I’ve just returned from a meeting of colleagues.
Sitting in a dark and smoke-filled room, we stroked our goatee beards, rustled our copies of the Morning Star, and discussed our plan to overthrow capitalism, our scheme to indoctrinate the youth against the Tories, and what biscuits to get for the common room. This afternoon I’m lecturing a group of impressionable 18-year-olds on how to challenge the bourgeois hegemony and why exams are nothing but an imperialist construct. Later I plan a relaxing evening sipping fairtrade vegan tea and listening to Woody Guthrie.
This, at least, is what I should be doing, if a recent piece by Jago Pearson in the Daily Telegraph is to be believed. For academic history has, he says, become a conspiracy of leftists.
I feel a little mean criticizing the piece. He’s only 21 years old, and this is probably his first major foray into journalism. He’s also been subject to some criticism from academics who – rather naughtily, though perhaps in the spirit of EH Carr – have been playing the man and not the ball. Charitably, the article can be put down to youthful hubris. But it is also complete bollocks.
Underlying Mr Pearson’s article are – in essence – two points. The first is that academics are unusually distrustful of colleagues they suspect of the heinous sin of conservatism. The other, which I’ll come on to, is that historical study in the universities displays an inherent bias towards ‘left-wing’ topics. We’ve been, he thinks, forcing impressionable youths to learn such commie claptrap as social and cultural history. Both subjects rather close to the heart of this blog.
Now, I’m not going to deny that many historians are politically on the left. In my own field, the work of EP Thompson, a communist, and RH Tawney, a christian socialist, has been hugely influential. But there are plenty of conservatives in the business too. In fact, some of the very biggest names in academic history have sat on the political right: Hugh Trevor-Roper, for example, or Sir Geoffrey Elton.
Mr Pearson has particular complaints about the treatment of Niall Ferguson’s work, but the reason much of Ferguson’s writing doesn’t end up on reading lists is not its politics but its populism.
This is not to be dismissive of popular history – much of it is great and, believe me, most academics could learn a thing or two about communication from historians like Ferguson. But it is less thoroughly researched and more sensationalized than the best work by university academics. To use a phrase that Mr Pearson would probably understand, it is ‘dumbed down’.
And there are plenty of left-wing equivalents. Hardly anyone ever sets Tristram Hunt’s book on the Civil War, for example; nor do we use the left-wing barrister Geoffrey Robertson’s work. The reason we are more likely to set Christopher Clark’s book on the origins of the First World War rather than Max Hastings’ is that the former is more thoroughly researched, more academically original, and is aimed at an audience of scholars rather than the airport bookshelf.
In fact, being a politically-active scholar of any hue is something that we academics treat as a bit of a dirty secret. We respect EP Thompson’s work, but we know full-well that it is coloured by his communism, and we are wary of it accordingly. We take the same approach to historians known to be conservative.
And Marxism itself is deeply unfashionable. I’ve been to plenty of conferences in which some academic or other has made the argument that Marx can still teach us much about the past, but it’s normally thought of as a ‘brave’ or ‘challenging’ suggestion. Indeed, academic Marxism has never really recovered from the sustained assault by revisionists from the 1960s onwards.
But I can forgive Mr Pearson for not really understanding how the University common room works – he’s probably never been in one. It’s his comments about content that are most pernicious.
He claims (largely anecdotally and entirely from his own experience) that the topics he’s studied have some kind of leftist agenda. He complains that the British Army was portrayed as inept during the Crimean War. How successful does he think it was? He complains about being shown the film Apocalypse Now, which has been interpreted as both pro- and anti-war in its sentiments. He complains of learning about US Civil Rights (his problem being?) and the Russian Revolution – hardly the finest hour of leftists. He moans about having to listen to ‘Black music’, as if understanding the art of people affected by and involved in the Civil Rights movement is somehow bad.
His comments on his University experience are even more depressing. His options, he says, ‘ranged from the bizarre to the ridiculous’. By this he essentially means anything that wasn’t ‘conventional political and military history’.
The study of ‘ordinary, average people’, he admits, ‘may have its merits’, but he wants more opportunity to study the ‘great historical players and actors’. In practically the same breath he then mentions studying the Beatles (hardly ordinary folk), Barack Obama (currently the most powerful man on Earth), and the European Union (again, surely a geopolitical entity – albeit one that likes playing a bit of Beethoven and telling us what is and what is not a Cornish pasty).
He doesn’t like being told of the brutalities of the British Empire, but what was he expecting? Imperial history solely through the eyes of Michael Caine characters? One of his tutor’s specialisms, he sneers, ‘was 20th century love’, as if that’s not a thoroughly complex and important subject.
Quite apart from the snooty contempt he shows for the history of ordinary men, women and children, his implication that social and cultural history is inherently left-wing is just ridiculous.
Social and cultural historians are interested in all-sorts: we look for the role of middle-class consumers in economic development, we think about the impact of immigration on host communities, we ask what family breakdown meant for the poor, we wonder why so many people didn’t like paying taxes, and we argue – endlessly – about whether the privatization of common resources led to economic growth. His suggestion that an interest in ordinary people is somehow left-wing would irritate Margaret Thatcher as much as it would anger the conservative Daily Mail. It’s a daft argument.
The fact is that most historians – social, cultural, political, military – are not looking to implant a political agenda on their readers and students. Some of the more excitable ones, perhaps, get a bit carried away with using history to bolster their activism, though David Starkey and Niall Ferguson are as guilty of this as anyone. But most grow out of this pretty quickly when faced with the ambiguities of the past. Those historians who haven’t will do so eventually.
It is customary to end reviews of historical work on a note of agreement. As it happens, I do agree with Mr Pearson on one thing. His tutors failed him. But their failure was not in the fact that they taught him topics that went beyond ‘conventional political and military history’. It is that they failed to open his mind.