History In Focus logo and homepage link

History in Focus

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

What is History?

Book cover: 'The new nature of history'

Everything in history remains uncertain, the largest events as well as the smallest occurrence - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Back to articles index

Thoughts on the Present 'Crisis of History' in Britain

by Dr. James Vernon

There has been much talk of 'the crisis of History' in Britain during recent years. And yet, the vast majority of historians in Britain have remained relatively insulated from the debates about the status of historical knowledge after the postmodern turn, which have slowly begun to infuse their scholarly journals and conferences. Invariably, when these debates are acknowledged, they are invariably dismissed as the products of others - the French, North American feminists and post-colonial critics (a familiar triumvirate in narratives of the British nation). Instead 'the crisis of History' is more generally perceived to be at root a technical or institutional problem, not an epistemological one. Technical in the sense of relating to the changing mechanisms of funding higher education and their effects not only on the nature of historical research and teaching but on patterns of employment and the lack of generational renewal.

As there has been no systematic study of the changing state of the historical profession in Britain in the post-war period, it is difficult to provide anything other than an impressionistic survey of this perceived 'crisis' in Britain. However, one might usefully start by comparing two widely publicised and influential accounts of these changes by David Cannadine: the first published in 1987 as Cannadine left Cambridge for the USA and Columbia, the second delivered after a year back in the UK as Direct or of the Institute of Historical Research in London.

In 1987 Cannadine contrasted the rapid expansion of the profession in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s, and its fragmentation into a plethora of sub-disciplines, with its effective loss of a public audience beyond the academy. The failure of historians to provide a grand narrative of the nation's past had, he argued, allowed them to become easy targets for the savage cuts in higher education instigated by the first Thatcher government in 1981. The prognosis was grim: although the need for new synoptic grand narratives was urgent, the profession became ever more gerontocratic as new or replacement posts were frozen and graduate students sensibly chose not to pursue a career in a discipline in terminal decline. "In ten years' time, if present trends continue, there will be almost no professional historians in the country below the age of forty, a perfect recipe for intellectual stagnation - the almost total cessation of recruitment means that young lecturers have already become things of the past, and a whole generation of scholars has been lost to the profession."

This May, just over ten years later, Cannadine returned to his theme of terminal decline. No longer able to point to the lack of new blood within the profession, he instead lamented "the proletarianisation of British academic life". Not only had the chronic underfunding of the 1980s continued unabated, but it had been supplemented by a new scourge of Kafkaesque bureaucracy which had left the academy in general, and the discipline of history in particular, internationally uncompetitive, shorn of confidence, creativity or imagination.

Despite the unflattering nature of Cannadine's analyses they struck a powerful chord among his beleaguered colleagues in Britain. In this sense his interventions stand as powerful testament to the sense of a deepening crisis that has enveloped the profession for almost two decades now. The History Universities Defence Group, established in 1984 to provide a more effective voice for professional protests against financial cuts and the marginalisation of History within the proposed National Curriculum for schools, has instead proved a continual source of pessimism: chronicling the erosion of History in schools, the decline in undergraduate applications but the rise in admissions, the fall in postgraduate numbers and grants, the down-sizing of History Departments and the casualisation of staff contracts, and so on. Despite numerous discussions, working groups and conferences - across the full range of learned societies from the Royal Historical Society to the Economic History Society - there is now a wide spread sense of defeatism, that the trends of downsizing staff, massification of students and 'dumbing down' of degrees can not be bucked, that the halcyon days of the 1970s are gone forever.

And yet, as Cannadine's recent broadside indicates, these trends have been driven not simply by the squeeze on public finances but by a new management regime concerned to render public expenditure transparent and accountable in the name of efficiency. The emergence of this management discourse has a longer history and a wider reach throughout the public services than I can trace here. Suffice it to say that the old social democratic ethos in which professional experts were afforded a privileged position in the provision of public services, and were left to practice and disseminate knowledge largely as they saw fit, has been increasingly challenged in the emerging post-social democratic Britain of the last two decades. On top of a model of self- regulation has become entwined the commodification of expertise so that the services provided by professional experts are now rendered open to the competition of the market. In order that consumers can make informed choices in this market place the quality of provision must be measured, quantified and made transparent. In the competition for consumers and market position, professional experts have to ensure not just the quality of their provision but its fiscal efficiency. For many professional experts, like academics, this has entailed a considerable fall from grace - one that can be measured not just in terms of declining salaries but in their declining public esteem.

Given these broader discursive shifts it is hardly surprising that the one major growth area within the academic sector has been that of management. During the last decade, historians, like all other academics, have been subjected to a dizzying array of new management techniques which have opened their traditional practices of teaching and research, with all their attendant assumptions about the inherent value and utility of classical liberal education, to unprecedented levels of public scrutiny. In 1992 the first Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) was undertaken to monitor the quantity and quality of academic research, an exercise repeated in 1996 and soon to be undertaken again in 2001. Historians' research 'output' was now measured for the first time and Departments ranked on a sliding scale of 1-5. Research was no longer the private affair of individuals, it was publicly scrutinised and had to be produced every four years. Similarly, the government agencies which funded postgraduate research began to tighten up their procedures: monitoring and penalising those Departments which failed to ensure its doctoral students completed within 3 years, laying down guidelines on the type of 'research training' Departments should provide in an attempt to move decisively away from the old masterapprentice model of graduate supervision to more collective forms of graduate teaching. Undergraduate teaching too was scrutinised with History being one of the first disciplines to be subjected to the Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA), with each Department's undergraduate provision assessed and ranked. Such was the furore over the assumed imposition of external 'generic' standards of good teaching practice, that the TQA has recently been replaced by the new Quality Assurance Agency which has allowed disciplines to set their own benchmark standards of good practice. Again, History has been one of the first disciplines to be involved in this exercise with the History Universities Defence Group providing a statement on the purpose, nature and utility of an undergraduate degree in History against which the provision of all Departments will be assessed.

In short, the discourses of academic management have demanded radical transformations in the culture of historical research and teaching. For arguably the first time since its late nineteenth century foundation, the discipline of History has had to become self-reflexive, justifying to external assessors when, why and how they do what they do. In both their research and teaching historians now have to justify their activities through the language of academic management, assessing the measurable output of their work in terms of the outcomes of their research and the aims and objectives of their courses. Significantly, this has increasingly entailed historians thinking not simply in terms of their work as individuals, but to the broader collective enterprises (whether departments or other broader clusters of expertise in research or teaching) of which they are a part. If many historians purport not to take this process very seriously, strategically placing old wine in new bottles, it is nonetheless fair to suggest that many more have found this an agonising process. In a still ageing profession it has been hard, to mix metaphors, for old dogs to be taught new tricks. Indeed, the sympathetic reception to Cannadine's recent intervention bears witness to how the discourses of academic management and their bureaucratic mechanisms are largely perceived as a threat and further erosion of their traditional status and practices.

And yet, while these mechanisms have undoubtedly entailed an enormous increase in the administrative burden of British academic life, they have also provided a greater fluidity in the job market. No doubt this is partly because many newly defined as 'research inactive' were pushed (or jumped) towards early retirement. However, those more adept at applying for research grants generated a series of temporary replacement posts that provided life-blood for those postgraduates and postdoctoral scholars who invariably had nowhere to turn during the 1980s. Moreover, competition between institutions for higher ratings also led to the poaching of internationally acclaimed researchers, and therefore replacement posts by younger, cheaper staff. Although there is no hard and fast evidence for this, it is generally agreed that the logjam of frozen posts turned to a trickle of replacement posts in the early 1990s, a trickle that has turned to a stream (if not a torrent) every four years as a fresh RAE approached. My own Department at Manchester provides anecdotal evidence of this. Having made no new appointments since the early 1980s, two were made in 1993, and one a year between 1995 and 1999 as others retired or left to chairs elsewhere. A Department with one or two under the age of 40 in the late 1980s (and only two women out of 31) slowly acquired (still generally male) colleagues in the late 20s or early 30s. Anecdotally, I am told that broadly similar patterns were repeated elsewhere.

Those hired in the 1990s had no conception of a professional life before RAEs, TQAs and the QAA, they had often been trained under the new dispensation of graduate teaching, and had faced enormous competition for the few (invariably temporary) jobs they had secured. Unlike their colleagues who looked back to the fall from a golden age, they faced a future that by their colleagues' standards would become progressively bleaker. And yet it was a future that had been denied a generation of students during the 1980s. It was a future whose working conditions demanded a radical overhaul of curricula and teaching practices set largely in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a future that looked not to the discipline of History as a fortress to be protected against the excursions of others, but which recognised the vitality and importance of historical research and teaching across a range of other disciplines disciplines such as cultural studies that had flourished as History had 'declined' - not least because of the im peratives of finding employment in other cognate areas where a historical framework was perceived as useful. It was a future where one perhaps did not have to aspire to be published by Past and Present or English Historical Review but could look to a proliferating number of journals with increasing interdisciplinary accents without feeling professionally challenged (but tolerating the sneers of many of one's colleagues).

However, it was a future that was not free from the rhetoric of crisis. Yet far from seeing the crisis of History as a technical, institutional one, the new generation of scholars were/are more likely to perceive the crisis as an epistemological one. The genealogy of this epistemological crisis has been well documented and I do not want to rehearse those histories here. What I do want to emphasise however is that this questioning of the established methodologies and epistemologies of History were not confined in any simple sense to the new generation of scholars hired in the 1990s. It came from disparate sites and fields under the influence of feminism and the cultural turn in disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, literary and cultural studies and geography. Many of these influences had a greater impact in the ex-polytechnics and new universities where the disciplinary boundaries so marked in the older universities were less marked (and were women were more likely to be employed). In recent year s it has been noticeable that many of the older universities have been concerned to keep abreast of these developments - while posts still tend to be advertised in terms of the history of nation states in particular chronological periods, there has been a growing number of posts advertised in areas such as gender or cultural history.

Indeed, the amorphous field of cultural history has grown rapidly. It is almost impossible now to attend conferences or read journals without the vocabulary of cultural history - of discourses, cultural practices, imagined communities, identities, subjectivities - being freely and liberally deployed. Significantly, much of this is done without any substantial theoretical engagement, so that terms and concepts which once carried important critical freight have now become blandly appropriated to the conv entional methodologies of say political or social histories. These days it seems we are all eager to be cultural historians it has become a vehicle of employment, and the winning of research grants. Many of those young scholars finishing doctorates, seeki ng employment and contracts for monographs, tread a careful path between speaking the fashionable language of cultural history while distancing themselves from its critical edges. There is a sense in these developments of the discipline and the profession once more covering its back, defusing the critique of its epistemologies behind established methodologies, and redirecting attention to the discipline's perceived institutional crisis.

I want to end by suggesting that it may be fruitful to explore the relationship between the perceived institutional and epistemological 'crises of History' in Britain. It may be that the increasingly hegemonic discourses of management, of accountability and public auditing, in British higher education helped create an environment that necessitated a more critical and self-reflexive rethinking of History and the epistemologies upon which its traditional practices of research and teaching were founded. It may be that the widespread antipathy towards these management discourses amongst British historians typified by Cannadine's recent Inaugural Lecture signify in part a point of resistance to the rethinking of History and its epistemologies and practices. It may be that the increasing routinization of a once critical cultural history is becoming the basis upon which generational renewal can occur with a rhetoric of novelty and innovation but without significantly challenging the traditional practices of historical research and teaching.

It is, of course, typical of the discipline of History in Britain that there has been little discussion of the historical and institutional dimensions of its epistemological crisis. Given the decentralised nature of the profession across numerous learned societies and professional organisations, there is no obvious forum to raise such issues, no central body that seeks to represent the profession or discipline to itself and is capable of charting general trends and the lines of their contestation. Perhaps this is just how we like it, for although there is a great agenda for research here, given the politically loaded nature of the subject, it is perhaps not one that any individual seeking employment would sensibly pursue.

This paper was originally presented to a roundtable discussion on "History, Employment and Generational Renewal" at the 'History Under Debate' conference, Santiago del Compostela, Spain, 14-18 July 1999.

November 1999

Back to articles index

Back to top