Friday, February 12, 2010

The Philistines of Sussex...

I have to confess that it was the headline of this article from today’s Daily Telegraph which first caught my eye and, as an historian, made my hackles rise, even if the article itself didn’t quite live up to its sensationalist billing.

Notwithstanding the fact that the article was mostly sizzle and very little sausage, it still concerns me greatly that Sussex University is proposing to withdraw from “research, and research-led teaching, in English social history before 1700 and the history of continental Europe before 1900”.

Unlike the seventeen Sussex-educated historians who wrote to the paper condemning the move, and the proposal to withdraw from the teaching of the history of continental Europe before 1900 in particular, however, I am more concerned with the suggestion that henceforth at that university 1700 will represent year zero as regards English social history.

I note at this point, that the article refers quite clearly to English social history and not its political cousin (my ‘discipline’, as it happens) and I take that reference to mean that the politcal history of England will still be researched, lectured on and taught there.

I certainly hope so, and I will return to my reason for saying so in due course.

However, returning to the original quote as to the university’s intentons, and at the risk of being accused of wanting the cake and the ha’penny, it would appear that henceforth, according to Sussex University, prior to the dawning of the twentieth century, nothing of any consequence occurred througout continental Europe.

By doing so, as the article suggests, they clearly think that events of such seminal importance as the French Revolution are not worthy of research or study.
Or, come to think of it any of the following, which I in list in no particular order, either chronological or as to my personal perception of their importance: The Napoleonic Wars, The Renaissance, The Thirty-Years War and the life and works of Martin Luther, one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation, after whom the great American Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King - another towering figure - was named.*
I could go on, but shortage of prevents me from doing so; and in any event, I suspect my point is made: for a university history department to abandon the study of European (or indeed any history) before an arbitrary date - one which is, in historical terms, relatively recent - is to abandon the subject as a serious academic discipline, in direct contradiction of its raison d'etre.
Returning to the prospect of the university 'starting' English (social) history in 1700 (only seven years before England was subsumed into the kingdom of Great Britain by the passage of the Act of union with Scotland) is also, in my submission, to ignore the importance to that subject of a number of significant events in our political history.
I don't propose to link to these on the basis that a) my reader is more than likely to be already familiar with them or b) that in the event that they are not so familiar, but are still reading this increasingly lengthy piece, they will more than likely be sufficiently interested in the subjects I cite to research them separately.
That explanation aside, these are just some of the political events or processes occurring in England prior to 1700, which I suggest had a significant impact on our social history:
1. The Norman Conquest of 1066 - which essentially removed the old, Anglo-Saxon ruling class and replaced it with invading Normans.
2. The signing of the Magna Carta (which I reproduce in the picture above) by King John in 1215, enshrining a large number of the rights of which our current leaders are so assiduously stripping us, into English law.
3. The Great Plagues of the Fourteenth Century, which went a long way to ending feudalism.
4. The Civil War of 1642 - 1649, which saw England become a republic for the first (and hopefully only) time in its history.
Once again, I could go on; but again, I think I've made my point: English social history did not begin in 1700, and to pretend that events before that date are of insufficient relevance to warrant further study, is to abandon even the pretence of academic rigour.
Defending the university's stance, the deputy vice-chancellor, Professor Paul Layzell said: “The history degree at Sussex, as befits a programme offered by one of the top 20 departments in the country, will continue to be broad based and intellectually challenging.”
I would conclude with this observation, professor. I rather suspect that given the proposed vandalism you propose to inflict, your claim to be 'one of the top twenty [history] departments in the country', will soon be ringing somewhat hollow.
You should hang your head in shame.
* Forgive the continued links to Wikipedia; they simply provide the shortest thumbnail sketch of the events in question, for ease of reference.

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