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Sunday, January 9, 2011


To my old alma mater, Jesus College, Oxford, for a historians' reunion dinner - or, more accurately, a J R Green Society gaudy, the pioneering Victorian social historian being arguably the greatest exponent of the subject to come out of the college, while the society named after him introduced us both to some of the most distinguished historians of our era and to the delights of drinking claret, port or Madeira. Much angst from the dons, and those alumni who are now teaching at other universities, about the swingeing cuts to humanities teaching budgets in higher education (up to 80% in some cases); one of the reasons for the dinner was to promote the ongoing campaign to maintain funds for the second full-time tutorial fellowship at Jesus. I've just come across an interesting take on this by Alain de Botton. His analysis of the humanities' own responsibility for the perceived assault upon them is perceptive, even if his conclusion - effectively to make university courses glorified continuations of the much-derided PSHE and Citizenship courses that clutter the secondary curriculum - is laughable, as is his unfortunate conflation of 'humanities' and 'culture'. It's certainly true that university history departments, and academic historians in general, have often been content to occupy ivory towers, talking only to each other, writing lengthy and impenetrable tomes for a tiny audience, and not seeking to reach out to the public at large. Those who do write 'popular' history and/or become 'TV historians' are often still looked upon with suspicion (tinged, with suspects, with jealousy), as the barbs directed at one particularly well-known historian at the dinner suggested. If the current financial pressures finally force university teachers to justify what they do to a wider audience, to cull some of the more dubious fringe courses and PhD theses, and to write books with a broader appeal, then perhaps all the current pain will eventually prove to have been worthwhile.

Nevertheless, it seems ironic beyond belief that this apparent assault on the humanities should be conducted by a government led by Messrs Cameron (Oxford, Politics, Philosophy & Economics), Clegg (Cambridge, Social Anthropology) and Osborne (Oxford, Modern History). But then, the ability of politicians to bite the hand that fed them never ceases to amaze: witness the tirade against independent school students by the government's new 'access tsar' Simon Hughes (alumnus of Christ College, Brecon - fees currently between £4070 and £7155 per term - and Selwyn College, Cambridge). The same is true of modern government's apparent inability to think in a joined-up way. So here's a heretical thought: getting more and more students from poorer backgrounds and/or state schools into universities is likely to mean increased demand for the 'newer' institutions, i.e. the ones under most threat from the cutbacks (despite their current bleating, the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham etc will essentially be fine), and for humanities or other non-scientific courses at those universities - in part because it's primarily independent schools that are able to provide the specialist teaching in, and thus the potential future students of, the sciences and Mathematics. So we apparently have one arm of government insisting that more and more  bodies are poured into courses that another arm of government is scything away - or even into entire universities that might have no future, already an increasingly imminent prospect in Wales. It's enough to drive a man to his decanter, and to be thankful once again to the J R Green Society for having taught him what to do with it.

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