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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 2: What is History? •

What is History?

A portrait of Voltaire

There is no history, only fictions of varying degrees of plausibility - Voltaire (1694-1778)

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Making History Now (an Inaugural Lecture)

Professor David Cannadine

On the afternoon of 12 November 1940, Winston Churchill paid his parliamentary tribute to Neville Chamberlain, the man whom he had succeeded as Prime Minister, and who had died earlier that month. It was a spacious and eloquent address, noteworthy for its breadth of vision, for its generosity of feeling, for its ready appreciation of the transience of public renown, and for its imaginative sympathy with the cruel disillusion of disappointed hopes. For historians of the twentieth-century Conservative Party, no less than for students of Churchillian rhetoric, it is an oration which merits careful analysis and close attention. But my interest in it today centres on some remarks which come early in the speech, and which might have been composed with the imperatives of inaugural-lecture-writing very much in mind. 'History', Churchill observed, 'with its flickering lamp, stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passions of former days.' And he went on to pose the question which historians should ask themselves every day throughout their working lives, and which I welcome the opportunity to reflect on this afternoon. 'What', he inquired, 'is the worth of all this?'

Oddly enough, this is rarely a question addressed by those professors of history in British universities who have recently risked inaugurating themselves in this very exposed and public manner. Understandably, most of them believe that the worth of history can be taken for granted, and that they have more important and original things to be saying: in some cases by presenting the fruits of their own research, which highlight the importance and liveliness of their chosen branch of study; in others by reviewing their own field, affirming its general significance, and saying something that is both synthetic and provocative; or just occasionally by trying to put forward and develop one single, 'big idea'. But Churchill's naggingly insistent question remains one which it is essential to ask and to answer -- especially here in the Senate House, in the very heart of London, where cloistered academe and bustling public affairs inevitably and fruitfully intermingle, where it is impossible to ignore the 'world at large' which it is the historian's duty to reach and enlighten, and where the Institute of Historical Research has flourished for more than three quarters of a century as a local, national and international centre of scholarly excellence and educational outreach.

It is, then, by turns both exhilarating and humbling to stand before you this afternoon in a direct line of directorial descent from A.F. Pollard, who established the Institute of Historical Research here in London in 1921, as a 'world centre' for the study of the past and for the dissemination of scholarly learning about it, and who spent much of his subsequent career developing it, protecting it, and raising money for it. But these were but a part of his creative accomplishments, both as an enabler and as a scholar. For Pollard was the most outstanding Tudor historian of his day, and the primacy of London University in the sixteenth century, which lasted well into the 1950s, was largely owning to his example, his inspiration and his research students. He was also Professor of Constitutional History at UCL, where he did more than anyone to make history an important subject of undergraduate education in this university. He was an assistant editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, the founder of the Historical Association, the saviour and editor of its journal History, and a staunch supporter of the Victoria County History, which he helped bring to the IHR in 1934. And he was drawn into public work concerned with history: during the 1930s, he advised the government about the League of Nations, and he vigorously supported the scheme for a History of Parliament initiated by his friend Colonel Josiah Wedgwood.

To follow in the footsteps of someone who excelled with equal energy and distinction in the realms of scholarship and administration, fundraising and outreach, entrepreneurship and public service, and who possessed an unrivalled capacity to 'make things happen', is indeed both humbling and exhilarating. But I only recently discovered just how humbling it was, when I came across a letter from Pollard to Wedgwood, written in 1936. 'I am', he admitted, 'hopelessly tied to the IHR....I don't know what will happen when I cease to be Honorary Director. They will probably offer 1,200.00 a year to someone -- and then fail to get a competent person.' Since Pollard was eventually succeeded by V.H. Galbraith, en route from a chair at Edinburgh University to the Regius Professorship in Oxford, his successor's competence could scarcely have been in doubt. I, on the other hand, come to the Senate House by way of Columbia University, New York (where, by agreeable coincidence, Pollard was once himself a visiting professor), and this must be both my excuse and my justification for sketching out an answer to Churchill's question which may seem transatlantically brash, broad and bold. How, to reformulate his inquiry in more immediate terms, do the profession and practice of history in Britain look to someone who has returned to them after ten years away? What is happening to history in this country, what is going to happen to history, and what ought to be happening?


The good news must surely be that in the Britain of the late 1990s, history seems to matter a great deal. Take higher education. One of the many things the IHR does is to generate data about historians actively working in British universities: in January 1980, there were 1999 of them; in January this year there were 2896. Of course, these figures are inflated by the enhancement in status of former polytechnics in the middle of this decade: but that is not a sufficient explanation for the fifty per cent increase during that time. The Annual Bibliographies of British History published by the Royal Historical Society reveal a similar upward trend: in 1989, 3222 authors published 1116 books and 2561 articles; in 1997 the figures were, respectively, 6064, 2016 and 4748. Again, there are difficulties of interpretation: books on British history are written by overseas scholars and by those not employed in universities; and many British-based university historians write about countries other than their own. But it seems highly unlikely that these caveats would substantially modify the general picture: a near-doubling in numbers of authors, books and articles. And here, in further corroboration of this optimistic view of things, is one final statistic: in the Research Assessment Exercise of 1992, only five departments of history out of eighty three were awarded the highest ranking (at that time a grade five); but by 1996, twenty seven departments out of one hundred and seven were rated five or five star.

The provisional conclusion to be drawn from these statistics might be that everything in Clio's mansion is fine. Since the end of the Second World War returned scholars from Bletchley to their books, and from fighting Germans to teaching Britons, two full generations of university-based historians have been unprecedentedly abundant in their numbers, unprecedentedly productive in their output, and unprecedentedly distinguished in their quality. And these impressive and encouraging trends have merely intensified in the 1990s: the best decade for history in Britain so far. There are more university-based historians teaching and researching and writing here today than ever before; they are producing more scholarly work here today than ever before; and so it is scarcely surprising that the general standard of history departments in this country today is rising. Under these circumstances, it is difficult not to smile at those gloom- mongers who claimed, in the early 1990s, that history was in a terminal crisis: in part because post-modern critics doubted history's claims and historians' capacities to tell the truth about anything; in part because it had became over-specialised to the point of complete incoherence; and in part because the triumph of liberal- democratic, free-market capitalism meant that history itself had now come to an end.

How wrong, in retrospect, these paranoiacs and pessimists were! For history in Britain today seems more vital and vigorous than it has ever been: stimulated and enriched by the insights of post-modernism, rather than overwhelmed and undermined by them; and with its claims that it seeks and finds something of the truth of what really happened in the past both vindicated and reasserted. Nor, as we look around the world today, does it seem remotely plausible to argue that the historical discipline ran out of subject matter somewhere about the year 1990, and that history had indeed come to a full stop. Still less has history vanished from the broader public culture and public consciousness of which it has always been a part. Senior politicians from Roy Jenkins via Ian Gilmour to Alan Clark write hugely popular histories and biographies. There are more knighted and ennobled historians today than ever before. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has a Ph.D. in history. The former editor of History Today is an MP and (a much more exclusive distinction, this!) a member of the Advisory Council of the IHR. In recent years there has been a clutch of best-selling history books, from such writers as John Keegan, Orlando Figes, Richard Overy and Niall Ferguson. And who can doubt that Simon Schama's forthcoming television history of Britain will hold hundreds of thousands of people agog and enthralled at the millennium?

Thus regarded, history is flourishing in Britain as never before, and so, too, are its principal -- and abiding -- justifications. For history is above all a humane subject, providing the quintessential 'liberal education', which does much more than research and record and teach about particular episodes and periods in the past. At a deeper level, history makes plain the complexity and contingency of human affairs and the range and variety of human experience; it enjoins suspicion of simplistic analysis, simplistic explanation, and simplistic prescription; it teaches proportion, perspective, reflectiveness, breadth of view, tolerance of differing opinions, and thus a greater sense of self-knowledge. By enabling us to know about other centuries and other cultures, it provides, along with the collections housed in our great museums and galleries, the best antidote to the temporal parochialism which assumes that the only time is now, and the geographical parochialism which assumes that the only place is here. There is not only here and now; there is there; and there is then. And the best guide to there and then, and thus also the best guide to here and now, is history: in part because it helps us understand how our world got to be the way it is; in part because it helps us understand how other worlds got to be the way they were -- and the way they are. History has always been rightly justified in these terms, and they still provide the most convincing answer to Churchill's question.

All this is right and true and good. But only as far as it goes. And it does not go very far: certainly not as far as it ought, and not as far as it once did. It may, for example, be true that there are more historians working in British universities than ever before, but this does not necessarily mean that all is well. Far from being (as some post-modernist critics claim) an entrenched and intolerant power elite, ruthlessly controlling knowledge and foisting a dominant bourgeois ideology on powerless and malleable students, teachers of history in British universities seem almost without exception to be underpaid and overworked, to feel insufficiently respected or rewarded, and to be suffering from extremely low morale. They discourage their brightest students from following in their footsteps, on the (highly responsible) grounds that their prospects would be bleak; and many of them, once they reach their forties, are waiting and longing for early retirement. It may be objected that this is merely anecdotal evidence, and that ever since the days of Kingsley Amis's Jim Dixon, historians have always been alienated, depressed and complaining. But when A.H. Halsey wrote about British academics in 1992, he found these characteristics to be widespread across the whole profession, and there seems no evidence that things have improved in the intervening period. There is, then, something to be said for John Vincent's view that 'Historians today are not the holders of power...They live among the foothills of society, where they engage anxiously in downward social mobility'.

This may be an exaggeration; but not, I suspect, by all that much. For academics in general, and historians in particular, have in recent decades become proletarianised: losing income, status, facilities, prospects, autonomy and security. Yet at the same time, this large and depressed professoriate has been producing a superabundance of material, with all the frenzied energy of battery chickens on overtime, laying for their lives. Two thousand books and nearly five thousand articles is a prodigious quantity of specialised information about the past to produce -- and all this in only one year! Indeed, it is not only prodigious: it is, in a sense, preposterous. For who, apart from the History Panel of the Research Assessment Exercise, is actually reading all this stuff? Certainly not the general public or undergraduates: they confine themselves to the few history books that get wide coverage in the broadsheets and to prescribed lists of recommended reading. And certainly not professional historians: for so great is the information overload from which we are now suffering that no scholar today, however eager, however energetic, however curious, can keep up in his (or her) own field, even narrowly defined (say one hundred years), let alone hope to read more broadly. The result is that much of this vast published output is read by so small an audience that it is tempting to wonder what is the point in writing it or publishing it in the first place: to which, in many cases, the only answer is the compelling need to meet the demands and dictates of the RAE.

But this is not the only damaging effect which the Research Assessment Exercise is having on history and on historians. For in addition to inflating the quantity of output, it is deflating the quality. Indeed, it is widely believed that the RAE is obsessed with quantity, and largely indifferent to quality. The imperatives for regular and rapid production are now so great and so insistent that the overall standard of published output in history is generally thought to be declining. And it is easy to see why. What might, in an earlier era, have been one big, important, provocative, ground- breaking article is now salami-sliced into three, to give more impressive evidence of quantity of output. What might, in the 1960s or 1970s, have been a lengthily researched and deeply pondered book -- say The Growth of Political Stability in England, or Africa and the Victorians, or The Making of the English Working Class, or Religion and the Decline of Magic -- becomes instead a prematurely published survey, with inadequate documentation and insufficiently thought through argument, or an arid and lifeless monograph selling fewer than two or three hundred copies, which almost no one reads. The obsession with output and performance requires visible and measurable products. But a culture of productivity is not only different from, it is inimical to, a culture of creativity -- a point to which I shall return.

These developments are not only intrinsically regrettable: they also carry with them extremely worrying public consequences. For as historians are compelled to grind out their specified quota of specialised articles and inaccessible monographs, which are at best read only by a handful of professional colleagues, and are at worst almost completely ignored, this makes them less and less able to fulfil that essential public function which remains their real and abiding justification: satisfying the interest and furthering the comprehension of that broader, non-professional audience memorably described by Hugh Trevor-Roper as 'the laity'. Yet in a world ever more burdened by an infinite amount of information, instantly available, the need to provide a humane and historical perspective on people and events becomes more urgent, not less. For it seems generally agreed that we live in a society which is increasingly amnesiac and ahistorical: where many politicians (and many think-tanks) seem to believe the world began on 1 May 1997; where historians of my generation wield far less cultural authority than those of an earlier era; where the media coverage of events is increasingly devoid of any temporal dimension; and where the Millennium will be marked by a Dome from which history has been conspicuously and unconscionably excluded.

Please do not misunderstand what I am saying. I do not deny that universities, being in receipt of substantial sums of government money, should be accountable to our paymasters for the way that it is spent, and should recognise their obligations to try to explain what they do to the general public. I have no time for those historians who spend their lives storing up vast mounds of esoteric erudition, but who can scarcely bring themselves to write an article, let alone a book, and who are condescendingly remembered and euphemistically obituarised as good teachers and sound college chaps. I accept absolutely, and I recognise with appreciation and delight, that some work is still being published by professional, university-based historians, which is either of a high quality, or reaches a broad audience, or both. My concern is that there is a growing discrepancy between the figures, produced in the name of accountability, which suggest that everything is fine and getting better, and the reality, which is in truth much more complex and much more sombre. In producing more and more goods, on which a diminishing value is placed, while the customer looks elsewhere for novelty and excitement, late twentieth-century historians are increasingly coming to resemble another sad, demoralised and proletarianised fraternity: the handloom weavers of the early nineteenth century. This is, no doubt, an over-theatrical comparison. And it is also, perhaps, a rather parochial parallel. For having looked at British historians as a collective group, I should now like to turn to take a rather broader view of things, which means, inevitably and unapologetically, taking both a national and a transatlantic perspective.


The case for such a broader approach should scarcely need making. Yet perhaps it does. Historians are supposed to advocate and exemplify viewing people and processes and problems in perspective and in proportion. They are also supposed to be the fearless champions of the pursuit of truth (however inconvenient, uncomfortable and unpalatable), and of the right to follow their evidence and their argument wheresoever it might lead. How, then, do we historians look today if we apply these precepts and practices to ourselves? Like all working academics who are based in universities, British historians live and move and have their being in two separate but interconnected worlds: one is the national university system which employs us to teach, to research, to write and (increasingly) to administer and sit on committees; the other is the international republic of letters which constitutes a cosmopolitan fellowship of like-minded scholars, working on similar subjects and dealing with similar problems, and which also functions as a global job market for academic talent. How do the anxieties (and the accomplishments) of British historians working and writing today look when set in these broader national and international contexts?

Let me begin by making some international comparisons, the first of which gives grounds for comfort, the second of which does not. Compared with most university systems in western Europe (to say nothing of those in eastern Europe or Asia or Africa), British universities are in relatively good shape. Here in Britain, student numbers are generally smaller, staff-student ratios are generally better, and degree courses are generally more rigorous and more serious enterprises, than on the continent. Our funding is also more stable and more secure, and British academics are certainly not hired and fired at the behest of the state, or expected to ply their trade in conformity with the current party ideology of whoever happens to be in power. These are privileges and benefits of enormous importance, which we here in Britain are inclined to take too easily for granted. But in France and Germany and Italy, universities are less well resourced and more over-subscribed than they are here, while in the former Communist bloc, it is going to take decades to construct a viable, independent university system, emancipated from the thraldom of Marxist dogma and thought control, and from decades of inadequate funding. It may be that with abundant and imaginative assistance from the European Union, continental universities will be revived and reinvigorated: but at present that prospect still seems some way off.

But if we turn our perspective westwards, the comparison is much less to the advantage of British universities -- and this in two very serious ways. To begin with, even the richest British universities are chronically under-funded and under-endowed compared to their American counterparts. Consider the facts. In the summer of 1998, the market value of the endowments of Columbia, Stanford, Princeton, Yale and Harvard Universities was, respectively, $3.4, $4.5, $5.5, $6.6 and $13 billion; and in the months since then, the buoyant stock market means these endowments have increased still further. These are prodigious accumulations of academic wealth, by comparison with which even the riches of Oxford and Cambridge (so often pilloried and criticised in the press) pale into relative insignificance. And it is this superabundance of material resources which in turn makes so much else possible in the world of American higher education -- not just the higher professorial salaries (true and important though those undoubtedly are), but the broader and deeper back up of support in teaching and research, and the fostering of a buoyant, optimistic environment where these activities are seen and supported, promoted and valued, as the whole point and purpose of university life -- and of life beyond, in the wider national public culture.

Moreover, it is not just that even the richest British universities are chronically under-funded and under-endowed by comparison with American universities, with all the disadvantages and limitations that that entails: it is also that they are no less chronically over- bureaucratised. Of course, American universities have to be administered, and they, too, have their hierarchies of committees. But they are more concerned with spending money than (as in Britain) with worrying about how little of it there will be, and how to second guess the aims and actions of the funding councils. Moreover, there is still in the United States a widespread insistence that professors should be given as much freedom as possible to get on with the things they are expert at and employed to do: namely research and teaching. Indeed, those professors who show particular distinction are rewarded with promotions which give them more time to teach and write, and protect them from the distracting demands of administration. In Britain, the position is the exact reverse -- and it is getting worse. In part this is because the more eminent and the more promoted British academics become, the more administration they are expected to undertake. And in part this is because the insistent and growing demands from the government for accountability bring with them ever more committees and meetings.

It is this debilitating combination of inadequate resources and excessive bureaucracy which has brought about the proletarianisation of British academic life, the increasingly pervasive culture of accountability and productivity, and the consequent (and very serious) loss of academic freedom. These developments are not only regrettable in themselves, they are also lethal for any serious culture of creativity. For most hard pressed academics, lacking adequate time and resources, research and writing are now relegated to a low-level, residual activity, to be fitted in to those few hours or days when there are no more pressing obligations. This may still allow for the grinding out of routine pieces of research and writing, but it is not an environment in which serious or sustained or original or wide- ranging creative labour can be carried on, which will open up a whole new subject, or treat an old problem in an entirely new way, or capture the imagination and interest of the general public. Here is one account of such endeavour, which ought to be a model for us all. In 1908, G.M. Trevelyan declined an invitation to be Director of the London School of Economics. His chief reason was that he was 'in the middle of another job', by which he meant his Garibaldi books. It required, he explained, 'a complete devotion of all my faculties; I work up to breaking point as it is.' He was bursting with 'masses of specialised knowledge and thought': 'the whole thing is in me, and I must pour it out or it will cool.' 'History to me', he went on, 'is both science and an art; science and art are severally the most exacting things in the world.' 'So you see', he concluded, 'I can't break off this job, and slow off the pace.'

Most of us today cannot hope to rival Trevelyan's prodigious gifts of head and heart, mind and spirit. We lack his dynastic pride, his personal confidence, his abundant energies, his imaginative sweep, his passion for poetry no less than for prose. But as historians, we should never lose sight of the fact that this is precisely the sort of intense, original, brain-hurting, time-consuming labour to which all of us should aspire -- or, at least, try to aspire. And we should never cease to deplore those developments in higher education which not only make such aspirations as unrealistic as they are unrealisable, but which are also the result of decisions taken, and policies implemented, by people who seem to have no comprehension of what those creative activities and aspirations are, or mean, or why they matter. And behold the result: at all levels of the historical profession, most British academics today are less free and confident and creative and imaginative than their American counterparts. I do not mean this as a criticism of them, any more than I am criticising hard pressed vice-chancellors, battle-scarred administrators, and stressed-out heads of department, for whose heroic labours my admiration is boundless. But no amount of fudging and fixing by them can summon up those material resources and personal freedoms from government interference without which a culture of creativity can neither exist nor thrive.

This is, to put it at its most understated, a very serious matter: in part because senior administrators lack the time, the funds and the confidence to get their universities out of a predicament into which they have been forced by circumstances beyond their control; in part because the broader implications have not been fully spelt out, adequately discussed, or properly thought through. It remains the belief of some in Britain, reinforced by the many five and five star ratings so liberally given out in the 'fever of enhancement' that characterised the 1996 Research Assessment Exercise, that our best universities and university departments are successfully competing with the best universities and departments in the world -- which means, of course, with those in North America. But on the basis of the transatlantic experience as I have had, and of such transatlantic comparisons as I and others have been able to make, I have to report that that view is at best nostalgic delusion, at worst mistaken fact. For as even the richest and most privileged of British universities become, by comparison with the richest and most privileged of American universities, relatively less rich, relatively more bureaucratised, relatively less creative, and relatively more unfree, this means the capacity of Cambridge, or Oxford, or University College to compete on equal terms with Harvard, or Yale, or Princeton dwindles and diminishes by the day.

Perhaps this is inevitable and unavoidable: for universities, like nations, rise and fall. Indeed, they tend to rise and fall together, since great powers are generally rich powers, and rich nations can better afford world-class universities than poor nations. In an earlier era, Bologna and Prague and Heidelberg and Paris were the pre-eminent universities of the world; that supremacy passed to Edinburgh and Glasgow and Cambridge and Oxford and London; now it is passing to Yale and Harvard and Princeton and Stanford and Chicago. Perhaps we should resign ourselves to the inevitable, and recognise that in higher education, as in everything else, there is an international division of labour, and accept that in this world league, as in so many others, from cars to cricket, Britain is no longer a serious competitor at the top level. But I am not myself sure we should give up so easily: and we should certainly not give up before the matter has been properly aired and debated and discussed. But if we do not wish to give up, then we have to address, and to address very soon as a matter of urgent national importance, a question which no one in high places is even prepared to admit needs to be posed: does Britain want to make the effort to continue to maintain even a handful of world-class universities in this country on into the next century? And if it does, then what, in terms of massively increased endowments and funding, and no less massively reduced intrusion and bureaucracy, is it prepared to do about it?

As Noel Annan has recently and rightly written, the life blood of any university with serious claims to distinction is 'outstanding and productive scholars, devoted and stimulating teachers, men and women of originality and imagination, open-hearted and magnanimous.' There are many people working in British universities today who embody and exemplify these admirable, indeed essential, qualities: but everywhere, from Oxford to Luton, Cambridge to Huddersfield, Edinburgh to Bath, they are held back, kept down, hemmed in, by a system which, through no fault of their own, hinders and harasses them, instead of encouraging and liberating them. Under these circumstances -- by turn dispiriting and depressing, but still with the hope, indeed the necessity, of action and response -- I am reminded of Marshall Foch's defiant words at the Battle of the Marne, which well sum up the present, shell-shocked state of British academe, and which will also provide the theme for the final part of my lecture: 'Hard pressed on my right', Foch observed. 'My centre is yielding. Impossible to manoeuvre. Situation excellent. I shall attack.'


But how? It may seem to be journeying a long way from these general (and rather gloomy) considerations, to turn to the Institute of Historical Research, which it has been both my responsibility and my delight to have been directing for almost exactly twelve months. But I would want to insist that this is not so. From one perspective, the IHR partakes of the generally depressed character of contemporary British academe; from another, it holds out the hope and the possibility of escaping from it. For as I have already suggested, it is at once the burden and the opportunity of history that it is both a demanding academic discipline and an integral part of contemporary public culture, and from its prime position here in London, the IHR is uniquely positioned to bear those burdens and rise to those challenges. For more than seventy five years since Pollard first founded it, it has been a unique place and a unique resource -- for scholars living and working within the orbit of the M25, for historians throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, for academics from around the world for whom it is their first and last port of call in Britain, and for all those who care about the past, and regard it as an essential element in public consciousness, cultural enrichment and civilised living.

There is much about what the IHR has achieved and now does that gives cause for pride and satisfaction. Its library, amounting to 160,000 volumes, is the best open-access collection for historical research in Britain. Its seminars are among the most important in the English- speaking world, and they have been lead by many of the most famous and distinguished historians of their day, including Arnold Toynbee, Sir Lewis Namier, Sir John Neale, and Eric Hobsbawm. Its conferences are unrivalled in their range and frequency, and draw participants from around the globe, especially the Anglo- American Conference of Historians held here every July. Its publications are essential scholarly reading, and for more than a decade the IHR has pioneered the application of the new technology to the study and dissemination of information about the past. As befits its name, the IHR also accommodates three great collective enterprises of scholarly research and public education: the Victoria History of the Counties of England, the Centre for Metropolitan History, and (since last summer) the Institute for Contemporary British History. And we are also collaborating with many of the great galleries and cultural institutions of London on research projects, conferences and exhibitions.

This wide and expanding range of services and activities, which reaches an audience across Britain, in Europe and around the world, is sustained by a devoted staff -- and by inadequate funding. The Vice-Chancellor on behalf of the University of London, and the British Friends of the Institute, have between them recently provided 250,000 to refurbish parts of our building. But the IHR urgently needs to raise money for an endowment which would enable it to secure and extend its mission to support the study and dissemination of history -- to undergraduates, research students and professional historians; to schools, local history societies and non-academic historians; and to play a more active and engaged part in the cultural life of this city and our nation. At present the IHR enjoys an annual income of 1.5 million, mostly derived from government funding and research grants. This is insufficient for the things it does -- and for the things it urgently wants to do. We need additional funds to support our publications, conferences and seminars; to allow us to put on public lectures and develop our educational outreach programme; and to enable us to appoint additional library, administrative and research staff. We need to refurbish parts of the library and expand its holdings, to upgrade our computer training room, to provide a lecture theatre and seminar rooms, and to create office space for an enlarged community of resident historians.

We intend to make this space and this support available to junior research fellows completing their first publications; to visiting fellows and visiting professors from Britain and from overseas; and to a number of full-time research professors, who will provide academic leadership within the IHR, and who will raise its public profile in London, across Britain, in Europe, and around the world. In short, we seek to make the IHR the place that Pollard dreamed it would be, but for our time rather than his -- a place of welcome and excitement for all those who care about the past; and where historians will work together in a confident and creative environment, and from this secure base reach out and respond to a wider world and larger audience. In short, we seek to renew the IHR as a centre where history is practised and brought alive; to make it a place where historians may work freed from many of the shackles which constrain and hold back so much of British academe today; and to reaffirm, by our activities, our example and our leadership, the essential importance of history in the scholarly life of our universities, and in the public life of our nation. But to accomplish this we need a sum of not less than 20 million, and it is for contributions to that sum that I am appealing to you tonight.

This is, in all conscience, a large enough scheme, both in terms of what we are hoping and planning to do at the IHR, and in terms of the time it will take and the money we shall need to do it. But there is something about working in this monumental 1930s building -- which, it is rumoured, would have been Hitler's headquarters had he successfully invaded England in 1940 -- that encourages even more wide-ranging speculations bordering, perhaps, on megalomaniac fantasies, some of which I should like to sketch out in the remaining minutes of this lecture. My starting point is to remind you that the Institute of Historical Research is a constituent part of the School of Advanced Study of the University of London. As such, it is one institute among eleven, the remainder being concerned with the law, the classics, the Commonwealth, the United States, Latin America, romance languages, Germanic Studies, English Studies, philosophy, and the influence of the classical tradition on art. Individually, these Institutes are as important for their subjects -- locally, nationally and internationally -- as the IHR is for history. And collectively, they ought to form one of the most exciting places for the advanced study of the humanities anywhere in the world -- partly because of the range of subjects represented, partly because of the distinction of their staff and students, and partly because of their unrivalled location, equidistant between the British Library and the British Museum.

That is, as it were, the positive side of things, and it is a side I would very much want to emphasise. But there is a negative side as well. For the School of Advanced Studies, like the individual member institutes which comprise it, is chronically under- funded, under-staffed and under-resourced. Its income for the academic year 1997-98 was less than 8 million, and its endowment is less than 5.5 million. To try to run what should be a great, world- class centre for the humanities -- the equivalent in London of, say, the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, or the Hautes Ecoles in Paris -- on resources as limited as this is, it pains me to say, at best unrealistic, at worst impossible. Yet who can doubt that the scholarly and cultural life of London, and of the nation as whole, would be greatly enriched and enhanced by the creation, in the very heart of this world-city, of the sort of well-funded, well-endowed, highly-profiled centre that I have suggested -- building on the Institutes that are already here, but consolidating and developing them into an international powerhouse of advanced learning that would draw scholars and students from all round the globe? This, I would like to suggest, ought to be the splendid and exciting future of the School of Advanced Studies and of the Institutes which comprise it. The only problem? It would need an endowment far in excess of 100 million to make it happen. And where, in the Britain of the late 1990s, is that sum to be found?

It is at this point, with speculation in full, abundant, and perhaps delirious flow, that I recall a saying of George Bernard Shaw's, which was much popularised during the 1960s by John and Robert Kennedy: 'Other people see things [as they are] and...say: 'why?'....But I dream things that never were -- and I say: 'why not?'' Well, why not? In these post- Camelot days, GBS may be a little over the top, so let me also quote A.F. Pollard: 'It is often made a reproach to young people that they dream dreams and see visions. But if it is commonly a reproach, it becomes once again a privilege; for a vision may be one of the future, and a dream does sometimes come true.' Uniquely among the historians of his day, Pollard dreamed dreams which he worked to make come true. And if he accomplished such things in his generation, then why should we shy away from trying to accomplish similar things in ours?


It may be objected that these grandiloquent speculations about the form and future of higher education in London bring me too far from my proper area of directorial responsibility, namely the researching and writing and teaching of history here at the IHR in the Senate House. But I would want to insist that they do not. For insofar as I have felt compelled, on this occasion, to address these broader issues in higher education, as they impinge on our own world here in London, and as they resonate in the wider nation beyond, I have done so because the future of history in this country is inevitably and inextricably linked with the general state and health of the university system in which that writing and teaching about the past are now preponderantly carried on. But that system of higher education, as at present funded and structured, operated and audited, is incapable of delivering or nurturing those very things which universities, to be worthy of the name, should exist to sustain and promote, not just in history, but in every subject: freedom and opportunity, confidence and optimism, talent and excellence, curiosity and creativity, insight and imagination, bright ideas and big books of lasting value.

And why does this matter? Why is this how things ought to be, and need to be? Because, as A.F. Pollard put it, 'a university should be a focus of national intellect, and a source of national inspiration; and it fulfils its function badly if it does not help to expand the national mind.' This remains a fine and noble vision for higher education in this country, albeit one that is less confidently articulated and proclaimed than it was in Pollard's day. But here at the IHR, we firmly believe in our founder's vision, and proudly hold to it, and with your help and your support, your goodwill and your gifts, I hope it may be possible for us to turn the tide, and to do bold and exciting and creative and imaginative things, in the University of London, for the School of Advanced Studies, and above all in the Institute of Historical Research itself. In only one way would I seek to alter Pollard's words and adjust his vision, and that is by extension of them, rather than modification. For as his successor V.H. Galbraith once explained, what was most remarkable about the IHR was that it promoted 'the study of the past', not only as a London University activity, and 'as an activity common to all British universities', but also 'as a vital international enterprise, which offers a great hope for the future.' So it did, and so it does, and in recognising the essential truth of Pollard's words, we should never lose sight of that broader vision and larger hope.

I began this lecture by quoting one great man, who never doubted that history mattered, and it is not just in the interests of symmetry and sentiment (though they have their place) that I shall conclude by quoting another great man, of similar views. They are familiar words, rich in allusion and association. But they bear repeating, because they still provide, over half a century after they were originally uttered, the best brief answer to that Churchillian interrogative which was my original starting point. And they also serve to exhort us and to remind us: about the sort of creative historians that we should try to be, about the sort of imaginative history that we should try to write and teach, and about the sort of creative and imaginative history that universities should strive to encourage, and that the IHR exists to cherish. Here is G.M. Trevelyan, speaking in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge in 1927:

The poetry of history does not consist of imagination roaming at large, but of imagination pursuing the fact and fastening upon it. That which compels the historian to scorn delights and live laborious days is the ardour of his own curiosity to know what really happened long ago in that land of mystery which we call the past. To peer into that magic mirror and see fresh figures there every day is a burning desire that consumes and satisfies him all his life, and carries him each morning, eager as a lover, to the library and the muniment room.....The dead were and are not. Their place knows them no more and is ours today. Yet they were once as real as we, and we shall tomorrow be shadows like them.

So, indeed, they were; so, indeed, they are; and so, indeed, we shall ourselves assuredly one day be. But meanwhile, there is life to be lived, there is work to be done, there is history to be written, and (who knows?) there may even in some small way be history to be made. We have a great deal to be getting on with. It is high time we made a start.

(David Cannadine's inaugural lecture as Director of the Institute of Historical Research, 1999)

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