Blogs > Cliopatria > History argues against cuts in academia (argue academic historians)

Apr 8, 2010 8:47 am

History argues against cuts in academia (argue academic historians)

Sometimes, it has been argued, historians are not very good at advocating for their own importance. Self-doubt is healthy in academia, perhaps, but it doesn't make for convincing funding bids. Presumably, therefore, a profession that hires on income generation will eventually evolve out this self-reflective reflex, and thus when the profession is placed under threat of loss of public funding because of other priorities, it will have no hesitation in arguing back that historians are as important as hospitals, in terms of satisfaction delivered to the citizenry or whatever other metric may be employed. A little while ago I became aware of such an advocacy body in the UK, the History and Policy group, whose fourfold operation is that it:

I became aware of them because I'd been wondering whether we, where 'we' is the subset of historians I know or can reach, could aim, half-seriously, to build a website akin to Ben Goldacre's excellent Bad Science pages, where he calls out shoddy media reporting or corporate deployment of scientific fact or pseudo-fact (again, UK context). There are so many misconceptions, which range from simple errors to what Edge of the American West is currently debating as 'great historical frauds', that a Bad History site ought to have some traction; I know of similar things out there already for the Middle Ages, after all. And then History and Policy put out a one-off piece confronting some obvious behemoths, some even medieval, and then renewed it, and I decided they were a good thing.

Some of their more recent activity leaves me less certain. When I read the open letter that they recently addressed to the UK government arguing for greater investment in the UK's rôle"as an international hub for learning, science, innovation, advanced study and green jobs", I was initially cheered, but subsequently had two rather different reactions. The first was the natural cynical one of the title to the proofs they used: oh, so a bunch of economic and financial historians argue that economic and financial history is important? Well they would say that, wouldn't they? But the second was a realisation that, as a medievalist, I am not in this ark they're trying to build, and I don't even like where it's sailing. This is history as utility, history to serve political interests. Now, especially what with the UK's well-developed tendency for 'policy-based evidence-making', there cannot be many examples of this turning out well for the truth. And of course it leaves me very little hope of mounting a defence for my field, which is distanced firstly by time and secondly by space from the current government or any future one.

The recent discussion over the cuts at Kings College London, which I wrote about here but which got more discussion at the cross-post to A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, had one or two people remarking that the worst of the process of shrinkage academia is currently being put through is that it brings out the divisions in the humanities, and indeed academia more widely. What is needed, these people say, is a global defence of the humanities that makes it passionately clear why it is important to study people, and know what they have done, can do and why they did so, not just so as to build policy round it (though, good if you do) but so as to enjoy that space of aspiration and be more fully informedly human. But to argue this fervently for the service of history to modern politics is not part of this agenda; it is getting the knives out and cutting away the market-gauged deadweight. So I just wanted to say: we're not dead; wait!

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