Early Modern Post

Preoccupied with archives? Or, what is my PhD for?

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Sometimes you go to a lecture, maybe a very good lecture, maybe by a bona fide expert and writer of books you admire, but a lecture nonetheless that you just can’t follow, no matter how many times you try to pull yourself back to the thread of it. You’re sure that what was said was of great relevance, importance and gravitas, but really you only came away with a partial, distorted understanding, leaving most of the rest to the ether.

What good is the lecture if it doesn’t take the audience with it? Does it have to sacrifice its content in order to make itself accessible, or would just a few more explanatory sentences here and there be enough to let the non-expert comprehend its aims and intentions?

I don’t need to rehash what is going on in higher education funding in this country, in fact to funding for the social good in general. There’s been no attempt to hide it, little attempt to sugar-coat it. Perhaps this is because there has been a prevailing fatalism, an acceptance that such cuts were probably not far off from necessary, and that it was all going to happen anyway.[1]

Funding for the humanities has been slashed and burnt. And perhaps our biggest failing is not explaining why this is so detrimental to society at large. Explaining back in my home town in, oh, the ‘real world’, why I was studying English Literature at university was one thing, explaining what I was doing with four years studying sixteenth century diplomacy another.

It has never been so important for us to articulate an answer. We must explain the public good of the university, and the PhD, if we expect people to care about their future.

History has fared slightly better than English Literature at defending its relevance in the modern world. On the whole the PR has worked well: people understand what ‘History’ is, they understand the importance of it. Understanding the past will elucidate the present, so the axiom goes; there are even attempts to accord it a place in informing policy.[2] It has a public face, with multiple media outlets that demystify the subject in its widest form, and slowly embed in society a subconscious acceptance of its real importance, whether it’s Melvin Bragg’s In Our Time or The Great British Bake Off pausing footage of icing and beating to provide a cameo role for 1940’s rationing or the Georgian cupcake.

What of English literature? And what of the research PhD, now (with multiplied fees) impossible to undertake without ever-shrinking funding sources or masses of private wealth? The former is a popular subject, but the sense in society at large that it is little more that reading some books is commonplace, and has gone largely unchallenged.

I could not be a stronger believer in the importance of a degree in English, and of research culture in general. Both are about equipping us with the critical skills that are at the very core of what protects us from the worst in human history.

An education in reading critically, questioning assumptions and constructing argument is our best defence against fundamental belief in whatever guise it may take – it is the unquestioned, anti-pluralistic ideology that is at the heart of all our evils. The intellectual community have a responsibility to read and write and argue, have a responsibility to keep us in check. Of course anyone without such a training shares in this responsibility, but these are our skills, this is what we can offer.

At the same time, the student and the scholar are also engaged in pursuing their own often niche subjects. This is, in my view, of equal merit to a more widely applicable critical faculty, and to a training in science or engineering, say. But the new idea in science, medicine and so on is more obvious, more PR-friendly. Who really cares if I write something new on the letter-writing processes of a long-dead diplomat?

In an immediate, practical sense there seems to be a hierarchy here, but this misses the point. We should never, nor do we have to, choose one at the expense of another. I’m not going to save lives doing what I’m doing, but a world in which all that matters is the fact of living is not one I want to be a part of. The arts and humanities do more than enrich our society; they are the expressions of it, they are its voice, and they are not an optional extra. The stuff of interest and of intellectual challenge, the exploration of the world of ideas and of language, this is what makes us human.

I feel this bubbling under the surface, under my skin, and my feeling is that the next few years are crucial not just in deciding the realities of the future of higher education, but in setting how we think about it. We should not accept our fate and wait grumbling for the flood.

To academia, and especially young academia (the postgrads, the early career lecturers): we need to stand up, we need to raise our voices and take ownership of the education system we comprise. We need to occupy the universities, occupy the archives – not in the sense of setting up tarps, but in the sense of taking responsibility for them, for using them and explaining the importance of that use. Because if we don’t explain why what we’re engaged in is so necessary for society, we’ll be left lecturing to the ether.


[1] This, of course, is a generalisation about wider society and wider academia. There have been many, many political demonstrations, not least the Occupy movement, and for a voice from academia see the alternative white paper on higher education that was signed by over 400 academics.

[2] Take a look at the excellent History and Policy website as an example of this. I especially like the article on torture during WW2 and during the modern ‘war on terror’ as a convincing illustration of the persuasive power of precedent.

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