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

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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St Paul’s Cathedral: preachers and protesters

If you walk by St Paul’s Cathedral tomorrow morning, you’ll see the Occupy camp hanging up duvets and blankets, letting the morning dew dry in time for another night under canvas. Theirs may be more an expression against a situation than a coherent argument for a specific unified revolution, but for now at least their presence will continue to make a statement, even if it’s not always clear what that is.

The space they have chosen holds the footprints of past centuries of politics and preaching, of persuasive rhetoric and impassioned expression. The area is steeped in political argument; this building, this massive symbol of power and authority, is a highly charged location for any political statement, whether in the pulpit or the courtyard, whether made by words or by bodies.

The church have made a U-turn in recent days by dropping the legal bid to have the protesters forcibly evicted, in what would have been a irresistibly ironic reversal of Jesus expelling the money lenders. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has spoken out in favour of a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions, adding the long-awaited legitimizing voice of the religious establishment to Occupy London’s emphatic but ‘vague’ expression of anger against the current system.

If the protesters were not camped on its steps, I would at this moment be sequestered within the book-lined walls of the small library that is found tucked behind the south-west tower of this beautiful building. The triforium chamber, designed by architect Christopher Wren during the rebuilding of the cathedral following the Great Fire of London, holds a quarto manuscript containing four sermons by John Donne, which I will be helping to put online as part of the Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne.

Better known in the modern public consciousness as a poet, Donne was, by royal wrangling, the Dean of St Paul’s in the ten years until his death in 1631. His poetry represents only a small proportion of his writing, but has commanded a far larger proportion of academic and lay attention.The Oxford project aims to provide a new and definitive edition of his 160 sermons, replacing the bare bones edition of George R. Potter and Evelyn Simpson (1953-1962). It will run to 16 volumes, with full scholarly apparatus making the sermons accessible to experts and students alike.

Though the voice and power of this role was bound to the royal establishment, obliged to defend for example James I’s unpopular Directions for Preachers and persuade his flock to trust in the king, there may be interesting parallels to be drawn between then and what is happening now on the doorstep of St Paul’s.

Old St Paul’s (sermon at St Paul's Cross), 1616, John Gipkyn

Donne’s was a political position and his sermons inherently so; at times they were direct responses to particular controversies and social or economic change. That he was deeply engaged in public life and public debate can be seen by the fact that, a Londoner himself, he did not preach solely in the pulpit. As well as the royal court and the inns of court, Donne, unusually for the Dean, gave frequent sermons in the open air pulpit at St Paul’s Cross. This represents real engagement with the life of the city, and with the Corporation of the City of London.

The City has always been a place of business, and as spokesperson for the Church of England, Donne’s sermons recognised this fact. Six of Donne’s sermons were published in his lifetime, including one written for a group about to set sail for tobacco plantations in the new world, entitled in manuscript: ‘Preached before the Honourable Company of the Virginian Plantation, November 13, 1622. [Acts 1.8]’.

The Virginia Company of London sought to convert and colonize, and in recent years violent conflict with the native Powhatan Indians had led to many deaths on both sides. Without stretching a metaphor of the destructive power of rampant capitalism past the point of cynicism and into the realm of the ridiculous, this would seem to have little to do with current politics. However, I wonder if some aspects of Donne’s sermons to the entrepreneurial adventurers might be a fitting note to end on.

Donne counseled against greed and against arrogance, and challenged the Company to ‘act as an example of fairness and justice to the other mercantile companies’.[1] Perhaps it is time to revisit these texts, and perhaps it is time to listen again to the voices at the site of St Paul’s Cross.


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The freedom of information

At the time of writing my first blog post, the big story has been the hacking/NoW scandal. Spreading from the ‘one rogue reporter’ line to encompass more than just news-makers, the emergence of yet another story about high-level corruption can make you roll your eyes and worry that we are governed, informed, and patrolled by elite groups that do one thing and say another, whether it be politicians, press or police.

Discussions have centered on cleaning up the relationships between the three; now, we not only want to condemn and punish the illegal hacking of a child’s phone, we want ‘transparency’ in political dealings with the media, we want to see with our own eyes the parliamentary trial of the Murdochs and the schedule diaries of the politicians. Perhaps from this we can aspire to greater objectivity in the press and independence in politics; as Steve Coogan said a while back on Newsnight: ‘Who is Rupert Murdoch to tell me who to vote for?’

Can news ever be objective? Can access to information be democratic? Can information itself ever be independent of interested parties; somehow created and consumed by the wider society rather than by eminently corruptible elites? I’m being slightly facetious here (after all ‘society’ is made up of individuals and interest groups), but recently I’ve been reading about some utopian ideals, and their practical manifestations, that engage these very same issues.

Early engraving of Salomon's House in Bacon's New Atlantis.

Salomon’s House in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis is an imagined central point where knowledge of the world is brought in by travellers and digested by scholars, a repository for information and learning. Here, reportage must ‘not show any natural work or thing, adorned or swelling; but only pure as it is’: this is a utopia free from corruption; there is no media bias here, just the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. The ‘Office of Publicke Addresse’ envisaged by Samuel Hartlib and John Drury in 1647 builds on this idea of the centralisation of knowledge, where the bodily and spiritual needs of society could be met through the granting of access to information. Discussed in their pamphlet ‘Considerations tending to the happy Accomplishment of Englands Reformation in Church and State‘, the idea is based on a freeing up of information, facilitating the sharing of knowledge and services beyond traditional patronage circles. This both embraced the scholarly focus of Salomon’s House and was conceived as a having a more practical, economic focus, providing access to employment by matching job-seekers to positions or buyers to traders, again without the patronage circles that relied on nepotism and favour. The democratisation of information thus carries with it power, control and something like the ‘transparency’ sought after today.

The idea of such an office had already been implemented by the founder of the first weekly newspaper in France, Theophraste Renaudot, whose ‘Bureau d’Adresse’ opened in 1628. The ‘Bureau’ was involved in the expanding and sharing of knowledge in weekly scientific conferences open to the general public, though its primary aim lay in social welfare; the poor could be helped through the office giving them access to employment, medical and legal advice, and acting as a pawn shop.

This is more than esoteric knowledge collected in an ivory tower; the emphasis is on the dissemination of information, the liberation of both the construction and consumption of knowledge. In this way, the idea is part library and university, part eBay and part social media. Renaudot’s ‘Bureau’ closed in 1644 and though there were other attempts, successful and less so, at opening such public offices, mainly they seem to have functioned like a kind of ‘small ads’ paper, facilitated by the printing press, and providing a useful economic service. Perhaps the grander ideas behind them can find incarnation in that other big technological advance: the Internet.

News connects us; we rely on it to build a sense of who we are in the world. These ‘offices of intelligence’ were attempts to open up the construction and dissemination of knowledge and information, and though I’m certainly not saying we should do away with political and media structure, perhaps through the universal access to information through the internet (at least in this country) we can get a little power back, and hope to hold the elite in society to higher account.