On Thursday the 10th of February, we attended a talk hosted by the Modern Research Center (University of Winchester) given by Professor miles Taylor, current director of the I.H.R (Institute of Historical Research) and previously a professor at both Southampton and York universities. The title of the lecture; british history in the new age of austerity…(Ok readers do not get depressed yet I do not think that we are quiet as an endangered as one of our lectures has suggested)
The talk began with a discussion of modern history and when does it actually begin, which is a very good question. Oxford has the modern period starting at the end of the middle ages, Scotland with the act of union in 1707, or is it in the 18th century with the rise of industry leading in Britain to the industrial revolution. But the question perhaps is what do you consider as modern is it the growth of industry or the rise in democracy. This makes dating in history both a help and a hinderance which professor Taylor demonstrated in his talk. I suppose to an extent post modernism is true in that it is perhaps the memory of the event that is more important and therefore dates don’t really matter, a radical concept for you to think about.
Also in his talk Professor Taylor discussed how changes in politics and ideology have impacted on the study and the writings of history. A modern example of this can be found under the 18 consecutive years of conservatism led by Margaret Thatcher in Britain. Historians leaving for America where there was more money and better opportunities for research, where a degree was useful in its own sake and not had to have a use or purpose as in Britain.
Wider changes to the historiography can be found in the growth of patriotic and revisionist history and also a rise in the role and workings of politics in a more general sense in order to understand why events turned out the way they did, this was without hindsight. British historiographical studies also experimented the re-emergence of the 18th century as an important period in English history. In addition, gender studies in history and a re-evaluation of women’s role within the historical framework began to be explored. Also, the issue of populism appears. It looks at wider political movements that have influenced the politics and of course history , i.e . the suffragettes and fascism and also there was a disappearance of a the focus being on the history within the classes, both separately and on a wider scale.
Cool Britannia? Under new labour, lots of members of the cabinet have a history degree and background. The party itself becomes self-conscious and used its own history to promote what ‘new labour’ was about in the modern world, moving away to an extent from its more socialist roots for example the dropping clause 4. There was also a re-assessment of the second world war, with the focus on the home front, and an interest in race and immigration as well as patriotism. Finally, religious studies, have perhaps become more important given todays multicultural society. For example, the use of ‘jihad’ by some people to refer to Islamic attacks on the western world, which originally means holy war/crusade, therefore referencing to the original crusades. Thus showing how history has a definite impact on the present.
Lastly professor Taylor brought his talk right up to the modern-day by telling the audience how David Cameron, Prime Minister, wants to be remembered for the coalition. Well… time only can tell if this is will be true. Nonetheless, we have to consider that we are, once again, in a new period of austerity, with cuts to the humanities… I wonder if current and future historians will remember him in the way he wants. We shall see as professor Taylor said “we are in different times”
Finally, quite timidly, we found the courage to go down the auditorium after the lecture was finished and asked Professor Taylor a couple of questions concerning his talk and history in general. This is what we got:
Does politics has a significant impact on history and is this a positive or negative thing ?
Politics has a big impact in the study of history. In the last 30 years there have been long and several periods in which one political party have been in power (not only in England, but in the rest of the world i.e George Bush and the Republicans in the United State). This is important considering the new studies on the very recent past as it’s all marked by politics and international relationships. Professor Taylor considers this is a good thing as it brings to the study of history new areas of interest, but also he thinks that this can be a disadvantage as it will deeply influence historical thinking and writing, and we all know it is extremely difficult to write good history without being totally biased, there is not such a thing as absolute detachment. He also stated that the past is the prelude for the modern times, and so we should learn from the mistakes made in the past, especially politicians as many political scandals and disasters have taken place and could be, unfortunately, repeated.
Why does history matter?
Professor Taylor truly believes that history matters, as we can learn lessons from it. It provides us with an identity and helps us know how we understand the world and how it works. There few countries that have continuous evidences of history ( America just became a nation about 300 years ago, and some other places in the world do not even have a traceable history of their past and community). He thinks people need to get interested in the subject, or then we will have something else to add to the so-called ‘dead subjects’ like Latin or Greek. To create a general interest in history, Professor Taylor criticizes his own environment and world by saying that we as historians need to communicate better about our own area of knowledge…We have to develop those social skills the politicians have (and the scientists in their very clear explanations on what they do and how they do it…although to be fair they have shiny moving things to attract people…we just have lots of archaeological remains…and books)
What is the future for historians?
Professor Taylor seem to fear that the new generations of historians will get distant from what is history itself. History is tactile, and there is the danger that we would lose our contact with the material culture. Hopefully we would not assume that everything we need is on the Web and save us from destruction.
We hope you enjoy this, and thank you Professor Miles Taylor for your time!
Sophie and Lillian