advocating the study of History as the essential contribution to individual and social connectedness. In a word, civics in the full meaning of the term. Not just learning how to fill in a ballot paper – but learning how communities develop over time, how they cope with conflict and with conflict-resolution, and, incidentally, how they struggle to create truly fair and democratic societies.

Praise of the study of History as a means of learning essential skills is all very well. Lots of useful things are indeed achieved by this means. People learn to evaluate complex sources, to make and debate critical judgments based upon careful assessments of often contradictory evidence, and to understand continuity and change over the long term. So far, so good.

Yet it is seriously inadequate to recommend a subject only in terms of the skills it teaches and not in terms of its core content. It’s like (say) recommending learning to sing in order to strengthen the vocal chords and to improve lung capacity. Or (as the ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi notoriously did in 1988) recommending a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum in order to enjoy a nice egg salad in its ‘ace caff’ – with some very valuable art objects attached.
november004By the way, so notorious has that advertisement become that it is strangely difficult to find the originals image on the web. It seems to have been self-censored by both the Museum and the ad agency – probably in shame.

When recommending History, there is a crucial Knowledge agenda at stake as well as a supporting Skills agenda. Of course, the two are inextricably linked. Historical skills without historical Knowledge are poorly learned and quickly forgotten. But learning History has a greater and essential value purely in its own right. It is not ‘just’ a route to Skills but a subject of all-encompassing and thrilling importance.

All of human life is there; and all humans need access to this shared reservoir of knowledge about our shared past. People always glean some outline information by one means or another. They pick up myths and assumptions and bits and pieces from their families and communities.

But people learn more and better when they learn systematically: about the history of the country that they live in; and about the comparative history of other countries, both nearby and far away; and about how a myriad of different developments around the world fit into a long-term human history, which includes continuities as well as change.

Needless to say, these perceptions are hardly new. ‘Histories make men wise’, as Francis Bacon long ago observed. Thinkers and doers from classical Greece to Winston Churchill have agreed and recommended its study.
november003Why then has the subject matter of History been comparatively undervalued in recent years? It can’t just be the power of the Skills agenda and the influence of ministers fussing about every subject’s contribution to the economy.

Nor can it be that History teachers are ‘boring’ and that they teach students nothing but the dates of kings, queens and battles. Ofsted report after Ofsted report has stated otherwise. The subject is considered to be generally well and imaginatively conveyed. Moreover, the sizeable number of students choosing to take the subject, even once it has ceased to be compulsory, shows that there is a continuing human urge to understand the human past.

Nonetheless, the public reputation of History as a subject of study is currently poor. It is often dismissed as the ‘dead past’. Why should students need to know about things that have long gone? The pace of technological change in particular seems to point people ‘onwards’, not backwards. What can the experience of the older generation, who notoriously have trouble coping with shiny new gadgets, teach the adept and adaptable young?

Well, there are many answers to such rhetoric.

In the first place, things that are ‘dead’ are not necessarily lacking in interest. It is valuable to stretch the mind to learn about vanished cultures, as some indeed have. Impressively, archaeologists, historians, palaeontologists, biologists and language experts have together discovered much about the long evolution of our own species – often from the skimpiest bits of evidence. It’s a highly relevant story about adaptation and survival, often in hostile climes.

Meanwhile, there is a second answer too. It’s completely fallacious to assume that everything in the past is ‘dead’. Much – very much – survives and develops through time, to create a living history, which embraces everyone alive today. The human genome, for example, is an evolving inheritance from the past. So are the dynamic histories, languages and cultures that we have so variously created.

We need more long-term accounts of how such things continue, evolve and change over the very long term. The recent stress by historians upon close focus studies, looking at one period or great event in depth, has been fruitful. Yet it should not exclude long-term narratives. They help to frame the details and to fit the immediate complexities into bigger pictures. (My own suggestion for a secondary-schools course on ‘The Peopling of Britain’, in which everyone living in Britain has a stake, is published in the November issue of History Today).1  In sum, we all need to learn systematically – and to continue learning – about our own and other people’s histories. It’s a lifetime project, for individuals and for citizens.

• My December Blog will consider further how historians can advance the public case for studying History.

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Our Island Stories – The Peopling of Britain’, History Today, vol. 62, issue 11 (Nov. 2012), pp. 52-3.

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MONTHLY BLOG 22, TO TRUST OR NOT TO TRUST?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2012)

When choosing Blog topics, I draw from my professional experiences as an academic historian and my grass-roots life as a long-term party activist and former Labour councillor. But today’s theme of Trust/or No trust comes from both fields of endeavour. Can society trust people? Should we? How do we balance between a lack of regulation, which may easily cloak fraud or incompetence, and an excess of petty regulations on individuals?

A culture of universal suspicion is bad for communal living. Trust is easy to lose, hard to build.

Ok, it seems clear that big institutions do need to be audited regularly. Their intricate structures and wide-ranging responsibilities are too difficult otherwise for outsiders to assess. Depressingly, the need for such inspection always seems to come from some scandalous incompetence or crime.

Nonetheless, society should not lurch from excessive under-regulation to excessive over-regulation, especially when it comes to institutions regulating the actions of their own staff. Then it seems that the culture of suspicion has just been imported in order to let superiors tyrannise those below them in their local hierarchy, without actually controlling those at the top. What about some due proportionality?

I have two immediate examples of attempts at petty regulation. The first was foiled. It came from the examinations department of an ancient University, where I was the external examiner a few years ago. We were abruptly informed that we had to tick every page of every script, as proof that we had actually read the essays which we were supposed to be marking. But the instruction was simultaneously offensive and utterly pointless. A tick would prove only that the page had been ticked, not that its contents had been duly read and considered.

Examiners may well feel a sense of exhaustion when confronting their annual tasks. But infantilising the teaching workforce by imposing distracting and pointless extra requirements is the reverse of helpful.
august004 Did the ancient University really lack trust in its own staff and its invited external examiner? In this case, common sense prevailed; and, after a protest, the instruction was withdrawn.

This case was, however, all too typical of the excess rules (often imposed abruptly and later altered as abruptly) that try to stipulate how academics should do their jobs. The motive seems to be the urge for control by middle management – and the result is cynicism and secret evasion.

The second example has just come into my in-tray. It is a bright idea from the Labour Party, but it might come from any political organisation. The aim is to control/monitor those who stand for office (whether local, national or European) by asking them to sign a quasi-legal contract. Of course, it’s essential to let candidates to know what’s expected of them, in terms of attendance at meetings, responding to the electorate, managing publicity, canvassing and so forth. But signing a quasi-legal contract? Who is to monitor it? And who enforce it??

It’s the sort of politics as spurious-legalism that got Nick Clegg into so much trouble over his signed pledge (below) not to raise University tuition fees.
august002august003 Unfairness is written into the proposed contract from the start, by asking the elected members to attend a specified percentage of all public meetings in their constituencies. Those whose political patches contain many residents’ associations, neighbourhood watches, and other local gatherings will be required to jump over a much higher hurdle than those in sleepy Clochemerles, where nothing happens.

Judging by percentages leaves out all discretion on the part of the councillors, MPs, MEPs etc. It is mathematicalising the non-mathematical; standardising what should be un-standardised; taking spontaneity and good judgment from what should be the core of civic commitment.

Down with phoney legalism. It’s up to political parties to choose good candidates. And then for electorates to judge them. The ungracious folly of candidates’ unenforceable quasi-contracts, made and adjudged by their own political parties, has been proposed.

But – no! This sort of petty monitoring should be rejected. There are far more important and urgent problems facing politicians today than worrying over whether they have attended the right percentage of neighbourhood watch meetings this year. Trust is earned by good deeds not by percentage-pledges.

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MONTHLY BLOG 20, IN PRAISE OF DISTINCTIVE CITIES – AND AGAINST THE MARCH OF HIGH-RISE ANYWHERE-CITY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2012)

may001Okay, so not everywhere can look like Venice. Cities have to adapt and change. Venice itself is not immune from innovations. Yet, in the relentless processes of urban development, much more effort is needed to save each place’s distinctive identity – and to introduce or reintroduce such qualities, if they have been lost. If every omni-urban scene looks like every other omni-urban scene, humans have collectively lost something vital.

This BLOG has general bearings but it is specifically prompted by the publication of my new, expanded booklet on Vauxhall, Sex and Entertainment.1 The history of London’s pioneering pleasure gardens, which triumphantly eroticised the eighteenth-century leisure industry, may seem far distant from today’s plans to redevelop the Vauxhall area into a ‘mini-Manhattan’. (See my April 2012 BLOG). There is, however, an urgent link. We need to reject the march of high-rise anywhere-city – and to keep or restore urban distinctiveness.

Variety is the spice. Trite, but fundamentally right. And authenticity is absolutely essential too.

Many congratulations are rightly paid to the planners/ architects/ politicians/ people for preserving central Paris from the march of identikit high-rise development. That success includes some luck in avoiding wartime devastation but has relied on good judgment thereafter. And, around the globe, the same applies to all those historic towns which have kept their traditional topography and ambience. Udaipur in Rajasthan is but one spectacular example.

Yet, even after praising distinctive cities, it’s worth recalling that many places with sparky urban centres also contain inner-urban and suburban areas that are dire. Areas lose human scale when urban thoroughfares and junctions become too massive; when factory zones are kept isolated, featureless, and dilapidated – especially if their core industries are declining; when shopping malls slowly kill in-town high streets and local shops; and when mass housing estates are left without shops, cafes, pubs, post offices, jobs, viable parks and social amenities. Above all, it’s a disaster if the building of new homes, with modern facilities, simultaneously fail to build functioning communities.

In response, the crucial thing is to get planners, architects, developers, politicians and people to think in terms of the entire lived environment – including the local and regional context, and the prevailing landscape and weather conditions.

Why is all the literature about tall buildings concerned with the effects of heat/wind/weather on the said buildings? But virtually nothing is available on the overshadowing and wind channelling effects of such high-risers upon people and the wider environment.

Too much of the serious planning/development focuses upon just one plot of land; or upon just one building, whether supposedly ‘iconic’ or otherwise. Yet the test should not be for an architect to dream up a strange shape, which is then set as a challenge for an engineer to realise it. Buildings should be part of a townscape, not imposed upon it.

Of course, views of architectural monuments are subjective. Google-search the ‘world’s ugliest building’ and the Elephant Tower, Bangkok, is often nominated, shown here in this 2009 photograph.2 It is not necessarily the jokey concept that is criticised but especially its bleak implementation.
may003But my partner saw this image on screen, grinned, and said ‘Great’. I suspect that he was trying to annoy me, although this building is not in fact my personal nomination for the world’s architectural black-spot. Anyhow, a much more important consideration would be to understand the impact of these buildings upon the immediate locality and the wider city environment – and what visitors and locals think in reality.

Plenty of high-rise buildings, which were praised when first installed, have now been removed as urban and social disasters. It’s not the scale per se which makes some constructions succeed and some fail. It’s the full context and the full experience. We need a good global debate and update upon Jane Jacobs’s humanist tract on the Death and Life of Great American Cities.3

It’s also right to rectify mistakes where buildings have been removed without due thought. Congratulations therefore to historic Datong in China’s Shanxi prefecture, to the west of Beijing. Known as today’s gritty ‘city of coal’, it features among lists of the world’s most polluted cities. Yet, as a sign of good intentions to improve, Datong is rebuilding its great Ming dynasty city walls, which were destroyed in the 1980s in the name of ‘modernity’.4 Let’s have more, more.

Erasing buildings entails erasing past thoughts as well as past deeds. Pulling down the old may well have to be done. But we need to be confident that our new thoughts and deeds are better, and that we fit new constructions into a whole environment of living and liveable cities.

My current example refers to plans to redevelop London’s Vauxhall into a ‘mini-Manhattan’. Why should a low marshy area of Thames bankside, far from the river mouth, emulate the high-rise effect of New York at its distinctive location at the confluence of the Hudson and the Atlantic? If London needs such an attempt, then Canary Wharf is already trying.

Vauxhall could certainly do with improvement. But, unlike some parts of London, it has an exotic past. From the later seventeenth century to 1859, it was the home of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.5 This venue popularised the urban leisure park. It provided an attractive combination of music, dancing, food, drink, variegated entertainments, and an eroticised ambience of sexual dalliance. Not surprisingly, it packed in the crowds, both high and low.

What could the memory of the old Pleasure Gardens contribute to London’s Vauxhall area today?

For a start:
Lots of trees and rose-bushes, lining streets, riverside, parks, and open spaces. Vauxhall was a prime place for courting couples to visit. The nightingales that once serenaded the lovers won’t come back. But why not the indigenous trees? They can help to absorb the noxious exhaust fumes at this polluted traffic interchange; and their flourishing (or otherwise) will signal whether London’s air is getting any cleaner.

• How about arches over the street-scene to generate attractive vistas? And some colonnades; and some statuary? In the eighteenth-century Gardens, there were monuments to John Milton and Georg Handel. But today they could honour Jonathan Tyers, who organised the Gardens in the 1730s, and William Hogarth, who probably designed their dramatic scenery – as seen in the following eighteenth-century print.
may002A musical focus. The Vauxhall Gardens in their prime attracted open-air audiences for summer evening concerts of song and music at both popular and classical levels. Now London has many specialist venues and the bifurcation between high-brow and low-brow can’t easily be undone. But why should the area not host a musical venue of some sort? Maybe a low-cost hall for hire? Plus a link from the Proms in the Park to Vauxhall where London’s open-air summer concerts began?

• More financial and community support for the current imaginative updating of the public open space, now renamed the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, on the site of the old Gardens?6

• And, lastly, some commemoration of Vauxhall as a place for lovers? I don’t know how that’s to be done; and it’s true that love usually evades the planning process. But maybe a statue to Mary Perdita Robinson, a celebrated/notorious eighteenth-century actor and lover, who appeared prominently in Rowlandson’s iconic painting of Vauxhall Gardens in 1784? At very least, it would offer a reminder that women as well as men helped to make old Vauxhall famous as an urban rendez-vous.

1 P.J. Corfield, Vauxhall, Sex and Entertainment: London’s Pioneering Urban Pleasure Garden (History & Social Action Publication: London, 2012) – available after 26 May 2012 via p.j.corfield@btconnect.com; or www.historysocialaction.co.uk.

2 One commentator remarks that ‘the building is 10,000 times bigger than a real elephant, and 10,000 times uglier too’: CNN www.cnngo.com/explorations, 11 Feb. 2011.

3 Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House: New York, 1961; and many later edns).

4 For Datong, see ‘Chinese City’s Bid to Revive Glory of Imperial Past’, BBC News, 3 May 2010; and for context, I. Mohan, The World of Walled Cities: Conservation, Environmental Pollution, Urban Renewal and Developmental Prospects (Mittal: New Delhi, 1992).

5 See Corfield, Vauxhall, Sex and Entertainment; D. Coke and A. Borg, Vauxhall Gardens: A History (Yale University Press: London, 2011); and website: www.vauxhallgardens.com

6 For details, see: www.friendsofvauxhallpleasuregardens.org.uk

7 Consult Paula Byrne, Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson (Harpercollins: London, 2004); and May Robinson, The Memoirs of Mary Robinson ‘Perdita’, Edited by her Daughter (London, 1894).

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MONTHLY BLOG 19, IN PRAISE OF PUBLIC INFORMATION, AND DISPRAISE OF SUGARED PUBLIC RELATIONS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2012)

On the subject of accuracy, there’s no doubt that concerned citizens need access to good public information. But how can we get it straight? Without the sugared gloss of PR?

Take the artists’ illustrations that are commonly presented as part of the brief for controversial planning developments. These pictures are so unreal that one immediately smells a large Rat.

The proposed new development is always shown in summer, under blue skies – sometimes dotted with a few puffs of light, high clouds. The people in sight are predominantly young, comely, and Anglo-Saxon. At most they hold light bags and perhaps a styrofoam cup of coffee. There are no prams, no shopping trolleys, no wheel-chairs in sight. No older people. No babies. No skate-boards or any signs of children having fun. If there is a road, there are perhaps one or two cars and a reassuring bus – but no congestion (and hence, by implication, no air pollution).

Very rarely the proposed high-rise buildings appear to have shadows that might fall upon any adjacent properties. Or, if they do, then such darkened areas are lightly, almost apologetically, shaded.

Above all, when the proposed new buildings are disproportionately tall in a low-rise area, then the illustrations either focus upon a trendy new piazza at the foot of the tall building; or look at it from a distance – say across a river, sparkling blue in the summer sunshine. A night-time view is taken with all lights glittering, perhaps across the river. No hint of the under-occupied buildings which result, looking bleak with deserted streets at ground level.

There is no real sense of how such proposed buildings might fit into a wider area. How they are viewed from afar, affecting the views of countless people who are not consulted over the proposed changes.

There is no sense of how the development will look at different times of year and in different climatic conditions. What about wet February afternoons as well as sunny June days?

Talking of climatic effects in particular, there is no consideration of the potential for wind funnels. People daily experience the mini-gales that swirl around at the feet of high-rise buildings, especially in exposed areas such as sites by the riverside. But somehow it is assumed that such invisible costs must never be mentioned. Depressingly, almost all architectural studies of wind effects and high-rise buildings concentrate on the impact of wind upon the buildings themselves but not upon the wider locality. A sad sign of how the individual structures are given priority over the urban landscape and environment as a whole.

Developers promise more one- and two-bedroom flats. How does that relate to housing demand locally? What about families? What percent of the single-bed and two-bedroom flats recently built along the Wandsworth riverside are empty for some or all of the year? We are not told in the public planning brief. Offices are to be provided. Is London short of offices? No documentation is provided. They promise more retail outlets. How does that relate to the growth of on-line buying and the crisis of small shops in town centres? Especially in the light of the Portas Report, which has just won promises of support for existing town centres – while the so-called planning process is undermining them daily.

Continuing the litany of questions: where are the community facilities, such as a hall which is available for public use and private hire? There is no mention of libraries or schools, because the lop-sided community without families will not need such things.

And lastly, why do the promised public green spaces at the feet of these developments seem so dispiriting? Are the amenities actually amenable? Will people want to use them? Are they central to the plan or add-ons to allow some green colouring on the plans? Will these places be free from overshadowing and wind blight? Who will maintain them, keeping them free from litter and vandalism? Needless to say, detailed reports on many aspects of every planning application are promised, including a ‘Placemaking Strategy’. But how often do such documents critique the basic application? The fear is that reports have pre-judged the issue in advance. And that over-development of a site for short-term expediency risks being preferred over long-term planning, even while the deleterious results of hasty over-development last for a long, long time.

There are so many other forms of public information, which turn out to be nothing more than PR exercises, about which much more could be written. But enough for now. Just have a look at the following illustration, which is attached to the current planning application for ‘One Nine Elms’, next to Vauxhall station.
April2012This illustration flatters the proposed Market Towers. The sky is deep blue, shading to lighter sky and lights at ground level. The Towers seem to cast no shadows. The surviving Grade I listed building at their feet (centre R) is merged into the background, foretelling its coming obscurity. The traffic at a major traffic interchange is strangely reduced to give the picture harmony. The struggling commuters battling through the wind funnel at the feet of high-rise buildings by the exposed riverside don’t exist. Bah! Humbug! And … more anon.

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MONTHLY BLOG 12, WHAT IS A RIOT?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

What’s a riot? Some people prefer to name the recent disorder in numerous English cities between 6-10 August 2011 as ‘looting sprees’. But there is no absolute right-or-wrong definition.

Riots usually involve crowds in substantial numbers, who are flouting the law in a tumultuous and out-of-control manner. They may or may not have a specified aim. Yet if disorderly crowds resort to public displays of criminal violence against people and/or property, then their actions are riotous.

Mass campaigns of civil disobedience do not fall into the same category. In such cases, campaigners may also break the criminal law. An example was the 1932 mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District. The action, however, was conducted in an orderly way, to make their campaign point. The ramblers were asserting their right of access to the countryside (see plaque) – a right that was eventually confirmed by legislation.1
september001

Running wild:

It is the out-of-control element which makes riots not only nerve-tingling for rioters but also, potentially, exhilarating. Normal order is being flouted. People make snap decisions, in strange circumstances. Generally, the excitement is greatest in the early stages of a riot, before official repression follows.

One historical example displayed carnival elements. At the Nottingham Goose Fair Riots in 1764, the crowd rebelled at a sudden steep rise in food prices. Market stalls were ransacked and giant cheeses were rolled down the street. One struck the Mayor, flattening his dignity. Although serious in intent, the crowd’s antics parodied the Fair’s normal carnival atmosphere.

That element of being out-of-control makes riots into very blunt instruments as a form of political protest. They are hard to direct and focus. Thus, while riots may start as demonstrations of public anger on classic issues (eg: politics; religion; policing; high prices; unemployment; or any combination of those), they often develop, if unchecked, into disorganised violence and attacks on property. As things escalate, blazing buildings and uncontrolled streets (see illustration from London in August 2011) mimic scenes of disasters or war zones. In one sense, the flames are an emphatic display of anger. Yet any issues at stake in the riot are obscured by the urgent need to restore order.
september002

Repressing riots:

Repressing riots in Britain was, historically, governed by special legislation. Under the 1715 Riot Act,2 a disorderly and threatening mass of twelve or more people was not held to be riotous until the Mayor or local magistrate had read the Riot Act – and one full hour had elapsed. That way, people were warned.

If the crowds did not disperse, the authorities were then entitled to use force, in the form of armed troops. Shots were fired; and sometimes one or two rioters lost their lives. State violence in retaliation hit its peak in the aftermath of London’s Gordon Riots in June 1780. These began as anti-Catholic demonstrations but, while the authorities dithered, ‘King Mob’ took over. Prisons were thrown open. Wealthy residences, including that of the Lord Chief Justice, were sacked. And the Bank of England was attacked. When the troops were finally summoned to restore order, they killed several hundred people and wounded as many again. It was at once the apogee of political violence – and its nadir, since these riots alienated many of the original protestors.
september003However, the authorities needed – and still need – to strike a balance. On the one hand, they had to restore civil peace. On the other hand, it’s always wise not to provoke more people to join the mayhem. The use of troops today remains a reserve power. But riot control, in a democracy, is essentially viewed as a task for policing – and, ultimately, for community self-control.

 So do riots ‘work’?

Because riots are hard to control and often provoke a backlash, riots are usually taken as a negative form of campaigning. For that reason, organised protestors generally try hard to prevent marches and demonstrations from turning violent. Nonetheless, the authorities do also pay attention to the crowd grievances, if only through prudence. For example, historic riots in protest at high food prices often encouraged magistrates to bring extra grain into town. Or, much more recently, the 1990 riot in Trafalgar Square against the Poll Tax was one of the salient factors which helped to bring about that tax’s demise. Hence activists sometimes comment pointedly that violence attracts a greater degree of attention from the powers-that-be than does civil protest.

So riots can ultimately be defined as inarticulate (or non-articulated) forms of protest, which take the form of collective violence. They include riots which end or even start with looting. In sum, all upheavals make a point. They shock the complacency of the powers-that-be. But riots don’t usually ‘win’ directly. Instead, they draw attention to an issue or range of issues. In the old days, rioters were suppressed without too much angst. They were rarely voters. What democracies decide to do about those non-articulated issues, however, is much more significant. It is unlikely that there will be plaques to commemorate the 2011 riots. But there will be responses – and repression alone won’t suffice.

1 The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (1949) laid the foundation for all subsequent legislation, most recently the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000).

2 This legislation remained on the statute book until 1967, when it was replaced by the Criminal Law Act.

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