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MONTHLY BLOG 127, World citizens in the twenty-first century are generating an ‘international sphere’ of public opinion, outside and beyond the control of national governments.

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

Fig.1 Globe in Speech Bubble by Moilleadóir (2009):
from WikiMedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WiktLogo-Bubble-WikiGlobe-red-1-.svg

There is today a growing international sphere of public opinion. It stretches well outside and beyond the control of national governments. It is purely informal; often fragmented; and lacking direct power. Nonetheless it is an identifiable liberal trend in world history – which is causing particular anxieties for repressive states. As a result, there are also hostile forces, working against the emergent international sphere. Yet the global advance of mass literacy since c.1800 is laying the foundation (in 2015. 86% of adults across the world were able to read and write);1 the diffusion of print continues to fan the fire; and the advent of personal computing, plus especially the invention of the world-wide-web in 1989, has thrown (metaphorically) petrol on the blaze.

Not all, but many citizens are now sharing and debating ideas world-wide. The numbers participating are likely to grow. And, in time, the strength of global public opinion, when united, will increasingly influence governments. To take one example, there may well be international people-power calling for faster action to cope with climate change. Of course, global public opinion will not always agree – any more than does public opinion within any nation-state. But debates are part and parcel of all civic life. In other words, it’s better to have people arguing and voting rather than fighting and killing.

This collective arena has recently been identified as a ‘global civil order’.2 And others detect the operation of an ‘international sphere’.3 That latter terminology is a verbal adaptation from an earlier usage, popularised by the German social philosopher, Jürgen Habermas.4 Writing of western Europe in the eighteenth century, he identified the advent of a new ‘public sphere’ or civic arena, which he contrasted with the ‘private sphere’ of the domestic household. Details of his interpretation are disputed. The two spheres were not as separate and self-contained as Habermas assumed. And his dichotomy between the supposedly ‘male’ and ‘bourgeois’ civic sphere and the supposedly ‘female’ household was not nearly as clear cut either.5

Nonetheless, an adapted version of overlapping, rather than separate, spheres is a helpful one, In the course of the eighteenth century, an increasingly literate population across Britain joined in debating ideas and ideologies in books, newspapers, homes, schools, theatres, market-places, coffee-houses, and debating chambers – all the way from private societies to national legislatures.6 And today the debates are taking places not only in household, local and national spheres but also internationally. There is no need to choose between one civic forum or another: they interconnect and overlap. Individuals can thus share interests not only locally but also with others across Planet Earth.

One criticism of this emergent trend was voiced in Britain in 2016 by the then Conservative premier Theresa May. Those individuals who view themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ are really, she claimed, ‘citizens of nowhere’. She further implied that the would-be internationalists were talking just to other international elites, and were betraying their fellow citizens ‘who live down the road’.7 Some cheered. But many, including some of her fellow Conservatives, rebuked her myopia. People should be praised, not blamed, for taking seriously their responsibilities to the global community that lives on Planet Earth. Today, that point is being underlined, more emphatically than ever, by the Covid pandemic and by galloping climate change.

At this point, it’s worth stressing that the emergent international sphere is not in itself hostile to the world’s governments in general (even if specific governments may be strongly opposed). On the contrary, the global exchange of ideas and opinions depends upon a degree of international order. Chronic armed conflict between rival nations clearly does not promote reasoned discourse.

So the achievements of national governments, from the early twentieth century onwards, have been vital, in establishing an institutional framework for international cooperation.8 It doesn’t always work. Crucially, however, this framework does exist. Key bodies include: the League of Nations (founded 1920), followed by the United Nations (1945); plus Interpol (1923); the World Bank (1944), the World Health Organisation (1948); the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT: 1948), followed by the World Trade Organisation (1995),9 the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of warfare (1949); the International Telecommunications Union (1965), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1996) and, not least, the International Criminal Court (1998). Support for such initiatives came from national populations who backed governments in thinking internationally; and these changes in turn encouraged further international thinking among ordinary citizens.

All the ensuing non-governmental global conversations are thoroughly diverse. Some are initiated by individual activists. The role of Greta Thunberg, the youthful Swedish environmentalist, is one remarkable case in point, as she tours the world to highlight the need for urgent action on climate change.10

At the same time, many non-governmental links are sustained by an immense number of global organisations.11 Sporting associations had practical reasons for collating their rules. Leading the way in 1881 was the International Gymnastics Federation. Another leader was the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA; founded 1904). Other groups which think globally include the churches; trade unions; professions; academics; librarians; scientists; doctors; and many specialist occupational groups, such as investment bankers. All these, and many others, run international organisations. One venerable and still thriving body is Apimondia, founded by the world’s bee-keepers in 1897.12

There are also numerous international aid or development agencies (some with government funding; many without). These bodies indicate that the charitable impulse, found within most countries, is now being energetically applied world-wide.13 Significantly, too, global lobbying on contentious global issues has grown ever more vigorous. In 2007, Avaaz, an American non-profit web-based organization, rallies international support to advance a liberal-left (non-ideological) agenda, opposing climate change, corruption, poverty, and conflict – and supporting human rights and animal rights.14 By contrast, some international networks deliberately operate on the dark side: those of criminals. money-launderers and people-traffickers, being prime cases.15 Unsurprisingly, these people do not contribute to the global discourse, but are instead the   subject of earnest international debate, in the difficult quest to curb them.

Another admirable set of organisations are devoted to literary and cultural matters. One congenial case is the Robert Burns World Federation, founded in 1885. Run by enthusiasts, it is a charity that promotes and celebrates Scotland’s most famous poet and song-writer. And it provides organisational links for a world-wide network of Burns Clubs (numbering over 250 in 2013).16 The fact that this Federation has now flourished for well over a century is impressive.

Robert Burns has also proved to be a song-writer for the world. In 1788, he wrote Auld Lang Syne, celebrating friendship and remembrance. Set to a traditional Scottish tune, the song has now been translated into at least 41 languages. Not only is it sung at private parties, but it is regularly performed in many countries at graduations, passing-out army parades, and festivities at the turn of the Old Year/New Year.17 It has thus become the world’s most frequently sung song, giving the international sphere an unofficial anthem. (‘We’ll drink a cup of kindness then/ For the sake of auld lang syne’). Once on a visit in Japan, I gave an ad hoc rendering, only to be asked by my audience, with pleased surprise, how I knew this traditional Japanese song so well.18

These internationalist thoughts have been triggered by my participation in the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies/ Société internationale d’étude du dix-huitième siècle, of which I am currently President.19 This body, founded in 1963, is now nearing its 60th anniversary. It is run on a shoe-string, without any institutional backing, and has 35 affiliated national and regional societies (some more active than others). Together, its membership may be viewed as an update of the eighteenth-century scholars’ ecumenical Republic of Letters.20 And today the Society proudly contributes to the international sphere.

ENDNOTES:

1 See variously D. Vincent, The Rise of Mass Literacy: Reading and Writing in Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2020); M. Roser and E. Otriz-Ospina, Literacy (2013) in website: https://ourworldindata.org/literacy.

2 See D. Laqua, W. Van Acker and C. Verbruggen (eds), International Associations and Global Civil Society: Histories of the Union of International Associations (2019).

3 See two recent book titles: B. Winter and L. Sorbera, Contending Legitimacy in World Politics: The State, Civil Society and the International Sphere in Twenty-First Century Politics (2018); and C.R. Alexander, Frontiers of Public Diplomacy: Hegemony, Morality and Power in the International Sphere (2021).

4 See J. Habermas, Strukturwandel der Bürgerlichen Öffentlichkeit (1963), in 4th edn. (Neuwied, 1969), transl. as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, Mass., 1989). p. 40.

5 For one pertinent critique among many, see J.A. Downie, ‘The Myth of the Bourgeois Public Sphere’, in C. Wall (ed.), A Concise Companion to the Restoration and Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 2004), pp. 58-79.

6 See e.g. H. Barker, Newspapers, Politics and Public Opinion in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford, 1998); H. Kerr, D. Lemmings and R. Phiddian, Passions, Sympathy and Print Culture: Public Opinion and Emotional Authenticity in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Basingstoke, 2015); and M. Ellis (ed.), Eighteenth-Century Coffee-House Culture, Vols. 1-4 (2017).

7 For the full text of Theresa May’s speech to Conservative Party Conference on 5 October 2016, see The Spectator: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/full-text-theresa-may-s-conference-speech.

8 See e.g. I. Trauschweizer, Temple of Peace: International Cooperation and Stability since 1945 (Athens, Ohio, 2021); and meditations on future prospects by D.R. Kelley, Understanding a Changing World: The Alternative Futures of the International System (Lanham, Md, 2021).

9 B. Spiesshofer, Responsible Enterprise: The Emergence of a Global Economic Order (Munich and Oxford, 2018).

10 See A. Chapman, Greta Thunberg and the Climate Crisis (2020), and a detailed summary, covering her achievements, her school-fellow colleagues, and her critics, in: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greta_Thunberg.

11 Listed in Laqua, Van Acker and Verbruggen (eds), International Associations. as cited above n.1.

12 See https://www.apimondia.com/en/the-federation/history.

13 See S. Harland, D. Griffiths, and L. Walker (eds), The International Development Directory (2001); and Directory of International Development and Relief Agencies (2021), in https://www.guidestar.org/NonprofitDirectory.aspx?cat=6&subcat=32&p=8.

14 For details, see https://secure.avaaz.org.

15 See e.g. D.R. Liddick, The Global Underworld: Transnational Crime and the United States (2004); and M. Glenny, McMafia: A Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld (Toronto, 2009).

16 For further information, see http://www.rbwf.org.uk.

17 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auld_Lang_Syne.

18 Translated as 蛍の光 / Hotaru no Hikari.

19 See the ISECS/SIEDS website, hosted by the University of Trois Rivières, Canada:   https://oraprdnt.uqtr.uquebec.ca/pls/public/gscw031?owa_no_site=304&owa_no_fiche=11.

20 Among a large literature, see D. Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (1994); A. Goldgar, Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the Republic of Letters, 1680–1750 (1995); G. Ostrander, Republic of Letters: The American Intellectual Community, 1776–1865 (Madison, Wis., 1999); J. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750 (Oxford, 2001); S. Dalton, Engendering the Republic of Letters: Reconnecting Public and Private Spheres in Eighteenth-Century Europe (2003); and A. Lilti, The World of the Salons: Sociability and Worldliness in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Oxford 2015).

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MONTHLY BLOG 32, REACTIONS TO MAKING A HISTORY DVD

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

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 Having made the hour-long History DVD Red Battersea 1809-2008 (2008), what reactions did we get? The production team quickly became aware that Battersea CLP, among all Britain’s local constituency parties of all political persuasions, has done something unique. We’ve written a collective autobiography in mid-life, as it were. And we have done so on DVD, integrally combining script with images.

Since launching the DVD into the world, we are often asked not why we did it – but how? In response, a small panel of Battersea members have given DVD showings to other Labour constituency parties, to student film societies, to local community groups, to Heritage associations, and to academics, who are interested in twentieth-century social and electoral history. Attention is focused upon the technical as well as the intellectual challenges of constructing a filmic narrative from a mixture of research, images, beliefs, and memories. Here follow the discussion-points about sound and images that audiences often raise:

Voices: Why did we choose to tell the story in many voices rather than via one main narrator? The DVD uses a collage of voices from unseen narrators, led by the utterly distinctive voice of actor Timothy West. But he does not hog the soundwaves. We have a plurality of voices, some from professional actors and many from the Battersea community. Each narrator picks up the baton seamlessly, but some figure as witnesses, hence speaking as themselves. Even in those cases, I wrote their scripts, in order to avoid the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ of real-life diction and to keep their remarks brisk. I did, however, write all such individual statements very carefully, following my witnesses’ natural speech cadences in the prior interviews.

As a result, the DVD does not have one lead narrator who keeps striding into and out of the frame, blocking the view of the historical evidence. That style has been fashionable for many years. Look at very many TV history series – and the Labour Party’s own Party history, which features Tony Benn. The aim of using a lead narrator is to familiarise and personalise. But the style can quickly become dated and liable to parody. Moreover, details of the narrator’s clothing, expressions, hair-styles, and body language can easily distract viewers, both first time round and then on later reruns, from the history that is being shown over the narrator’s shoulder. By no means everyone agrees. In my personal view, however, the narrator-striding-into-camera technique will eventually become obsolete – but perhaps not quite yet.

In contrast, expressive voices, blended together from unseen narrators, remain much more timeless. For my purposes, they also give a fair evocation of a collective movement. It is true that one or two of our local volunteers found it hard to sound natural when recording. Chronic mumblers had to be excluded. But most speakers took to the task very readily and, if they fluffed the first take, were happy to try again. Bearing in mind the need for clear communication, I had tried hard to make the script ‘read-aloud-able’.

One of our Battersea professional actors Su Elliott gives great advice on voice production for radio. Mimic the emotions with the face, even while unseen, she counsels. As one of our travelling panellists, she sobs convulsively in the character of the Mock Turtle, while giving as great a visual look of Lewis Carroll’s (and Tenniel’s) doleful beast as anyone could wish – always to much audience appreciation. Actually, none of our DVD speakers had to be that sad, even when Battersea Labour has to admit to reverses and failures during its more than hundred-year history. We are here for the long term – and march on!

Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland with the Gryphon and Mock Turtle (1865).Matching images to script: People in general express great appreciation of the visuals within the DVD. Credit here goes especially to the picture research of graphic designer Suzanne Perkins and to the film research of the producer/director Mike Marchant. Together they found masses of previously unknown material. Brilliant. It’s a great encouragement for researchers to realise exactly how much remains to be discovered (or sometimes rediscovered) in local archives and film libraries. Visual material is now getting a proper share of attention, transforming how history can be presented. That’s now being taken for granted, although there are still some bastions to fall before the incoming tide.

The question, however, that most intrigues our DVD viewers is not where we found the material but how we continually matched the flow of images to the flow of the script. When making a film, the two go seamlessly together, although both can be retouched later. But a DVD works by aligning a sound-track to a vision-track. Each can be worked on separately. Quite a different production style.

My July BLOG has already explained the no-doubt obvious point to the technically-minded – that the sound-track takes the lead, because it sets the crucial time parameters. The images then followed, many being researched to order. Mike Marchant would telephone saying: ‘Hello, I need two minutes worth of visuals on XXX’. After an initial feeling of exasperation (‘No, I don’t think about history like that’), I would respond more calmly: ‘What images would help viewers to get the point, especially if it is an abstract one?’ Often we sorted things immediately. At other moments, we struggled. Throughout, Mike and I strove for variety within our house-style, using a range of images (photos, film clips, video footage, texts, captions) to prevent a feeling of sameness.

Trying for visual diversity was good fun, especially for me. Eagerly but amateurishly, I would request various film manoeuvres (zoom, fade, etc), while Mike had the hard work of achieving that effect without the full panoply of film cameras, sound technicians, lighting engineers and so forth. I often felt guilty when he later revealed the time it took to respond to each casual request; but I’m sure ultimately that he enjoyed the challenge.

What struck me most was the vivid realisation of how easily, in a DVD production, the story can be made or marred by the alignment/ non-alignment of the image- and sound-tracks. We tried not to be too literal. Viewers don’t need to see an industrial plant every time we mention the heavy industries that used to line the Battersea river-front. It’s patronising to assume that people have no visual memory-banks of their own. Even a picture as striking as Whistler’s Smokestacks needs to appear just at the right moment.

Smokestacks by James Whistler (1834-1903) is a composite evocation of the industrial landscape of the Thames south bank at Lambeth/ Battersea in the 1880s.On the other hand, it’s very good to show a striking image just before it’s mentioned in the script. Then as the narrator stresses something or other, viewers share a sense of realisation. Whereas if the images follow just too late, the reverse effect is achieved. Viewers feel slightly insulted: ‘why are you showing me an XXX now, I already know that, because the narrator has just told me’.

So Mike Marchant and I spent ages together on fine-tuning the synchronisation. Generally, we managed to hide the late changes; but alert listeners to the DVD sound-track can pick up one or two jumps in continuity that we couldn’t conceal. Damn!
Finally, questions about bias. How can Battersea Labour present its own history without excessive political bias? How can individuals in our research team study their own political pasts without personal bias? Did our answers on those big questions satisfy our audiences? We also get asked: What’s next from Battersea Labour? There’s so much to say on all those points, that I’m keeping my answers for later BLOGs.

Copies of the DVD Red Battersea, 1908-2008 are obtainable for £5.00 (in plastic cover) from Tony Belton = .

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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 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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