Citizen Scholars: ‘If democracy was more than a moral fig leaf, it presumed popular assent based on a degree of knowledge’
June 29, 2012
As the democratic franchise expanded in the 19th century, British historians were eager to offer an informed view of the past to the new electorate. We need similar initiatives today.
History Today, as befits its name, stakes a good deal on the topicality of its subject matter. Introducing the first issue in 1951 the editors, Peter Quennell and Alan Hodge, asserted that historians were better qualified than most to make sense of the massive changes through which contemporaries were living. Regular features in the magazine like ‘History Matters’ and ‘Today’s History’ support that claim. Yet applying historical perspective to current concerns has a lowly place in public debate in Britain today. Countless issues in both domestic and international affairs, from military action in Afghanistan to the presumed debt crisis in the public finances, are considered by voters without benefit of historical perspective. Part of the reason for this shortfall is that historians themselves do not press home the practical claims of their discipline, in the belief that to do so would conflict with their scholarly credentials. Yet there is a serious and longstanding argument to be made that history is a citizen’s resource, essential to social awareness and political choice. Up until the Second World War historians of varying stripe promoted their discipline in this way, with some influence on public opinion. It is an aspect of the history of our discipline that has been neglected in recent accounts.
History and representative democracy have been yoked together since the mid-Victorian era. In 1867 the Second Reform Act not only enfranchised a substantial proportion of the male working class but was taken to be a critical step on the road to an even more inclusive democracy. Two leading historians reflected on the implications for their craft. They could not have been more different in temperament and politics, but they were agreed on the civic importance of history. J.R. Seeley (1834-95) was Regius Professor at Cambridge and an exponent of international relations and imperial history. He regarded these subjects as essential knowledge for the future governing class (strongly represented in his lectures), declaring in 1870 that history was ‘the school of statesmanship’. It has been less often noticed that Seeley also maintained that history was the best training for an informed electorate. ‘Without at least a little knowledge of history no man can take a rational interest in politics, and no man can form a rational judgment about them without a good deal.’ In a free country, said Seeley, some instruction is needed to ensure that citizens ‘may follow with some intelligence the march of contemporary history’. In a later lecture he remarked: ‘I show you the reigns of George II and George III, not as a mere by-gone period … but as a storehouse of materials by which we are to solve the greatest and most urgent of political problems.’ He had no qualms about rejecting the Rankean ideal of history for its own sake. Seeley stood for a ‘present history’, not ‘a past history’. In this he anticipated the academic champions of contemporary history a hundred years later.
William Stubbs (1825-1901) was appointed Regius Professor at Oxford in the same year as the Second Reform Act. As a medievalist, a Tory and a pillar of the established church, he does not sound a likely champion for a citizen’s history. But in his inaugural lecture he declared that the value of history lay not in vivid incidents or compelling narrative, but in its capacity to teach ‘judgment’. By this he meant the ability to provide serious historical perspective on passing events and to recognise their true complexity. The purpose of a historical education was to train ‘citizens … to be fitted not for criticism or for authority in matters of memory, but for action’. By ‘citizens’ he seems at this stage to have had in mind only the future leaders in church and state who were studying history at university. But in 1877 he defined the concept of citizenship much more inclusively. Stubbs advocated the serious study of history in the recently expanded elementary school system. If history could be firmly established in the new state schools, it would furnish ‘the next generation of Englishmen with the means of exercising conscientiously, honestly and judicially, the great political power which is now in their hands’. History taught ‘for ordinary practical purposes’ would give the citizen a better understanding of the world and equip him to vote intelligently. Here was the germ of the idea that historical perspective should be made available to citizens.
The lecture halls of Victorian Oxford and Cambridge were a long way from grassroots political debate and neither Seeley nor Stubbs made a significant public impact. What gave their ideas an urgent practicality was the First World War. The war had major consequences for the subject of history, not only because it gave a big impetus to the study of international relations, but because the subject’s explanatory claims became much more evident to lay people. If not quite the first time that university historians had tried to disseminate their expertise on foreign affairs, it was the first time they were noticed. The moment was scarcely propitious for a dispassionate appraisal of German war aims or of German culture. Why We Are At War, a pamphlet rushed out in 1914 by six Oxford historians, echoed popular Germanophobia. But in the longer run what counted was not partisan rhetoric but reasoned historical explanation. A lead was taken by the historian of Tudor England, A.F. Pollard (1869-1948). The onset of war prompted him to throw himself into the minutiae of recent international history. His new-found expertise was such that in 1917 the Foreign Office appointed him to serve on a League of Nations committee, to report on previous schemes for the limitation of war. But Pollard did not confine himself to the corridors of power. He wrote a stream of articles for the press on German war aims, the freedom of the seas, the Russian Revolution and other current issues, all of them brought together in his book The Commonwealth at War, published in 1917. He was also an effective proponent of history’s public role. The need of ordinary people for historical enlightenment was all the greater, he declared, now that they had a measure of political power, since otherwise they would be at the mercy of the sensationalist press. The antidote was a historical journal directed at an extra-university readership. In 1916 the Historical Association, founded in 1906, took over a semi-defunct journal called History. Pollard was the founding editor. In his first editorial he declared: ‘This war is creating problems which can only be solved in the light of history.’ In a passage that could have been penned by Seeley, he continued:
We may even seek to bring the light of history to bear on the study of politics, and to supply in some measure that notable void in British intellectual equipment, the absence of any review which systematically endeavours to link the past with the present and to test modern experiment by historic experience. [emphasis added]
Like History Today, History carried many articles that sought to introduce a historical perspective, chiefly into international and imperial affairs: Britain’s troubled relationship with Irish republicanism, the historical antecedents of the Polish question and so on…