As the democratic franchise expanded in the 19th century, British historians were eager to offer an informed view of the past to the new electorate. We need similar initiatives today, argues John Tosh.
History Today, as befits its name, stakes a good deal on the topicality of its subject matter. Introducing the first issue in 1951 the editors, Peter Quennell and Alan Hodge, asserted that historians were better qualified than most to make sense of the massive changes through which contemporaries were living. Regular features in the magazine like ‘History Matters’ and ‘Today’s History’ support that claim. Yet applying historical perspective to current concerns has a lowly place in public debate in Britain today. Countless issues in both domestic and international affairs, from military action in Afghanistan to the presumed debt crisis in the public finances, are considered by voters without benefit of historical perspective. Part of the reason for this shortfall is that historians themselves do not press home the practical claims of their discipline, in the belief that to do so would conflict with their scholarly credentials. Yet there is a serious and longstanding argument to be made that history is a citizen’s resource, essential to social awareness and political choice. Up until the Second World War historians of varying stripe promoted their discipline in this way, with some influence on public opinion. It is an aspect of the history of our discipline that has been neglected in recent accounts.
History and representative democracy have been yoked together since the mid-Victorian era. In 1867 the Second Reform Act not only enfranchised a substantial proportion of the male working class but was taken to be a critical step on the road to an even more inclusive democracy. Two leading historians reflected on the implications for their craft. They could not have been more different in temperament and politics, but they were agreed on the civic importance of history. J.R. Seeley (1834-95) was Regius Professor at Cambridge and an exponent of international relations and imperial history. He regarded these subjects as essential knowledge for the future governing class (strongly represented in his lectures), declaring in 1870 that history was ‘the school of statesmanship’. It has been less often noticed that Seeley also maintained that history was the best training for an informed electorate. ‘Without at least a little knowledge of history no man can take a rational interest in politics, and no man can form a rational judgment about them without a good deal.’ In a free country, said Seeley, some instruction is needed to ensure that citizens ‘may follow with some intelligence the march of contemporary history’. In a later lecture he remarked: ‘I show you the reigns of George II and George III, not as a mere by-gone period … but as a storehouse of materials by which we are to solve the greatest and most urgent of political problems.’ He had no qualms about rejecting the Rankean ideal of history for its own sake. Seeley stood for a ‘present history’, not ‘a past history’. In this he anticipated the academic champions of contemporary history a hundred years later.
William Stubbs (1825-1901) was appointed Regius Professor at Oxford in the same year as the Second Reform Act. As a medievalist, a Tory and a pillar of the established church, he does not sound a likely champion for a citizen’s history. But in his inaugural lecture he declared that the value of history lay not in vivid incidents or compelling narrative, but in its capacity to teach ‘judgment’. By this he meant the ability to provide serious historical perspective on passing events and to recognise their true complexity. The purpose of a historical education was to train ‘citizens … to be fitted not for criticism or for authority in matters of memory, but for action’. By ‘citizens’ he seems at this stage to have had in mind only the future leaders in church and state who were studying history at university. But in 1877 he defined the concept of citizenship much more inclusively. Stubbs advocated the serious study of history in the recently expanded elementary school system. If history could be firmly established in the new state schools, it would furnish ‘the next generation of Englishmen with the means of exercising conscientiously, honestly and judicially, the great political power which is now in their hands’. History taught ‘for ordinary practical purposes’ would give the citizen a better understanding of the world and equip him to vote intelligently. Here was the germ of the idea that historical perspective should be made available to citizens.
The lecture halls of Victorian Oxford and Cambridge were a long way from grassroots political debate and neither Seeley nor Stubbs made a significant public impact. What gave their ideas an urgent practicality was the First World War. The war had major consequences for the subject of history, not only because it gave a big impetus to the study of international relations, but because the subject’s explanatory claims became much more evident to lay people. If not quite the first time that university historians had tried to disseminate their expertise on foreign affairs, it was the first time they were noticed. The moment was scarcely propitious for a dispassionate appraisal of German war aims or of German culture. Why We Are At War, a pamphlet rushed out in 1914 by six Oxford historians, echoed popular Germanophobia. But in the longer run what counted was not partisan rhetoric but reasoned historical explanation. A lead was taken by the historian of Tudor England, A.F. Pollard (1869-1948). The onset of war prompted him to throw himself into the minutiae of recent international history. His new-found expertise was such that in 1917 the Foreign Office appointed him to serve on a League of Nations committee, to report on previous schemes for the limitation of war. But Pollard did not confine himself to the corridors of power. He wrote a stream of articles for the press on German war aims, the freedom of the seas, the Russian Revolution and other current issues, all of them brought together in his book The Commonwealth at War, published in 1917. He was also an effective proponent of history’s public role. The need of ordinary people for historical enlightenment was all the greater, he declared, now that they had a measure of political power, since otherwise they would be at the mercy of the sensationalist press. The antidote was a historical journal directed at an extra-university readership. In 1916 the Historical Association, founded in 1906, took over a semi-defunct journal called History. Pollard was the founding editor. In his first editorial he declared: ‘This war is creating problems which can only be solved in the light of history.’ In a passage that could have been penned by Seeley, he continued:
We may even seek to bring the light of history to bear on the study of politics, and to supply in some measure that notable void in British intellectual equipment, the absence of any review which systematically endeavours to link the past with the present and to test modern experiment by historic experience. [emphasis added]
Like History Today, History carried many articles that sought to introduce a historical perspective, chiefly into international and imperial affairs: Britain’s troubled relationship with Irish republicanism, the historical antecedents of the Polish question and so on.
After 1918 the German question remained at the forefront of international affairs and moving beyond the emotions of the moment required that recent German history be placed in a deeper time perspective. Historians were actively engaged on both sides of the debate between the appeasers and the hardliners. G.P. Gooch used his position as editor of The Contemporary Review to promote the view that Germany was innocent of war guilt and that the terms of Versailles should be revised. R.W. Seton-Watson took the opposing position. Public opinion in the 1930s inclined towards Gooch, but Seton-Watson offered the more coherent exposition of public history. He firmly believed that the speed of modern technological change had led ‘the average thinking man’ to attach a new importance to what he called ‘the verdict of the past’ and that it was the historian’s responsibility to lay the evidence before him. As the international outlook of the press broke free from its prewar imperial straitjacket, history played a key part in informed comment about the international situation – not only the German problem, but the aspirations of the new nations of eastern and central Europe and the historical precedents for the League of Nations.
Throughout the interwar period the values that Britain claimed to be defending were defined as democracy and the rule of law. If democracy was more than a moral fig leaf, it presumed popular assent based on a degree of knowledge. The case that Seeley and Stubbs had made for the place of history in citizenship now had much more practical force. It came in different guises, from both right and left. Charles Grant Robertson (1869-1948), the future Edward VIII’s history tutor at Oxford, regarded extramural lectures on the significance of the war as ‘this plain duty of citizenship’. In 1929 he devoted the prestigious Creighton Lecture to the theme of history and citizenship. Other historians were passionate advocates of the League of Nations. The economic historian and medievalist Eileen Power (1889-1940) proposed to make history fit for contemporary purpose by emphasising world history and by promoting social history, which in her view would bring out the similarities rather than the antipathies between nations. She advocated these goals in public lectures and radio talks. The label ‘historian-citizen’ chosen by her biographer, Maxine Berg, seems particularly apt.
That label is even more appropriate to the interwar historians who taught under the auspices of the Workers Educational Association (WEA). Beginning in 1908 the WEA quickly became the largest provider of adult education in the country. Given the role of academics in its inception, it might have become no more than a continuation of the university extension movement by another name. But the WEA breathed a more democratic spirit. The initiative to form an evening class came from potential students, not from the association; the students decided what field they wished to study and the association then appointed the tutor. It is of some significance then that from 1908 until the 1930s the most popular subject area was economics with economic and social history. The direction was set by R.H. Tawney (1880-1962), who related his classes on 16th- and 17th-century industrial history to the topical concerns of his students. Economic and social history was valued as a highly practical perspective on the world of ordinary people, uncovering the economic development that conditioned their lives and the social responses with which people had tried to contest the terms of their existence. For Tawney the WEA was ‘citizenship in action’. Adult education inspectors thought they detected a tension between history ‘for its own sake’ and history with a political message; but the Edwardian and interwar periods were a time when major works were being written that challenged this distinction: partly Tawney’s own works, but perhaps most of all those of J.L. and Barbara Hammond. Beginning in 1911 they published a sequence of accessible books on the impact of industrial capitalism on the British labouring classes. They were public historians in the sense that their work was intended to discredit the complacency of the educated classes about the historical experience of the working class. They were probably the most influential social historians of their generation.
In terms of today’s categories the approach I have described is best classified as a form of public history; addressing the public is after all of its essence. But in current debate public history usually means something else. Most commonly it is equated with the requirements of heritage institutions; other champions of public history emphasise the idea of shared authority between professional and amateur historians; sometimes public history means no more than presenting the past as entertainment. Today, as in the late Victorian period and between the wars, a small minority of historians enjoy fame and reputation, with privileged access to the public. But in other respects the context in which history for citizens can be promoted has significantly changed for the better. In television, the Internet and radio (an underestimated site of critical history, which has recently produced popular and critically lauded series such as BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time and A History of the World in 100 Objects) historians have at their disposal an unprecedented range of open-access media.
Political intervention has also made a difference: the bipartisan resolve that citizenship should be part of the school curriculum represents a half-open door through which the claims of history can be pressed. In this promising climate today’s public historians could do worse than reflect on the programme of civic history pursued in the two generations before the Second World War. Fortified by those precedents they might merit the designation ‘citizen-scholars’.
John Tosh is Professor of History at Roehampton University, London and the author of Why History Matters (Palgrave, 2008).
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