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 In this case, common sense prevailed; and, after a protest, the instruction was withdrawn.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

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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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MONTHLY BLOG 11, WHERE IS THE POLITICAL LEFT TODAY?

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WHERE IS THE POLITICAL LEFT TODAY?1
august001

2
Today’s political scene is a blurred rainbow. Gone are the old simplicities – if they were ever that simple – when one reactionary party of tradition and privilege (the Right) was confronted by one progressive party of reform and egalitarianism (the Left).

A heartfelt cry for ‘social justice’ still has resonance. But how does that translate into politics, as opposed to single-issue campaigning? It’s always easier to know what is not wanted than to know what to put in its place. And even harder to know how to achieve the alternative.

Claims for progressive thought today are found in the Green Party, generating red-greenery. Ditto among some Liberal Democrats, whose social democratic component came from Labour: the result, red-orange (alongside orange-blue). Some Tories also use community-based language, as in the red-blue thought of Phillip Blond.3 And campaigners within Labour today advocate a return to localism and mutualism:4 a blue-red vision.

That latter position recalls Christopher Logue’s 1966 poem, with its only partly tongue-in-cheek conclusion: ‘I shall vote labour because/ deep in my heart/ I am a conservative’.5

So what now? Of course, there are other possibilities for direct action outside the conventional political parties, such as via the Transition Network.6 But we can all rethink. For Labour activists, some of the big questions relate to its underlying political philosophy.

One issue is Labour’s attitude to the state, and specifically to central government. Although part of the movement historically sprang from local unions, cooperatives and mutuals, there has also been throughout the twentieth century a push towards centralisation. (The same pressures also operated upon the Conservative party in power). Control of the levers of central government seems necessary as a means of introducing change.

On the other hand, centralised control, introduced to remedy injustices, can work against itself, as novelists like George Orwell and Arthur Koestler have urgently warned.7 Excess centralisation risks cutting national politicians off from their roots. And, even more importantly, it risks alienating the masses, to and for whom policies are enacted at a distance.

Furthermore, in a development that is post-Orwellian but often carries Orwellian connotations, the growth of an adjunct state of regulatory quangos (which has happened under both Conservatives and Labour in the later twentieth century) is also intervening extensively between the state and its citizens.8 This development also risks introducing another source of political alienation at many levels in society and of diminished social trust.

Consequently, how to recombine the local and the central is one resonant question for today – a question which does not require yet another ‘top-down’ answer.

A second question asks not just about the mechanisms for promoting change but about the presumed beneficiaries. Who are the underdogs in society today whose cause(s) should be prioritised by progressive politics? Without a realistic set of answers, national politicians end up inventing policies in the name of abstractions (‘choice’ ‘competition’) – and often contradicting themselves, as one hand undoes what the other hand achieves.

In fact, there is not one universal victim whose wrongs stand proxy for all others. Complex urban/industrial societies generate very complex social relationships. There are divisions and conflicts at all levels, as well as cooperation and solidarity. One person’s underdog might be another person’s oppressor. An exploited and impoverished husband might beat his wife and children. A subjugated wife might submit her daughters to genital circumcision.

Divisive issues are often triggered by religion; ethnicity; immigration; gender relations; age; and lifestyles. Economic conflicts may also arise between different groups among the working class, as the trade union movement is well aware. Well-paid ‘labour aristocrats’ may not feel solidarity with the low-paid. The poor in employment may resent the unemployed poor. And vice versa. The unemployed may resent those in employment – and be divided

What is to be done? Again, the answers need realistic debates. Not just top-down pronouncements. Not just competitions to discover who is the ‘most victimised’. Novels and especially plays, with multiple voices in a compressed scenario, are good vehicles to explore these themes. But either way, progressive change and social cooperation will require good local governance (not another top-down reorganisation) as well as the contribution of the central state. To repeat: Social justice is not just one THING. It’s a process.

1 With thanks to all those who attended the Battersea Labour Party’s reading-group on Wednesday 19 July 2011 for a vigorous debate on this question; and to Tony Belton for a robustly critical reading of my first draft.

2 Blurred Rainbow 2 by Amazing-Love: from amazing-love.deviantart.com (downloaded 30 July 2011).

3 See Phillip Blond, Red Toryism (2010).

4 See Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Stuart White (eds), The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox: The Oxford/London Seminars, 2010/11 (2011).

5 Christopher Logue, ‘I Shall Vote Labour Because …’ (1966).

6 This network ‘supports community-led responses to climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy, building resilience and happiness’: see www.transition.network.org.

7 See esp. George Orwell, Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1948); Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940).

8 For a helpful overview, see Carsten Greve, Matthew Flinders, and Sandra Van Thiel, ‘Quangos – What’s in a Name? Defining Quangos from a Comparative Perspective’, Governance, 12 (1999), pp. 129–46.

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MONTHLY BLOG 10, WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE ARTS & HUMANITIES RESEARCH COUNCIL CITING POLITICAL SLOGANS?

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Why are many Humanities researchers so angry at the conduct of the Arts and Humanities Research Council? Its chief executive Prof. Rick Rylance has not yet managed to assuage his critics. They fear that the AHRC has not kept due operational distance from the present coalition government and the David Cameron slogan ‘the Big Society’.

The ins-and-outs of what has happened are subject to dispute (see reports by Paul Jump in The Times Higher: 29 March 2011; 7 April 2011; 27 June 2011). But there is genuine concern about the AHRC’s Connected Communities project. This cross-research-council programme, led by the AHRC, appears to have become politically partisan. Its draft consultation paper in June 2010 declared that: ‘Radical new policies on the ‘Big Society’ & localism at the heart of the new Coalition Government’s strategy in England … require a step change in research engagement with local communities and groups, the third sector and local government’. That statement is in itself contentious. Should research methodologies really change with every change of government policy?

Moreover, the AHRC website features a 2010 policy context paper (pdf.2053kb) by Dr Bert Provan, Deputy Director in the Department of Communities & Local Government. His presentation quotes David Cameron extensively. It is stated as a truth, and not as a research question, that, in ‘broken Britain’, government is ‘a large part of the problem’. It has allegedly ‘drained the lifeblood’ from community life. Has it really? Internationally, Britain is often envied for its strong tradition of civil society by post-dictatorship countries, where civic associations have long been discouraged. But Provan’s presentation under the title of ‘Connected Communities or Building the “Big Society”’ seems to imply that the CC project (launched in 2008) is being refashioned to endorse and promote the ‘Big Society’ political agenda.

So what’s going wrong here?

Firstly: the terminology. The ‘Big Society’ has clear party-political connotations. It is not a general term of art. The usual phrase for voluntary activities undertaken communally is ‘civil society’. That term has a clear meaning, with historic and current traction. It is true that, in practice, the boundaries between civil society, the private sector, and central government are blurred. Yet a degree of ‘fuzziness’ attaches to many terms that sub-divide the interlocking nature of human societies. The important thing is that the term ‘civil society’ links to a body of existing research and organisational effort. For example, the South African-based international society Civicus (founded 1993) already offers a Civil Society Index and policy recommendations to enhance citizen participation.1 The term is descriptive and politically neutral – whereas the ‘Big Society’ is used specifically to advocate ‘small government’.
july001For that reason, David Cameron’s slogan enrages many people, not only on the centre and left in politics, but also on the Thatcherite right, who prefer individualist rather than communal alternatives to the state. In addition, plenty of non-political grass-roots activists dislike the term too. It appears as though a currently powerful section of one political party is trying to ‘own’ the countless manifestations of community life.2
july002But organic expressions of civil society began long before David Cameron invoked the ‘Big Society’ to purge the Tory’s anti-society image and will continue long after the current government has disappeared.3
july003Secondly: the pre-committed research framework. Programmes should not start by ruling out all the research options. In this case, it cannot be taken for granted that ‘the’ central state is ‘the’ problem for those seeking to build communities. Governments in contemporary societies are very variegated and diverse in their roles and structures. Their impact can in some circumstances be inimical or discouraging to community activism.

Yet that proposition needs to be investigated, not just asserted. At the same time, the state can foster various forms of community developments, not least by framing a helpful legal context (for example, in support of cooperatives) or by providing grants and support systems for charitable endeavours. So favourable aspects of government also need exploration and debating.

Once political slogans begin to be taken as axiomatic, then the research rot commences. Subjects atrophy, if they are forced into pre-determined moulds. The extreme example – taking the extreme to make the case – can be seen in the fate of biological sciences in Stalin’s Russia. Elevating ‘practice’ above abstract academic theory, Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976) claimed to have pioneered a new genetics that would raise agrarian productivity dramatically, without investment in fertilisers. Stalin was delighted. [See the following photo, which shows his approving gaze at Lysenko’s 1935 Kremlin speech] Lysenko was lauded as an authentic ‘barefoot professor’, his peasant wisdom outwitting the ‘bourgeois’ academics. From 1940, Lysenko led the USSR’s Institute of Genetics. Critics were dismissed or imprisoned. Lysenkoist biology based upon environmental-manipulation rather than slow evolution was taught as a new orthodoxy.
july004But it didn’t work. Long before Lysenko’s teachings were officially discredited as fraudulent in 1964, they were sidelined in practice. In wartime, Stalin learned the hard way that he had to trust his generals to fight the war. Yet he did not get the message in science, or indeed in other subjects, like history, where he intervened to support one argument as Marxist orthodoxy against another as ‘bourgeois’ revisionism. Between them, Stalin and Lysenko halted Russian biological studies and palpably harmed Soviet agriculture for over a generation, greatly weakening Soviet Russia as an international power.4

Of course: this example is the extreme case. But it constitutes the classic warning. As soon as powerful politicians want one result from research and researchers are tempted to provide it, then knowledge halts.

Thirdly and lastly: research hubris.

A programme for Connecting Communities is tempting fate, not only by invoking a partisan slogan but also by promising too much. Its Vision hopes ‘To mobilise the potential for increasingly inter-connected communities’ by promoting connected research.5 Fragmented information from many sources and authorities will be united. And a sequence of benevolent Aims follow upon the generation of ‘world-leading’ research. One is the desire to ‘Create attractive, resilient, safe and sustainable environments in which communities can thrive and adapt successfully to the environmental, economic and social challenges that they will face in the twenty-first century’.6 Amen to that – but hang on a minute …

Such an aspiration does not just sound like a political manifesto, it is a political manifesto. It is not just providing research but it highlights desired research outcomes that no research council can possibly deliver. Even politicians, with their hands on the levers of power, fail to mould society to their wishes. It is certainly helpful for academic researchers to be aware of the practical applications of their work. And it would be splendid if politicians took notice of such studies.

However, communities have an organic life of their own. They can be encouraged or discouraged. But they do not depend upon politicians or upon researchers eager to please politicians.

Alas, the Connected Communities programme has fallen into a heffalump trap. It is true that successive governments would not like it if all scholars were suddenly to specialise in ‘The Economic Influences of Developments in Ship-Building Techniques 1450-1485’. (No disrespect to fifteenth-century ship-building, by the way. The example has been chosen because, as readers of Kingsley Amis will remember, it was the historic target of his anti-intellectual satire in Lucky Jim (1954).)7 Yet the remit of research in the Humanities stretches far and wide in chronology and location. It is generally researcher-led, in the interests of creativity and innovation (and including the risk of routine and dullness). Some big themes are encouraged by the research councils, which influence patterns of funding. But they take advice in choosing such themes, which usually reflect rather than create intellectual growth areas.

We don’t want to fall into the Lucky Jim trap of a researcher hating his research task, in which he had absolutely no interest. That’s clearly not productive, either intellectually or socially. Yet we don’t want to fall into the opposite trap of claiming to effect grandiose plans, which fall beyond researchers’ competence to deliver, in order to please political pay-masters.

Talking of the vogue for Localism on the part of a repentant central government, I remember Hazel Blears, then Labour’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, proudly informing a group of local community activists in Putney (2008) that: ‘It has fallen to me to regenerate Britain’s communities’. She got a collective raspberry from her audience, who daily struggled to promote citizen engagement. They were not impressed. Voters weren’t enamoured either. While politicians necessarily include some hot air in their armoury, it should be good quality rhetoric. And researchers should avoid it entirely.

1 This World Alliance for Citizen Participation is self-defined as ‘an international alliance of members and partners which constitutes an influential network of organisations at the local, national, regional and international levels, and spans the spectrum of civil society’, committed to expanding democracy and citizen participation: see www.civicus.org. The interesting website is, however, insufficiently clear about the actual leadership and membership of Civicus.

2 David Cameron presenting 2010 Big Society awards: issued by the Prime Minister’s office, number10.gov.uk.

3 The illustration shows the hand-drawn advertisement for village fete on 6 May 2011 at Hernhill Village (Kent): see hernhill.net.

4 See N. Roll-Hansen, The Lysenko Effect: The Politics of Science (2006); and V. Soyfer, Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science, transl. L. and R. Gruliow (1994).

5 AHRC website: Connected Communities Revised Draft Outline for Consultation (July 2010) – Vision.

6 Ibid: Aims – the second of seven bullet-points.

7 Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954; in Penguin 1977 edn), p. 15.

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MONTHLY BLOG 9, WHAT HAS GONE WRONG WITH THE AUDIT CULTURE?

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

june001As the sorry tale of FIFA currently implies, oligarchies without external audit and accountability sooner or later get corrupted. So there was a serious principle as well as praxis behind the late Labour Government’s extension of the audit culture to so many aspects of public administration.

The result was a state of close watchfulness. And the government, relying upon good intentions and a mountain of audited data, used the mantra of ‘accountability’ to micro-manage swathes of local government and public administration by setting targets and penalising those who fell behind.

Excluded from the process was the economy, which was left to ‘light touch’ state regulation and to commercial auditors. The result was paradoxical. It was the economy, and particularly the financial sector, which turned out to need more attention. Yet, conversely, the target culture was overdone. There was no happy balance, either in economic or social governance.

Labour’s targets included supervising the professions, which since the early nineteenth century had evolved the ethos of professional self-regulation under parliamentary sanction. Labour also emulated the previous Tory administrations under Thatcher and Major by increasingly subjecting local government to central direction. The traditional partners in the country’s governance, with their own democratic mandate, were undermined. Not surprisingly, turnouts in local elections began to fall, although a stubborn percentage of the electorate do continue to support the historic pluralism of the British system.

Many earnest New Labour supporters have repeated to me their favoured mantra: ‘If you can’t measure something, you can’t manage it’. The argument seems yet another extension of the dire posthumous influence of Jeremy Bentham, who thought that the essence of government was calculation. But the measurement mantra needs critical questioning. It seems to make sense but actually doesn’t.

For a start, successful (and indeed failed) managements in earlier times have long preceded the mass supply of measured and audited data. Good information certainly provides a sound basis. But the art of management requires more than that – including qualities such as leadership, enthusiasm, wise policies, sensitivity to context and public opinion, and the capacity to forge a team.

Furthermore, the proposition can also be faulted by noting that today’s massive supply of information has not obviated many cases of weak or poor management. ‘Drowning in data’ can even be a prime cause of failure.
june002Alternatively, the quest for measured information can insensibly become itself a substitute for effective management. The false impression is gained that managers can organise everything if only they have a large enough database. That way, vast sums of money are wasted only to find that giant systems don’t work.

So it is worth repeating every time that: ‘Data is only as good as the people using the data’. And, especially: ‘Information is not knowledge’. Advanced management means being able to cope with things that cannot easily be quantified and with the moving processes of real life.

Too much of the audit-and-target culture becomes excessively directive from on high. Assessors assume ever greater importance, thus generating a new technocratic elite which creates yet one more tier of apparent authority between the citizens and the state. Auditors are greeted with outward servility but secret resentment. Their often subjective judgements, once pronounced, are turned into apparently objective outcomes without any easy check upon their own performance. Auditors become a new vested interest in their own right, hence colluding with power and tending instead to pick upon the weak.

Service providers who are subject to constant and often subjective measurement and invigilation feel resentment and alienation. Rational people are pressurised to work towards the targets, since tangible rewards for their business (and sometimes for individuals personally) depend upon meeting the targets. That applies whether the targets are well chosen or not. All too often, the measurements seem to take priority over the services being measured. The number of exam passes seems more important than the content of what is taught and examined. Through-put of hospital patients seems more significant than the nature of the healthcare provided.

In these circumstances, public service threatens to become a risk-averse culture of diligent and generally joyless conformism. Professional knowledge and initiative seems to be undervalued and undermined. As a result, individual enthusiasm and commitment risks being lost. People’s moods are often unproductive, ranging from anger to bitterness or cynicism and/or (in some cases) to destabilising fear.

There is every incentive for service providers to massage the figures, if they can, in the interest of their services. And in certain circumstances, the stage is set for collusion. When providers are marked by clients who depend on good reports from the providers, implicit deals may be struck: good marks in return for good reports.

Hostility to this ethos contributed to the fall of New Labour, not least by alienating the professionals who traditionally formed an important constituency for Labour. These people will not, however, be appeased by the Coalition. Its reforms of the audit culture are very hit-and-miss. Indeed the Coalition is even more hostile to public service providers than was New Labour. The current Tory preference is for contracting out services to commercial businesses and charities – all bodies that need more public scrutiny than they currently get. Some private-sector scandals have already emerged. More are bound to follow.

What is to be done? The route of endless centrally-directed audit-plus-targets undermines the public sector and creates a top-heavy state. We need scrutiny. But audit should not be turned into an extra layer of management by another guise. Instead, we need due proportionality, accepting common sense, understanding local variations, allowing for operational discretion, and extending true participation by both providers and clients. Let’s keep the long arms of Jeremy Bentham under control. We have to do more than count!
june003

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MONTHLY BLOG 8, THE BRITISH LABOUR PARTY: VIEWED SOCIOLOGICALLY, ORGANISATIONALLY AND IDEOLOGICALLY

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

What follows is an account of the British Labour Party, organised not by chronology but in answer to three broad thematic questions: who support it? how is the Party organised? and what ideology does it represent?

My commentary was first presented as a short talk at the Battersea Labour Party in late April 2011, where it provoked some interest. So I decided to expand it into my May Discussion-Point – for people of all parties – and not just those who, like me, have stuck with the Labour Party, often with very mixed emotions. As I wrote, the text expanded into a short essay, which can be read in the attached pdf file.

In summary, the arguments run as follows:

Who? The Labour Party has never been just the party of the ‘workers’. Instead, it’s a coalition between the organised and unionised workforce plus the professional middle class and the left-wing intelligentsia. Clause IV of the 1918 constitution cheerfully defined them as ‘workers by hand or by brain’. (These are generalisations, which don’t apply to all individuals, needless to say).

Ranked against them is the rival alliance of the patriarchal upper class with the now predominant commercial middle class and the right-wing intelligentsia (again a generalisation), seeking votes from working-class Tories. Meanwhile, the unskilled working class, which is non-unionised, very poor, politically inactive, and to an extent electorally non-registered, tends to be neglected on all sides.

On this basis, the Labour coalition has continuing strength in its urban and industrial heartlands, tho these are vulnerable to economic erosion (cf the disappearance of the mining industry). And the core alliance between the ‘industrial’ and ‘political’ wings of the movement needs constant renewal.

How organised? Political parties on the left (and on the far right) tend to be more fissiparous and liable to splits than are those on the centre-right. Labour has long experience with rival parties. After all, it was not the first in the field. The Independent Labour Party began in 1892 and operated as a left-wing ginger-group within the new Labour Party (formed 1906). Then in the political crisis of 1931, the ILP split from Labour, which was hammered at the polls. Only after the Labour landslide of 1945 did the remaining ILP MPs join the mainstream, leaving the ILP to dwindle into a quiet demise in 1975.

After that, there was a quite different crisis in 1981. This time the split was on the Labour right. The four senior politicians (quickly named as the Gang of Four by the press) left to form a moderate Social Democratic Party, now merged into the Liberal Democrats. In the event, the scale of the secession was not nearly as great as was feared. But internal arguments between left and right, later updated as debates between Old and New Labour, long continued. Little wonder that party leaders always stress the need for internal concord: ‘Unity is Strength, Brothers’. Considerable harmony was achieved in the 1990s, when all were united against the Thatcher/Major governments.

Then Labour in power from 1997-2010 continued a top-down command style that discouraged internal party debates. It worked up to a point, but alienated too many among the rank-and-file. Labour’s individual membership post-1980 (when reliable records start) reached a peak in 1997 but by 2010 had fallen to less than half that level. Now the party is not feuding; but it does need some rebalancing between unity and constructive debate.

What ideology? Both in power and in its programmes, Labour has tended in practice to be pragmatic. The remark ‘Socialism is what a Labour government does’ – regularly attributed to Herbert Morrison – marked an aversion to ideological purity that was characteristic, although not universal, among Labour’s leaders. However, political parties must have some sort of political compass. Debates cannot be avoided, both about aims and best means of implementation.

Two prominent strands within Labour thinking can be defined as the socialist and the social democratic, although actual policies have often blurred the differences. The first, sometimes also known as Old Labour, wanted radical redistribution of wealth and power, as well as public ownership of the ‘means of production and distribution’. (But, unlike the communist parties, this tradition did not advocate a one-party date). The second, or social democratic tradition (although not using that name, especially after the Gang of Four split) has also endorsed redistribution as an aim but has always been much more favourable to the market economy. In recent times, the New Labour formulation has become predominant, with its mantra of ‘choice’. That seemed to move away from state control, especially in the economy. On the other hand, the Blair/Brown governments proved to be increasingly fond of centralised direction, with attempts at micro-managing via the unpopular targets culture almost all aspects of central and local administration, and the work of many arms-length institutions as well. That contradiction generated more than a little tension.

Today things are moving on from the disputes between Old and New Labour. The first tradition has lost conviction; the second has lost momentum. People now want to debate, without tearing the Party apart. New recruits want action, not philosophy seminars. There is much to do. In its first century, Labour has waxed and waned and waxed again, in the characteristically episodic manner of left-wing movements. Between 1910 and 2010 it was in government for no more than 33 years.1 But Labour has helped to define British politics, both in and out of power. Above all, its mid-twentieth-century creation of the Welfare State was truly monumental. And, in a new guise in a new century, there is much yet to do …

1 This calculation is a crude year-count, totalling Labour governments in 1924, 1929-31, 1945-51, 1964-70, 1974-79, and 1997-2010 – but excluding Labour’s contribution to the wartime coalition 1940-45.

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MONTHLY BLOG 7, WHY ARE BRITISH UNIVERSITIES POLITICALLY SO SUPINE?

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

I know that I am not the only person with an interest in and affection for Britain’s Universities, who is deeply worried by the Universities’ collective failure to stand up to successive central governments. Many people raise this point with me. There is a general perception that Britain’s Universities do not stand up strongly enough for the values of education – and for the supreme importance of knowledge that is not subject to tampering by political leaders. The old arms-length system of governance has already been much eroded. Ministers now talk as though Universities are agencies of the central state, instead of being independent self-governing institutions.

So why are the Universities supine vis-à-vis successive governments, whether Tory, Labour or Coalition? In reply, I generally comment, rather supinely myself: ‘Oh well, he who pays the piper calls the tune’.

Yet consider the British Army. Or the National Health Service. Both are funded by central government. But both they and their supporters among the wider public can rally formidable protests at changes which they consider undesirable. So my answer doesn’t really tackle the question.

Of course, there is never universal agreement as to which policies of successive governments are or have been detrimental to academic life. That point, however, is not my concern here. Public opinion is often divided over changes to the Army or Health Service but that has not stopped campaigns either against specific changes or in favour of other innovations. The debates over what is now called the ‘Military Covenant’ constitute one example. This traditional, if entirely unwritten, pact between the armed forces and the state may potentially be traced back to sixteenth-century levies to assist disabled solders. The term, however, is novel. It arrived in 2000, courtesy of a Ministry of Defence booklet, entitled Soldiering: The Military Covenant. And it has already become a hot political issue, with contested proposals (the Coalition currently against; Labour currently in favour) to codify the vague unwritten pact into positive law, which is likely to be costly.

By analogy, is there anything like an Educational Covenant? Or, if that’s too grand, then a general Educational Concord between the state and lifelong learners? What would it comprise? But no, education is a fragmented cause. And in the UK the Universities fall within the remit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Skills! Yes, they are necessary. But what an insult to Knowledge and Learning, without which skills don’t work.

Why was there no outcry from the Universities? One answer must certainly be that the elite institutions within the tertiary sector view themselves, and are reciprocally viewed, as part of a nebulous but nonetheless discreetly powerful ‘Establishment’. That perception works against any forms of public lobbying or confrontation. Sound ‘chaps’ (both male and female) apply pressure discreetly behind the scenes.

The perception applies particularly to Oxford and Cambridge. And it holds whether individual Oxbridge dons are languid establishment-types; or scatty bohemian-intellectuals; or (comparatively rare these days) earnest workerist men and women of the people; or (even rarer) zingy Morris Zapps jetting around the world from conference to conference; or (very common) harassed professionals with a preoccupied look as they continually chase behind a hundred tasks that are never done.

Behind-the scenes lobbying, however, doesn’t work nowadays – even for the elite. And it does nothing to combat out-of-date assumptions about Universities. The power of traditional assumptions is sufficiently great that Tom Sharpe’s satire of Porterhouse as a bastion of upper-class privilege, anti-intellectualism, anti-feminism, organisational incompetence, and elaborate feasting is too readily believed to be the institutional apogee to which all other tertiary institutions secretly aspire.

april001In fact, the reality is different in many ways. The tertiary sector is very variegated. It has faults, but they are often too neo-brutally managerialist rather than slumberingly Porterhousian.

Thus a second reason for the strangled public voice of the Universities stems from the divisions within the University sector. The tactics of the old-Establishment no longer work but there is no new-Establishment consensus to make a new case. The non-Oxbridge campus novels by academics Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge, witty and penetrating as they are, provided further satire of a sector in quest for a viable role in a doubting world.
april002april003Divisions between Universities are now institutionalised into rival lobby organisations. The Russell Group (founded 1994) represents 20 Universities, self-defined as the research elite, constituting a limited company (no: 6086902), operating from a base in Cambridge. Feeling excluded, another 19 smaller research institutions created the 1994 Group to defend their research credentials. It operates with an Executive Board, chaired by an academic, with at least five permanent staff members. A similar corporate structure services the University Alliance, which represents 23 ‘major business-focused’ Universities. And from 1997 onwards the Campaign for Mainstream Universities (CMU) has organised 27 former Polytechnics and University colleges – then known as ‘new’ Universities although many already had long histories. This group now operates as a London-based Think-tank, known as the Million+ Group. These divisions mark a classic case of self-divide and be ruled.

Off-setting this plurality of voices and competing interests is the pan-University alliance, known as Universities UK (UUK). It began with informal meetings in the nineteenth century of a handful of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. Now it serves 133 Universities and University Colleges, together with two national sub-groups comprising Higher Education Wales and Universities Scotland. Together they seek to provide a ‘definitive’ voice for all these institutions. And they do good deeds. Recently, for example, UUK helped to pressurise the Coalition government into a partial climb-down over the conditions attached to visas for overseas students – restoring some possibilities for post-study work within the UK. Nonetheless, this umbrella organisation has a difficult task in view of the organised separatism of its constituents. UUK can campaign at the level of general policies that affect all but has to tread cautiously or not at all on issues that divide its membership.

Furthermore, there is no one governmental Department that speaks to and for the educational sector. No equivalent of the Ministry of Defence, battling for the armed forces. And without such protection, education politicians often seem to be battling against the very sector which they are supposed to be leading.

Thirdly and lastly, therefore, the Universities have an urgent job of education to do. They need to explain their intrinsic value. Higher education is not only a massive economic multiplier but it’s also an essential component of the human educational endeavour – developing and transmitting to the next generation the corpus of stored and codified human knowledge to date. The more we have of it, the better for all.

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MONTHLY BLOG 5, STUDYING HISTORY FOR LOVE AND USEFULNESS COMBINED

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

History as a University subject will have to fight harder for its custom – and why not? It has strong arguments for its cause. But they do need to be made loudly and clearly.

From 2012 onwards the success or failure of subjects will depend upon student choice under the new tuition fees regime (outside the protected ring-fence of state funding for Science; Technology; Engineering; and Mathematics). For good or ill, that sudden policy change creates a competitive market. It will be based on the choices of eighteen-year-olds, for all teaching (and hence research) in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

For History (meaning History as a subject for study), there is a risk. Not that interest in the endless ramifications of the subject will die. An interest in the human past is very pervasive among humans who live in and through time. It may take the form of ancestor worship. Or maybe swapping anecdotes about past sporting heroes. Or watching history programmes on TV. Or a myriad of other ways. In sum, a generalised interest in the human past is completely safe from the vagaries of fashion.

The risk, however, applies to the academic study of History. It may be marginalised by a stampede to take courses which seem more immediately ‘useful’ and/or more likely to lead to lucrative employment. Law, business management, and – for the numerate – economics might seem like the hot choices.

In fact, however, studying History is a good career choice. It focuses upon a great subject – the living and collective human past. Nothing could be more wide-ranging and fascinating. It is open and endless in its scope. And simultaneously it inculcates an impressive range of skills, which are individually and socially useful.

For that reason, History graduates go on to have careers in an impressive variety of fields. They experience relatively low levels of graduate unemployment. And they find mid-career changes much less difficult than do many others.

Forget old moans about ‘History is bunk’. Henry Ford who is credited with this pithy dictum (in fact, it may have been polished by a journalist) came to regret it deeply. It took a lot of accumulated human history to be able to manufacture a motor car. [For more on Henry Ford and the motor car, see P.J. Corfield’s Discussion-Piece pdf/1 All People are Living Histories: Which is Why History Matters – within this website section What is History?]

Forget too easy comments such as ‘History is dead’. In fact, the human past is a complicated mixture of things that have departed and things that survive. Like human DNA for a start: individuals come and go but, as long as the species survives, so does human DNA as a collective inheritance. The same applies to human languages. Some do disappear, with the communities who spoke them. Some mutate into different but related forms, like Latin into Italian. And most languages evolve slowly over many centuries, with all sorts of transfusions and minglings on the way: like English. The incredibly complex human past is far from over. It lives as long as humans as a species live.

The point is that History should be studied both for love of the subject AND for its individual and collective usefulness. It is not an either/or choice. But a rational choice to get BOTH.

People have many times listed the benefits to be gained from studying History, in terms of its high-level synthesis of both Knowledge and Skills. So the following list is not unique. These are the points that occur to me (Feb. 2011) and I look forward to learning of others.

THE STUDY OF HISTORY AT UNIVERSITY:

  • teaches students about their own society and its past
  • teaches also about other countries in the same part of the world
  • also takes a world-wide perspective and teaches about far distant places
  • enables students to switch their analytical focus as appropriate between close-focus studies AND broad surveys
  • teaches about periods of history that are close in time and also far distant in time
  • therefore encourages students to think through time and about time; and
  • allows extensive choice of specific periods, countries and/or themes for study, drawing upon the huge documented range of human experience
  • trains students simultaneously to analyse a magnificent array of sources, from words to numbers to pictures to sounds to physical objects – and even, in some cases, the smells of the past
  • teaches students to detect fraudulent use of sources
  • trains students to search for and use appropriate sources for their independent studies
  • requires the continuous weighing and assessing of disparate, imperfect and often contradictory evidence to formulate reasoned conclusions
  • inculcates the expression of cogent argument both in writing and in communal debate
  • also trains students to read and to assess critically a huge quantity of writings by expert authorities, who often disagree
  • trains students to use historical websites and databases both adeptly and critically
  • encourages students to think cogently about the links (and disjunctures) between the past and present
  • studies the meanings and often conflicting interpretations attached to the past
  • trains people to help with dispute resolution through historical understanding (‘where people are coming from’) and through empathy even for causes which are not endorsed personally
  • teaches the distinction between sympathy (personal support) and empathy (contextual understanding without necessarily endorsing)
  • allows students to distinguish between history as propaganda and history as reasoned (though still often disputed) analysis
  • allows students to analyse and debate the nature of studying the past; and
  • above all, inculcates an understanding of the human past within a historical perspective.

In sum, studying History at University can be undertaken for love and usefulness combined. It offers access to a huge, fascinating and endless subject, drawing upon the entire range of human experience and requiring a high synthesis of skills and knowledge.

No wonder that Francis Bacon (1561-1626) long ago praised an understanding of the human past simply as: ‘Histories make men [humans] wise’.

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