Calling the Tune: British Universities and the State, 1880-1914

Keith Vernon, senior lecturer in Modern Social History at University of Central Lancashire, keeps popping up in my readings, because he focuses on the history of higher and technical education in the 19th and 20th centuries. This one is from 2001.

All history articles have what I call an “although” thesis, stated or implied. It’s usually something along the lines of, “although historians have seen it this way, they’re wrong and here’s why”. This article was no exception. Apparently the scholarly analyses of educational change published in the late 1980s and 1990s were in error in concentrating on the role of the state in the development of British universities only after 1919, when the University Grants Committee came into being. Such direct influence from the government on the universities came earlier. Of course, since I’ve been studying the grants given by the Science and Art Department, later the Board of Education, during the 1880s, it was easy to agree with Vernon’s thesis. I learned the government was always willing to fund universities in the interest of helping them become cultural centers, and that the funding in the late 19th century was thus limited to sciences and arts and restricted from vocational subjects (including medicine). I learned that Oxford and Cambridge had quite a bit of their own funding, but that other entities throughout Britain who wanted to become universities had to prove their university-level arts and sciences to the government to get money. Thus a pattern of “investigation, regulation and funding” (p253) emerged that ensured that new universities towed the line, even while the government insisted that local funding remained primary, especially as provincial institutions were inherently local in their perspective and usefulness.

Even Oxford and Cambridge, however, expanded access during the latter part of the 19th century. Doing so, interestingly, undermined for some the reason for the University of London, which had been to first to allow Dissenters, women, and poorer people to obtain degrees. Despite the separation between academic and vocational studies that Vernon insists was enforced by the government, however, teaching seems to have been the exception. He notes that the university colleges primarily engaged in teacher training, and that following the investigations of 1895, the Treasury remained skeptical and wanted to “ensure that a reasonable number of arts and science students were studying for purely academic reasons, not on vocational courses” (p261). Perhaps this is why so many teachers at that time, including H.G. Wells, wanted to earn a degree, and it may suggest reasons why having one was necessary to getting a good position as a schoolmaster.

The other interesting section of the article concerned the battle over Gresham University, or what I’ve seen elsewhere called The Gresham Scheme. In 1892, the issues brought forth by University College and King’s College, both integral parts of the University of London (though they didn’t want to be) could not be resolved. The two colleges allied with 10 medical schools to recommend a teaching university with the name Gresham University. The Cowper Commission instead, in 1894, recommended keeping one University of London but dividing the internal (teaching) and external (examining) functions. Just as it got interesting, the article jumped into the 20th century. But when it did so, it claimed that admiration for Germany caused the new reforms that created the Imperial College, constructed out of the old Normal School of Science (attended by HG) and other South Kensington entities. Imperial College “was explicitly designed as a technological powerhouse for the empire” (p264). So long as we’re arguing for earlier origins of things, I would argue that the German influence came much earlier, when the payment-by-results and other schemes were introduced in order to encourage science teaching.

 

 

Vernon, Keith. 2001. “Calling the Tune: British Universities and the State, 1880-1914.” Hist. Educ. 30 (3): 251–71. https://doi.org/10.1080/00467600010029294.

The Struggle for the History of Education: more glossing

[Glossing is actually the process of commenting on a text, like annotation. This isn’t exactly what I’ve been doing, since I’m combining summaries of useful chapters of books I’m reading with that commentary.]

I have been reading Gary McCulloch’s The Struggle for the History of Education (Routledge 2011) to understand theory and method using education as the central point, so this will build on my reading in Writing History: Theory and Practice.

So it turns out I was right about educationists practicing history, and historians looking at education — it’s been a big part of the struggle. Gary McCulloch should know: he has a BA in Educational Studies, an MA in History of Education (I didn’t know you could do that), and a PhD in History (from Cambridge). In the introduction, he states his purpose, not only of this book but of the others he’s written over the last ten years: to “codify the field in such a way that would provide scope for a wide range of researchers with different interests to discover connections with it and to develop it further. ” (p8)  That makes my work part of a wider development of the history of education as a sub-discipline, which I suppose is better than being outside any sub-discipline at all. It would be nice to be in a club that would consider having me as a member.

According to McCulloch, the result of the many changes in social theory (and, I’d say, practice) has been new directions of study, including “inquiry into patterns of social disadvantage and the exclusion and marginalization of particular groups in society, which has gone beyond the previous emphasis on social class to address issues concerning gender, sexuality and disability…” (p10). Hmmm. H.G. Wells was male, sexually inclined toward females, and his only disability was a recurring lung problem that forced him into different areas of endeavor (he quit two jobs and was accommodated in one). I wonder whether there’s a problem because he was classically lower middle-class? Is he historiographically uninteresting?

Then it got worse as I read on. Unfortunately, in the historiography of the 19th century in this book, my new hero fared badly. Leopold von Ranke’s “scientific” method of history was discredited in the 1970s by Gareth Stedman Jones, who claimed that even though positivism/Whiggism has been disclaimed, historians like Ranke continued to practice it in the guise of collecting all the “facts” before they’d engage any theory (p12). It began to look like my whole approach ended in the 1950s.

The British path went like this: in the first half of the 20th century, the Whig interpretation dominated, with national narratives of progress in expanding education, all very self-congratulatory and encouraging. Beginning in the 1930s this approach was debated, and Fred Clarke based his work in sociology as well as history. He wanted people to understand the historical determinants of the English educational system to assess its ability to adapt to change, world wars in particular. He noted that the routes to education were different depending on your social standing, and was frustrated that no one had studied this. Histories of particular institutions and biographies of reformers were common, but nothing had been done with education in the same way as was taking place in economic and social history. Devoted to the idea of adapting to the times, he felt it was necessary to know the history of education in relation to social changes. These ideas helped support reform, and after the war more scholars began to study education. New journals appeared. A.H. Halsey documented the expansion of grammar schools as gateways to university, and published a work about the impact of social reforms on social mobility called Origins and Destinations (1980).

Sociology then took a leading role in the UK following World War II. Michael Young was mentioned here, and I know a little about him because of his connection with the National Extension College, the modern-day version of the University Correspondence College. In The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), he traced the conflict between those who wanted a meritocracy versus those wanting equality. Apparently this book had an imaginative bent (Young was a sociologist). Other works of sociology are mentioned in the chapter. Olive Banks studied ways in which educational institutions, especially secondary schools, trained occupational groups, and demonstrated connections between school programs, examinations, and the push to get ahead. Even better for my work, she used Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) to show the desire for “personal comfort and decent livelihood”, which is basically why many people wanted to get university degrees. Her Sociology of Education (1968) countered the old trend, which was essentially a new version of the liberal-progressive approach: that education helped create a more stable and prosperous society. She also apparently refused to consider class or gender as pertinent to her analysis (p38), which might be helpful to me too. Raymond Williams, however, writing about the same time, argued that the 19th century education was based firmly on social class.

Gareth Stedman Jones also criticized the liberal-progressive approach in the 1970s as lacking theory, and the perspective as being top-down. Gordon and Szreter in 1989 introduced a three-prong criticism of the old approach: it emphasized individual thinkers with little reference to what happened to their schemes, it was overly concerned with legislation instead of the questions within the legislation (vested interests, for example), and it had too much emphasis to formal education (p27). The old view was also concerned with the descriptive, rather than analytical, nature of the field. McCulloch does point out the some of these “old method” books were quite good, but they were still “of the national textbook variety” (p30).

An entire chapter is dedicated to Brian Simon (1915-2002), “the most significant historian of education produced in Britian over the past century” (p41). (This makes sense, since McCulloch notes in the introduction that he is the Brian Simon chair at the Institute of Education at University College London, and promised to promote his memory — Simon’s works take up almost a full page of the bibliography, and he’s posted even more stuff here.) Simon built on the idea from the 1940s and 50s about connecting education and social change, and wrote a four-volume history that I hope I never have to read. He was a classical Marxist, though, so it might be OK.

The aim was not only to discredit the traditional liberal-progressive historiography, but to encourage broad support for an argument that would actively promote the attainment of social equality for all. (p41).

His intellectual guide was Fred Clarke, and he argued beginning in the 1930s that schools should be adaptable to changing society, and educational policy be the subject of continual questioning (p43). He saw education as where society’s issues are worked out, and even though he was Marxist he didn’t require the continual process toward a classless society as a goal. The comprehensive school, however, was a primary challenge to elitist education, and he opposed testing young students to determine their educational future. Marxism was helpful in providing critique, an analysis rather than an acceptance of the current educational system. The Education Act of 1870 (which I like because it created free elementary education) he saw as securing the domination of the beourgoisie over the form and content of education (p44). He credited the working classes themselves for getting the system to change when it did, which I like because it attributes agency (I guess I’m not much into impersonal forces causing things). He believed that this agency would triumph over both government and beourgeois efforts to retain class structure. He was not concerned, however, with “social inequality”, by which McCulloch seems to mean modern issues of gender and ethnic minority inequality. So the new focus on these things has left Simon behind. Which is a shame, because I like him.

The American path was a little different. Cubberly put education into some historical context, showing uneven progress but with a clear focus on the state’s responsibility to educate children. Then Bernard Bailyn criticized this approach for not considering broader cultural history, and Cremin criticized it for not including elements like mass media and non-school entities (private educational foundations, for example). Then the Marxists came along in the 1960s and 70s, saying that not only was the idea of progress ridiculous, but that schools deliberately enforced social and economic hierarchies, and political economists agreed. Others, however, tried to balance the two views (progress versus anti-progress) during the culture wars of the 1960s, and by the 1980s the history of education was as conservative as the country’s political turn.

I have to gloss the section on “The struggle for theory and methodology”, of course. In 1999, historian of education Jurgen Herbst complained that the sub-discipline had gone stale, repeating “old mantras” of class, race, and gender as “empty formulae” rather than theory or method (p71). McCulloch argues that “the field can benefit” from “critical engagement with the theories and methodologies in the broader humanities and social sciences”, something which is already happening (p72). But first, we get to do empiricism and postmodernism again, this time as challenges to the history of education. Yippee!

Sociologist C. Wright Mills is frequently cited, I’m noticing, in work about historical theory. Here he criticized historians being unaware of social theory, which he thought bizarre considering that history itself is a theoretical discipline. (It is? I must think about that.) Postmodernists, as we know, criticize any “positivistic or quasi-scientific” elements in historical writing, and like to proclaim the death of causation. McCulloch considers relativism as the opposite of the view that we cannot know anything, because it says that all evidence is equally valid. Both views have pushed historians to be more explicit about how they do history.

(Having read a bit about this now, I’ve decided that this is the beneficial role of postmodernism/post-structuralism: it pushes traditional historians to explain what they’re doing, and what theoretical constructs they use. It seems to me this is the same with democracy and liberal traditions today. The elements of society that are opposed to liberalism have mounted a highly successful, if anti-intellectual, opposition. The only way to deal with that is to articulate more clearly, and more loudly, why democracy is good, why liberal values matter, why we should treat people fairly, etc. It will, I hope, force liberalism to defend itself properly, instead of wrestling the opposition in the mud.)

Although efforts have been made to “bridge the gap” between history and theory in education, it seems to have remained empiricist (p74). There have, however been some influences. Sol Cohen, in studying the “linguistic turn” in the hsitory of education, noted that history and literature may be closer than we think. (In fact, I’m just now reading an article on how historians begin their writing, in which Trevor Dean claims that the opening dramatic narrative to a history paper is not seen before 1955, and is becoming increasingly more common.) McCulloch believes we need to engage these theories, not ignore them, as he wrote about in a paper with Ruth Watts. However, as Richard Aldrich notes, historians also shouldn’t give up on the idea of truth.

The last couple of chapters of the book focus on now and the future, but don’t provide anything I’d call a theoretical model. Instead, there are calls for more models, all of them opposing postmodernism in method but acknowledging it in theory. Educational theory itself, however, is noted in a couple of places, and this is another “line of inquiry” for my own work. Pierce, James and Dewey can all be repositories of theory, and the last part of the book mentions “teaching and learning” as a “new” area of inquiry, so I’ve copied those pages for later, after I deal with Mr Wells in his own context.

[Last note: in seeking another book to illustrate this text-heavy post, I came upon this one by S.J. Curtis, who is not mentioned in McCulloch’s book. But what caught my eye was the publisher: University Tutorial Press. Briggs and the University Correspondence College are sneaking into this post after all…]

 

 

Aldrich, Richard. History of Education. Mar2003, Vol. 32 Issue 2, p133-143 (EBSCO)
Banks, Olive. Parity and Prestige in English Secondary Education: A Study in Educational Sociology, London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1955.
Clarke, F. The Study of Education in England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943
Cohen, Sol. Challenging Orthodoxies: Toward a New Cultural History of Education, New York: Peter Lang, 1999
McCulloch, Gary; Watts, Ruth. History of Education. Mar2003, Vol. 32 Issue 2, p129-132. (EBSCO)
Mills, C. W. The Sociological Imagination, London: Oxford University Press, 1959.
Young, Michael. The Rise of the Meritocracy: An Essay on Education and Equality, London: Chatto and Windus, 1958.

 

 

Writing history: theory and practice

I am examining historical theory again, in an effort to determine where my current research resides historiographically. It isn’t easy. But, since I have judged my own recently delivered paper to be somewhat amateurish in this regard, it is essential.

First, I have to keep in mind that theory is separate from method. Theoretical foundations seem to include the influences of philosophy, social science, economics, and politics. Each of these is its own field, each has many sub-disciplines, and theoretical approaches change over time. This lends to my endeavor a feeling of jumping on and off different sections of moving trains. Methodology can be influenced by theory. One may study a single document very closely, or exhaustively find every possible document on the subject, depending on what one is trying to do. I would describe my method as “traditional”, mostly reconstructionist in that I am trying to reconstruct the past in a way, and empirical in that I insist on “textual” evidence to support my contentions. I lean toward the scientifically rational rather than the creatively post-modern in both theory and method. This makes me, not to put too fine a point on it, old-fashioned.

Back when I was researching the English textile industry in the medieval and early modern periods, my work was clearly aligned with trends in economic history and, to a certain extent, the history of technology. Even if not directly related to my topic, Marxist theory held that different economic groups were in competition, and I showed that merchant and craft guilds were in conflict. But there was no theoretical construct, aside from historical geography, to underpin my argument about entrepreneurs moving the fulling process from town guild control into the hills due to technological advantage. That made my work automatically interdisciplinary. My methodology was traditional, at least in terms of economic history, but the theory was mixed. Nothing contained Marxist determinism, there was no Whiggish assumption of national progress, and I did not reject individual agency — rather I combined several different approaches.

I am in similar territory with my current work, straddling as it does Victorian Studies, the history of education, social history, political history, and biography. Since my last decade or so has been spent in educational theory and practice, particularly as regards online education, I need to update my knowledge before I continue writing.

Victorian Studies, as I discussed in a previous post, is of little help since it tends toward being anti-historical and more literary. Its connection to the history of culture seems to put it on a post-structuralist track that brings in more relativism than I’m comfortable with (see below). The history of education seems to be a discipline full of educationists/educators who do history, rather than historians who study education, although there are some exceptions to this. Political history seems a little more basic (apologies to political historians), since I think I am clear on the ways political behavior reflects the rest of the story I’m telling. To prepare for my application for a National Endowment of Humanities grant, I researched the current role of biography in historiographical thought, and joined the effort to reclaim biography as a valid lens for larger histories.

Rankean models

My guidebook for current historiography is Writing History: Theory and Practice (2nd ed, Bloomsbury 2010). Although a few years old, it’s organized in a meaningful way and declares its intention to focus on historiography only in its influence on historical writing. It’s also focused on British historians, which is helpful. Part I covers the “intellectual and institutional conditions in which professional history developed”. Given the dense and complex nature of the book (this is for students? really?), I was grateful we didn’t go back to contrasting Herodotus with Thucycides (though I’m happy to have my students do that using this article from The Atlantic). Instead, the professionalization of history begins in the 19th century, and Leopold von Ranke is a key figure. John Warren, author of the chapter, describes the tenets of Rankeanism as:

the (albeit partial) reality of objectivity, the possibility of meaningful interpretation of documentary evidence in an equally meaningful attempt to understand the past on its own terms, a rejection of the distortion of that evidence with personal and present needs in mind (p24).

             Leopold von Ranke, 1871

This is essentially (a word one uses carefully around theorists) the basic approach of traditional historical scholarship. Warren warns of the danger of paring this down to slogans like “let the past speak for itself” — other historians felt that Ranke’s theory could be relativist, although the rejection of distortion is designed to prevent that. Warren comes down hard on writers like Macaulay (for creating drama and caricatures) and Carlyle (for using history to fight his own battles — see my previous post on Carlyle) and Buckle (whose Comtean positivism made him deterministic). Lord Acton opposed Ranke, insisting that once the facts had been determined, the historian had a duty to impose morality (p30). This argument reminded me of American historian Howard Zinn, whose lectures told me that I had a duty in the classroom to share my point of view (“you can’t be neutral on a moving train”). The section on Louis Namier confused me. Warren accused Namier of using his own psychological issues to guide his methodology (he studied the letters of 18th century MPs to show that their positions were self-centered rather than principled, but ignored parliamentary debates). It seemed to me that Warren was doing the same thing in emphasizing Namier’s relationship with his father as an explanation for his method.

Marxist historiography

I felt quite comfortable in the chapter on Marxist history (I loved reading Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm in college, and visited the latter’s grave at Highgate). Social and economic forces are inextricably entwined, and it never seemed necessary to rely on the deterministic nature of Marxism (after all, the revolution Marx predicted in Germany did not come to pass). The importance of the Marxist interpretation was not in calling for a socialist world, but in opposing triumphalist, nationalist British history, and by implication anyone else’s triumphalist, nationalist history, including America’s. (Who couldn’t get behind that in the 1970s and 80s, when I was in school?) For example, E.P. Thompson’s 1963 The Making of the English Working Class

…advanced an eloquent counter-narrative to gradualist versions of British history as the triumphal march of parliamentary evolution, grounding the latter in violence, inequality and exploitation instead. (p74)

Power to the people! And I realized in this one quotation that this is a theme in my work: social inequality exacerbated by unequal access to higher education.

And, the Marxists were eloquent — that’s why I enjoyed reading them. (This isn’t true anymore — I’d rather read The Spectator than The New Statesman any day.)

Marxist history may not have held sway continually for the past fifty years, but it seems to me like a constant hum, an engine that continues to drive historical studies. I’ll get to the post-structuralists in a moment, but they wouldn’t exist without the Marxist emphasis on class struggle, the insistence that the voices of the downtrodden must be heard. It’s just that the downtrodden are seen in terms of different identities now, and the methodology has far less Rankean rigor.

Positivism and progress

In John Harvey’s chapter on “History and the social sciences”, post-modernism threatened the faith in empiricism and scientific objectivity that was apparently embedded in the social sciences. Claiming that they grew from Enlightenment roots, the social sciences were apparently dependent on the idea of progress. I keep saying “apparently” because I have never seen the social sciences this way, as rooted that deeply in science, but rather as rooted in social theory. Harvey claims they were reliant on ideas of human progress over time. Around the time of von Ranke, professional historians distanced themselves from social theory through the idea of “historicism”, which I would call the supremacy of context — the idea that any interpretation can only be understood within its historical conditions (pp82-83). The rigorous method, reliant on evidence, was scientific, like the positivism that became popular with Comte. But another approach, used by “amateur” historians, was to develop basic laws of analysis and social progress, and theories that used imagination rather than evidence. This conflict between professional and amateur can be understood through what Spencer did to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, applying it to human cultures and creating the underpinnings for prejudice and conquest. (I suspect that something similar happened in anthropology, and led to the social construction of “race”, but for that I’ll need to return another time to Miles Rosenberg’s chapter on “Race, ethnicity and history”.)

The main idea here seems to be that historians would eventually reject positivism, and indeed all theoretical constructs that saw human progress on a continual incline. In an attempt to make history predictive, social scientists created models that may have reflected ideals rather than empirical analysis. Max Weber is accused of this, in his analysis of capitalism as leading to a steady increase in social equality (I love him anyway). In contrast, American historians (“The New Historians”) helped challenge assumptions that national histories show an increase in moral good, for example when Charles Beard claimed that the Founders had created a liberal constitution with the purpose of enriching themselves (1913).

The discussion of individual agency versus society’s forces comes into play here. Structuralists privileged social forces over individual action, while functionalists saw social organizations as “the cumulative result of the efforts of individual agents to meet their own interests” (p 97). Modernization theory was led by American historians, who saw modernity as the creation of  rationally-minded societies, with the end being a harmonious world. Historical actors who prevent such progress are the bad guys. It’s this sort of meta-narrative that would be critiqued by…

Poststructuralism

I confess that at this point I was having trouble discerning the details from the overall movements that affected historical writing, so instead of going through the other chapters on anthropology and the Annales school (about which I know something) and psychoanalysis (about which I know little), I tried to get closer to an understanding of how history is done today. That was the chapter on “Poststructuralism and history”, by one of the book’s editors, Kevin Passmore.

Here we start with the divergence of history from literature, yet another 19th century phenomenon. Eventually, some historians go on to challenge the whole traditional, Rankean idea of knowing the past through evidence. In modern times, this takes the form of postmodernism, because modernist history used historical techniques and research that were considered “professional” rather than amateur. Post-modernism questions whether there is deep meaning at all. Instead there are simply forms of representation. Post-structuralism works with the representation of language particularly, where words are only signifiers dependent on other signifiers. There is no concrete truth. Rather language constructs perception, and here’s where it gets tricky.

Michel Foucault, who appears in many graduate student papers

Apparently this perception is constructed through binary opposites. You cannot know what dark is without light. During the 1960s, scholars like Hayden White went further, arguing that history is basically a series of literary tropes (tragedy, comedy) that use historical events as characters. Michel Foucault questioned the modern narrative of progress and reason as framing the story of the west. At the same time, he continued to use the evidential method. But Jacques Derrida went further. If structuralists reduced everything to binary opposites, post-structuralists see that even this meaning fluctuates (pp 127-128). Derrida thus “deconstructed” history, preventing its construction from having any meaning at all. “Class” for example, is constructed and changes in meaning, so it cannot be used as an “essential” category within which to analyze historical events. Thus post-structuralists went gunning for the Marxist historians, especially E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.

Thompson was a social historian, which makes me suspect that “social historian” and “Marxist historian” may be seen as the same thing. Post-structuralists attacked him. White said that he used narrative tropes, Robert Berkhofer claimed that history is about interpretations and therefore no interpretation can reconstruct the past. I would argue that you cannot “reconstruct” the past through historical analysis, anymore than you can “accurately” represent the present. People may witness the same event and see different things. The “objective” or “real” past that these philosophers are fighting over never did exist, just as there is no “objective” or “real” present if you consider all the different interpretations of many different people. All anyone can do is consider as many perspectives as make sense, and judge them according to whatever construct they have.

That’s what bothers me about the trends today – the construct being used by angry people, angry at injustice and moral violations, is not even trying to create a “real” past. The effort to do so is at the heart of traditional historical method. Without the effort to be objective, there’s no point gathering the evidence. I also cannot accept the moral relativism implied in the idea that “nothing can be known, so every interpretation has the same value”. I also find such history “romantic” rather than rational or scientific, since it presents the goal of history as being some sort of goodness. Society should be fair and just and right. People should be free and compassionate and collective. When all of this doesn’t happen, contemporary historians go all to pieces and start cherry-picking evidence.

My work

How does all of this inform my work? It clearly makes me, as I suspected before, a traditional, empirical, evidential historian. I admit to a meta-narrative of unfairness being a Bad Thing, but I also think it’s important to understand the sincerity of those who justified unfairness at the time (context!). That probably makes me a classic Marxist social historian. The question is whether it’s possible to write history today without carrying the Marxist social history tradition thread all the way through post-structuralism.

I will not pretend to a deep understanding of any of this through reading a few pertinent chapters, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to this book. There are important points in the chapters on economic history (where more recent historians are developing broader views of “the economy” in a way that incorporates the moral issues and social interactions of the time), gender history (which could be seen as just a type of social history), and intellectual history (which seems to have a more creative streak than I previously understood). But in each chapter I note the influence of postmodern and post-structuralist ideas, and I am trying to understand that their benefit is in opening up history to be more inclusive. But I confess I get stuck when what we’re including are emotions which may cloud judgement, creativity that may endanger objectivity, and suppositions that may not be based in evidence. I still can’t hold with that, and will instead move on to the historiography of the History of Education.

NACBS sessions

More session reports! (I know, you’ve been waiting — but I do this so I remember the sessions.)

Petitioning and the Politics of Nation, Gender, and Empire shows the problems with titling panels, as it was really more about the process of petititoning the government, not so much politics or any of the sub-factors.

Laura Stewart’s “Petitioning Practices in Early Modern Scotland” looked at how political petitioning (petitioning in order to criticize the government) and ordinary supplications interact, in this case as regards the Covenanter government of Scotland in the 1640s, an era surrounding the English Civil War. Although it’s hard to quantify the total number of petitions, case studies provide a variety of significances, including whether a petition can be considered libel, what language supplicants used in their petitions, and how government critiques can provide a foundation for a petition.

Richard Huzzy and Henry Miller’s “The Rise and Fall of Petitions to the House of Commons, 1780-1918” was a good example of the kind of research you can do with a grant, in this case from the Leverhulme Trust. They were able to sort and recategorize thousands of petitions and numbers of signatures. Between 1833 and 1918 Parliament received 950,000 public petitions on 29,500 different issues, and their charts showed spikes in certain years. The categories included colonies, ecclesiastic, economic, infrastructure, legal, social, taxes, war. They had broken down colonies but I was sad to see that “education” wasn’t its own category, as that might have been helpful for my work. They noted certain politically organized pushes for petitions, which were clearly used to mobilize support on certain issues.

Ciara Stewart’s “Petitioning against the Contagious Diseases Acts in Britain and Ireland: A Comparative Perspective” helped me understand the foundational idea of many papers. It’s important to narrow the focus to a single argument with depth of sources. To me, petitioning against the CDA would have been its own paper, but it’s clear now that I’ve attended the conference that this is not the best way. By focusing closely on the Ladies National Association in Ireland and its composition, then comparing it favorably to the English LNA, Stewart was able to prove that the Irish branch should be taken more seriously. The paper avoided the usual discussion of whether the CDA was a good idea or not, though it did mention the reasons for supporting petitioning against it: the double standard it promoted by not examining men, the fact that the examinations were forced, and the arguments about the likelihood of police grabbing women to examine even if they had committed no crime (“protect your wife and daughters”). Previous historiography had sidelined the Irish LNA, and I recalled that the purpose of most papers is to oppose previous historiography. I tell students that this is an “although” thesis (“although we’ve been told that the Irish LNA was just a side branch, it was actually significant”).

In my case, then, an example might be “although the focus of historical study for higher education in the Victorian age has been on universities, extension courses, and the examination system itself, correspondence courses for degree exams were a significant means of advancing education among the lower middle classes…”

The session I was looking forward to the most was next: The Educational Institution as a Category of Analysis in Modern British History. The chair, Peter Mandler, noted that education has been a missing element, long neglected in British social history, although it is well-served now. Emily Rutherford’s “Opposition to Coeducation in British Universities 1880-1939” had a thesis that I would summarize as “although the historical focus of gender in universities is based on women trying to gain access to higher education, there are important elements in resistance to it, particularly personal comfort levels and administrative constraints”, including the role of donors. The wishes of donors (she cited donors who wanted to support single-sex institutions) could be at odds with the wishes of administrations. In some cases, like that of Queen Margaret College at the University of Glasgow, it was wasteful to teach women-only classes, and the argument was made that biases against women would mean lower marks for them than if their exams were mixed with men’s. (Later in the Q&A a concern was raised about the cost to working-class boys of middle-class girls dominating classes.) The speaker also introduced the interesting case of Edward Perry Warren, an art collector and scholar of the idealized male Greek life cycle of homosexuality, who funded a male lectureship on the condition that the lecturer live at the college and there be a passage between his house and the boys’ lodgings.

Laura Carter’s “Locating Self and Experience in the History of Secondary Education in the UK: The View from 1968” discussed a project that followed baby boomers and their perceptions about their education into adulthood, and meant to extract education from the history of social change. Many of the students, as adults, regretted missing opportunities while they were in school, but none regretted attending a modern secondary school. Although when asked about moving up socially, those from manual worker families cited money and luck as primary factors, and non-manual labor families cited education, all named education as the key to self-improvement. Also interesting was that among those who didn’t go to university, men cited external reasons (like jobs), while women cited family responsibilities which prevented them.

Sussex University Chapel

William White’s “‘A Symbol of all this University Doesn’t Stand for’? The Place of Religion in Post-war University Life” had an implied thesis, of course: “although historians cite the removal of religion from student life during the 1960s, conflicts over chapels and religious buildings on campus show much student interest in Christianity”. We should be asking why new chapels were being built all over if religion was in a downturn. White wisely printed out his slides, rather than projecting them, to demonstrate the modernist architecture to which many students objected on aesthetic grounds. He also noted that the student body was changing in the 1960s from more local attendance to students who were more mobile, national in their  perspective, and residential since they came from elsewhere. Thus residence halls were another architectural feature of the era. The new welfare state was, in effect, taking over from local churches, with chaplains in the NHS and religious programming on the BBC. Christianity saw a resurgence after the war, and there was an ecumenical movement.

Commentator Laura Tisdall noted that we need to take school out of the “history of education”. The history of education is not seen a real history, and needs to be integrated into modern history. It’s been neglected, she said, because the subject is embedded in teaching training colleges and departments of Education rather than History, that there’s a sense that we know it already since we’ve all been to school, and that it is associated mostly with the history of childhood (which has seen a proper resurgence). University history is even more neglected, and further education is positively marginalized. So although I enjoyed the papers, the commentary was even more important in sorting out where my work fits in History as a discipline. I have struggled with History of Education societies, which seem to be composed of educators who dabble in history. What I’m doing, as I’ve mentioned, is more traditional history — education just happens to be the subject.

Dorothy L. Sayers by Granger

The last session I attended (other than my own) was just for fun: Aspiring Writer and Aristocrats: Renegotiations of Elite and Mass Cultures, 1890-1940. Abigail Sage’s “Print Media and the Aspiring Writer in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries” examined periodicals like Young Man and Young Woman which encouraged potential fiction writers with advice columns. She even quoted HG Wells as saying he was  part of a whole generation of aspiring writers. Mo Moulton’s “Murder Mysteries, Socialist-Utopian Science Fiction, and the Mediation of Elite and Popular Cultures in the 1920s-1930s” looked at Dorothy L. Sayers and Muriel Yeager as representative of conservative modernity, both reflecting pessimism about human nature. I learned a lot about the character of Lord Peter Wimsey (whom I’ve seen on TV but never read), and about Yeager’s relationship with Sayers, and about Sayers’ interest in Christianity. Wells was mentioned here too, as a utopian author, with Yeager saying she opposed his views, but certainly The Time Machine is as dystopian as anything she wrote, so she must have meant his later work on socialism. I am, however, beginning to wonder whether one can present a paper on writing during the 1890s without mentioning Wells!

The very last session (last session, last day, and I was the last speaker) was the one I was in: Popular Culture and Popular Education in Victorian England. Anne Rodrick’s “‘Lectures Both Scientific and Literary’: Organizing Mid-19th-Century Lecture Culture” discussed the General Union of Literary, Scientific, and Mechanic’s’ Institutes and how they debated the best ways to provide lectures to the public. She compared their efforts unfavorably to the American Lyceum system, and showed how particularism and provincial concerns prevented a well-organized lecture culture. Martin Hewitt’s “Providing Science for the People: The Gilchrist Turst 1878-1914” explored how the Trust developed and promoted popular science lectures, and also noted some problems with development. While the lectures were highly successful due to their high quality, low ticket price, friendly connections with local authorities, and massive advertising campaigns (even door-to-door) to get people to attend, in the long run it was difficult to sustain. There was also some question as to how many attendees were actual rural or manual laborers, and complaints that the low cost made it difficult for other lectures to get an audience. My own paper, “‘Preposterous and Necessary’: H.G. Wells, William Briggs, and the University Correspondence College” focused on the development of the UCC as a viable method for lower-middle-class people to study for the University of London examinations and earn their degrees. I argued that distance education like that offered by the UCC was essential to the success of the examination system, although I need to work further on that approach. I was asked no questions, and got the sense that my paper was too broad, more like a class lecture rather than a research report (I had, in fact, written it for presentation rather than publication). I made slides but there was no adapter for my iBook to connect to HDMI, and tech support didn’t show, so I was glad I’d made sure my visuals were illustrative rather than essential. I came out feeling I have a great deal of work to do to get close to the quality of the other papers I saw, but that’s a good reason for going, yes?

 

 

NACBS first day and Providence

We started early today, and I saw a number of excellent papers.

I attended the session on Popular Fiction and Representations of Politics and Empire in Britain, 1880-1950 because it overlaps the period I’m working on and, let’s face it, in addition to his scientific and pedagogical writings, HG Wells did write some fiction.

The first paper was “Popular Fiction and the Politics of Anti-Socialism, 1900-1940”, by Liam Ryan, so it was a little later than my period. The main idea was that some popular fictions, particularly mysteries and spy thrillers, pushed a conservative agenda. We can tell this by how socialists are treated in the works. For example, in John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, the hero helps thwart a Bolshevik plot (I think he meant anarchist — the book is 1915) , and characters are mocked for their working-class sympathies. Dorothy L. Sayers’ character Lord Peter Wimsey is scornful of socialists, and Agatha Christie’s plots ridicule “champagne socialists”, with plots that reveal socialist characters to be secretly wealthy, and socialism as an error of the young. Questions following the paper delved into why it isn’t ok to be rich and socialist (and why Bernie Sanders gets criticized for that), how the authors are middle-class so they’re also making fun of artistocrats also, and how high brow characters can be aligned with lower-class characters, since neither is self-conscious.

James Watts’ “Flora Annie Steel, Henry Rider Haggard and the Use of Fiction in the History of Imperialism” asked questions about the popularity of fiction, which might be read as factual. Steel had lived in India for almost 20 years, so one might take her as an authority, and Haggard’s character Allan Quartermaine, although presented in fictional settings, reads like real life. They also contain tropes I hadn’t thought about: luxury represents moral corruption, bad acts lead to bad ends, financiers are duplicitous.

Nupur Chaudhury’s paper was changed from the program, where it said she would talk about representations of Indians in Kipling. She also spoke about the depictions of Indians in women’s periodicals as well, especially the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Although she proved clearly that these sources demonstrated prejudice against Indian culture a la Edward Said, I felt the thesis was factual rather than interpretive.

The moderator, Jeffrey Cox, commented on the papers, and noted a teaching problem with texts that use objectionable language. How do we teach texts that contain misogyny and racism, when students (and others) object to the use of language? He mentioned, for example, a new version of Huckleberry Finn, where all instances of the word “nigger” have been changed to the historically incorrect “slave”. (Although he said this edition was by Gates, I think it was Auburn English prof Alan Gribben.  I just used Gutenberg’s version and came up with 214 instances of the word.) Looks like teachers are working well on this one.

Christopher Bischof’s “Curios and Curiosity: A Teacher and the World in a Sutherland Community, 1899-1930” introduced me to William Campbell, a Scottish schoolteacher who liked to collect things but had little money. Apparently the history of collection usually focuses on the finding of objects rather than their use, but here the collection is significant in that Campbell got people to donate things, and shared his collection with the community. The paper also sought to debunk prevailing ideas of Scottish precociousness in democratic education, but pointed out that Campbell went through the pupil-teacher and teacher-training system originally adapted from England. It also highlighted the long-standing interest of Scots in the larger world.

I then learned some food and nutrition history I hadn’t planned on, because the two other papers cancelled. Lacey Sparks’ “Low-Hanging Fruit: Interwar Nutrition Education in Britain and Africa” introduced me to the programs, based on science and women teaching women, designed to increase nutrition in meals. I found it interesting that in Africa, this could be difficult because fresh food was not always available. Thus tinned food, which was being discouraged in Britain for its lesser nutrition, was encouraged in Africa.

At the lunchtime plenary, Mark Ormrod of the University of York spoke on “England’s Immigrants, 1330-1550: Aliens in Later Medieval and Early Tudor England”. There were several fascinating aspects to this paper — I had planned to eat instead of taking notes, but took notes anyway. The work presented is based on the data shown at englandsimmigrants.com. Ormrod traced the rights and laws pertaining to immigrants, noting that until about 1500 trustworthy immigrants had rights. I was surprised to learn this included the “jury of half tongue”, where half the jury had to speak the language of the accused. (I imagined what would happen if we did that now in this country.)

He also showed how well immigrants were integrated geographically — there is no evidence of ghettoization despite periodic outbreaks of prejudice or violence (this was not true of Jews, who had been expelled in 1290 — only converts were tolerated). By the 1450s, economic changes meant that immigrant workers (many of them craft masters and merchants) were seen as a threat. The Statute of 1484 during the reign of Richard III created alien taxes, reduced immigrant rights, and implemented more stringent standards on their products. Even so, there was still plenty of inclusiveness, though more so before the Reformation than afterward. The connections to Brexit anti-immigrant sentiment, based on economics, is obvious. For my students, this would be a theme: when the middle classes are economically threatened, they have less tolerance for immigrants.

The big education history session was Education and Empire: Networks in the 19th-20th Centuries, with Gavin Schaffer moderating.

Alex Lindgren-Gibson’s paper, “Enlisted Orientalists: Autodidact Soldiers and Educational Networks in the Raj” told how soldiers were ill-prepared for their stint in India, and that their education, for both colonial knowledge (local culture) and imperial culture (knowing how British rule worked) was gained mostly from each other. Although colonial knowledge was presumed to lead to social mobility, the case of a man named Lambert showed that even taking exams on local languages didn’t guarantee advancement. There was a concern not to educate soldiers too much. I was somewhat disappointed that, for my work, there wasn’t more on the exams themselves, but I was taken with the idea that learning local language wouldn’t move you along anyway when the elites had studied classical languages at university, but I would need a lot of work to demonstrate this.

Hilary Farb Kalisman’s “Colonial Crossings: Educational networks across Britain’s Middle Eastern Mandates” showed that too much unregulated education could cause revolts. The idea of the American University of Beirut was to create an educated elite for government employment through university inside the mandates (previously colonies). It instead led to a rise of the effendi, young, urban, educated, partially-westernized discontents.

Darrell Newton’s “Gaining Firsthand Fear: Colonial Students, Racialism, and the BBC” looked at West Indian students in Britain and their issues with prejudice, including being rejected for housing. The BBC tried to create some radio programs to discuss issues of racialism; some were successful, others were sidelined.

By the time this session was over, I was stiff from sitting, and needed to walk. Besides, there are three second-hand book shops within walking distance. So I headed toward the river and educated myself about Providence. First I found something I’m more accustomed to seeing in England: a World War I memorial. It’s part of a revitalization project as Providence reclaims its riverfront (I have a soft spot for any city that claims its river). It’s a large, well-designed memorial park:

Providence River

 

Irish Famine Memorial, Providence

 

Holocaust Memorial

 

First World War Memorial

Base of First World War Memorial

 

I walked over a pedestrian bridge (there are several) back into downtown to find those bookstores. And now I began to understand why people love Providence. It’s one of the cleanest, nicest downtowns I’ve seen. A few potholes or broken pavement, but for the most part very well-tended, growing while keeping its centuries-old traditions.

I get it now. And I only bought four books, but at three different shops. Got back to the conference in time for the reception and planning for our panel. A very good day.

 

More photos…

Historiography and tracking backward

Some of my research posts are password protected. Students, colleagues, and friends are welcome to email me for the password at lisa@lisahistory.net.

History of Education: finding out about a sub-field

For the subjects I’m researching, in addition to knowing more about Victorian Studies, I also need to look into the sub-field of the History of Education. Victorian Studies is arguably a sub-field of Literature (see previous post), and I thought History of Education would be a sub-field of History. But after looking around, I’m starting to suspect it’s more a sub-field of Education.

First I looked at the organizations that study this sub-field. There are two groups of scholars that call themselves the History of Education Society. One is in the U.S. It publishes the History of Education Quarterly, and belongs to the International Standing Conference for the History of Education (ISCHE). To find out more about their perspective, I looked at the current list of officers. Their degrees are primarily in Education and Educational Leadership, although a couple have History B.A.s or M.A.s.

The other History of Education Society is in the U.K., out of the University of Glasgow. Their committee has full biographies posted at their website, so finding out about them was easier, but unlike the Americans they don’t tend to list their degrees. For those I could find, the pattern seemed similar: History first or second degrees, Education for the PhD. They publish History of Education (making it difficult to separate from the American History of Education Quarterly in a database search) and History of Education Researcher.

Then I looked at the journals themselves. For the British contingent, History of Education journal is published by Taylor and Francis, one of those publishers who does not provide open access. I am, however, able to access most articles through the EBSCO database at my college library. 

The American History of Education Quarterly is published by Cambridge University Press, and also available through EBSCO. 

More information is revealed by the content and focus of the actual articles, of course. In addition to seeing articles from such journals pop up when doing subject searches, I like to browse the contents of journal issues. It is usually possible to read the titles of all articles at the website of the journal publisher, even if it’s hard to access the articles themselves. I could tell that for the British History of Education, there are a number of articles focused on British educational history, some on adult education, and several on methodology, which is helpful. So I’m subscribing to the new content announcements so I can keep up (many journal publishers let you do this). The History of Education Quarterly seems mainly focused on American educational history.

Any articles I cannot get through the library’s subscription databases, I can often acquire through our wonderful interlibrary loan librarian, who can get me almost anything! I can often discover in WorldCat who might have a particular item (there are two universities within an hour’s drive). I recently spoke with a student who didn’t realize that students may use interlibrary loan, but they can — that’s what it’s for, whether at community college or university. When I was an undergraduate, I used it all the time. Books came to me at the library after about a week, and photocopied articles came in the mail (nowadays you can often get emailed an electronic copy). I needed some pretty strange stuff back then, as I do now, often from British articles. But the brilliant librarians at Cal State Bakersfield got me those too — they printed them out on the teletype machine. In graduate school at UCSB, these old tomes would arrive at the ILL desk and I would lug them over to the photocopy machine. These days I can walk a few steps to the scanning machine at the college library. But I do miss the sound of the teletype…

 

Sidenote: Teaching students to do research is a daunting task at a community college. There are few History majors and no methodology classes. We also need to teach the many other skills required for basic historical thinking and analysis. Part of my sabbatical is to create posts that detail my historical research work as a way of demonstrating the process. I’m still working on how to index all this…

Victorian Studies

To begin my work on Victorian England, I need to examine the field of Victorian Studies. Unlike History, area studies of all kinds are newer disciplines, and I often have difficulty figuring out what they’re trying to do. Every discipline has its own methodology and its own literature – that’s what makes it a discipline. Now that I’m moving away from working with online pedagogy and educational technology, it’s necessary to make sure I am aware of the milieu in which I’m operating.

Although by no means intended as an introduction to the subject, Martin Hewitt’s “Victorian Studies; problems and prospects?” from 2001 has nevertheless provided me a good entrée. Noting the expansion of books and graduate programs in Victorian Studies, the article nevertheless critiques the lack of interdisciplinarity on which the field is supposedly based. Hewitt notes several other concerns, including historians uncomfortable with the word “Victorian” and the dominance of presentist topics (gender, women, imperialism) that use the Victorian era just for examples. But a bigger issue is the fact that historians and literary studies have not really combined in an interdisciplinary way, even while conference panels may be multi-disciplinary. Apparently the most comfortable and useful pathway for Victorian Studies has been the “cultural history” of the 1980s and 90s, although it took awhile to shake off the perception that it was elitist. This was interdisciplinary because it used methods like Foucault’s analysis of culture (p. 141). 

But cultural history does not create a disciplinary field that is consistent and has an “agreed focus” (p. 142). The result is that there is no common scholarship, and Hewitt notes a lack of “key texts” (p. 144). This helps me because I couldn’t figure out what those key texts were when I was looking for a way into the historiography of Victorian Studies. Hewitt sees the historiography as fragmented, limiting the impact of important works. Previous historical works also tend to limit biography to a few “semi-canonical” men, such as Carlyle, Mill, and Ruskin (p. 145).

In literary studies, Victorian Studies has become a “sub-field”, and the many journals of Victorian Studies tend to be dominated by literary analysis . When I subscribed to Victorian Studies journal and Nineteenth-Century Studies, I noticed immediately that the editors were almost all from university English departments. As I read the articles, I kept rolling my eyes as the authors seem to plumb the text of Victorian novels for meanings that were obscure, presentist, imaginative, or all three. I found most striking Hewitt’s point that such studies focus on the reading as it takes place in the current reader’s timeframe (ours). The articles use the present tense, as if the characters in the novels are here with us now, while a historical article would use past tense (p. 148).

History, Hewitt notes, is constructive and materialistic, while literary and cultural studies are idealistic and interpretive (p. 149) – I would say “imaginative”. Focusing on the text ignores the history. This is why I dissuade students from constructing theses that seem to show the text as possessing causation (“propaganda led people to hate the enemy”) – we cannot prove such a thesis historically, although it is possible to prove that the text might have been meant to do something, or that something might have caused (or influenced, more likely) a work to be written.  

Hewitt’s agenda includes developing a solid historiography, and creating new research based on larger ideas. His prescription for historians (he’s one too) is to broaden the field to include more ideas and their production, combining more approaches. Since the context and environment of the era is embedded in the text, the process is one of sense-making. At least, I think that’s what he’s saying – he loses me when he talks about “syncretic hermenuetics” (p. 153). His focus seems to be on creating intertwinings of text and practices to create something truly interdisciplinary, where the “text becomes means rather than object” and the focus is on the impact (and reproduction) of the text (p. 154).

In determining which texts have been underutilized, Hewitt notes many that I am engaged with, including essays, lectures, and newspapers – forms of communication not intended to be high culture. His ideal Victorianist study combines elements from history, anthropology, ethnography, literary criticism, sociology, and art history (p. 155).

I believe that the goal here is to provide a more well-rounded, thorough, and (by implication) realistic understanding of the Victorian era. I am at a loss, however, to explain why it is necessary to do this through the methodologies of disciplines other than history. I don’t think I realized that I am a history snob until I began reading Victorian Studies journal, and finding myself enjoying it while at the same time becoming exasperated with the lack of evidence beyond popular texts. The field strikes me as similar to steampunk: an enjoyable romp through Victoriana to fulfill present (and presentist) needs by drawing imaginative connections. (I feel the same way about the new genre of “creative non-fiction”, about which I will write more later.) I in no way believe that the historical method can provide as accurate a portrayal as going back in a time machine, but history is adaptable enough to take on the perspectives, if not the methods, of other disciplines and use them effectively. I think I would have understood a plan for a new Victorian History better than I understand a plan for a more cogent Victorian Studies. 

  

Hewitt, M. (2001). “Victorian Studies: problems and prospects?” Journal of Victorian Culture6(1), 137–161.

History of education: classics vs science

Because my work on distance education in the 19th century is so closely connected to the History of Education, I’ve been working on understanding that sub-discipline a little better. I have also been thinking about whether working in the History of Education for the late 19th century overlaps with Victorian Studies (another discipline) in a meaningful way.

My research took me to Alice Jenkins – Mathematics and Liberal Education in Victorian Cambridge  (2009), a paper delivered at the CRASSH conference ‘Changing the Humanities/the Humanities Changing’ (July 2009).

Victorian Studies is considered an interdisciplinary field, and I’ll cover that in a later post. From this video, it’s clear that there are hazards to looking at Victorians themselves for examples of interdisciplinarity, because they excelled in a range of disciplines but didn’t use what we would call an interdisciplinary approach. 

The talk focuses on the argument about curricula in Victorian universities, which I’ve been studying for a paper I just submitted to a journal.  In that article, I briefly discussed what C.P. Snow later called the Two Cultures Debate between classical curriculum and the newer science/mathematical curriculum (see The Rede Lecture, 1959). Classics and mathematics were the original Cambridge Bachelors Degrees, and were seen as combined into a common culture that represented a foundation of knowledge. But rather than representing a common culture, these degrees may have represented Cambridge justifying its own creating, using a narrow method to discipline the mind for future duties. Was it really necessary for stuents studying classics to sit exams in maths, and vice versa?

Tripos exam 1842

Some people criticized the focus on Tripos maths as “partial and inadequate”, but Cambridge defended it as broad. Jenkins uses one controversy to illuminate the issue: the “Slaughter of 1841”, where 25 of 130 students failed the maths exams and had to leave without a degree. The Senate House crowd booed the examiners, and the controversy became public. Half the students had been forced to take the Maths Honours exam just so they could study Classics (a nod to educational reformers), and two examiners that year had decided to raise the Maths standard without notice. Colleges became angry because they lost good Classics students.  Only one letter in The Times supported the examiners’ efforts to keep standards high – newspapers in general deplored it, and questioned the condition to pass Maths in order to study Classics.

By April The Times had changed its view. Did it mean the end of a unified culture? There is no evidence that those passing both classics and maths were culturally rounded anyway: the exam results show students only took Firsts at one or the other, although some were bad at both, and one was exempted from the maths tests because he was a peer. Students from both curricula did mix, and benefited from knowing each other, which might have created a common literary or interdisciplinary culture regardless of the curriculum. Cambridge (Trinity especially) remained the defender of maths in a liberal education long after others had abandoned this idea. The conflict did force universities to defend their curricular objectives, and may have encouraged Parliamentary intervention. It certainly encouraged public debate. 

 Jenkins notes that the scholars involved did not acknowledge that the entire curriculum perpetuated class and gender distinctions. I am disturbed by this comment. It seems to be necessary to acknowledge the fuzzy thinking of people in the past when it comes to class and gender, as if these issues were ignored during the Victorian era. Just because we now frame everything through gender and class does not mean that others did — it’s a form of presentism I think is distracting to historical studies. Besides, Victorians not only questioned gender and class norms but often worked against them, even if particular individual Victorians did not. That’s the same situation we have today, so I’m not in favor of woke-shaming.

Ghosts, urban identities, and evidence

Many people enjoy the Victorian era because there are ghosts and other supernatural phenomenon as part of the popular culture. There’s a reason why “haunted houses” are in the Victorian style, and the popularity of public lectures on psychic phenomenon and supposed practice of post-mortem photography (which could be bogus) indicate a fascination with the other world. 

So how do historians handle such subjects?

I took a look at a presentation from last year by Dr Karl Bell of the University of Portsmouth called Urban Mindscapes: Exploring Supernatural Cartographies and Victorian Urban IdentitiesIt was a paper given at a workshop: ‘Approaching Inner Lives: Thinking, Feeling, Believing, 1300-1900’ (University of East Anglia, 28 March 2017).

Dr Bell began with a ghost story of sorts: in 1869, the Feathers Hotel in Manchester drew crowds when it was rumored to be haunted. His theory is that ghost tales like this represent a narrative re-mapping of the urban environment. A story of a ghostly haunting fills in the blanks, imagines activity in places where there is no activity (one expects continual activity in a city), and rebels against urban planning. Ghosts, of course, do not recognize modern developments, and won’t abide by spatial orderings (data, maps). It’s as if ghosts live in a different space that is superimposed on our space.

So the thesis is that a nebulous imaginary city co-exists with the real city. But this thesis has holes: ghost stories don’t create an actual alternate meaning. So how can historians probe interiority without evidence? We can find reports of Victorian hauntings, but how can we prove a thesis about this theory of imaginary cities? Dr Bell has drawn upon non-historians like deSoto and deFevre. These thinkers would say that people re-walking the city (knowing their own shortcuts, for example) may not have been conscious that they were re-mapping the space, but that doesn’t mean the alternate city isn’t there.

For historians, this lack of evidence draws fire in the same way as fields like psychogeography – are wanderers really re-mapping the city? Psycho-anything is based on internal feelings, not verifiable events. Historians are accustomed to looking at society, and large groups of people, but looking at individual experiences turns us into either biographers or psychiatrists. But we can study activity: communal ghost hunting, like with the Feathers Hotel incident in Manchester, or 2000 people showing up hoping to view Bermondsey ghost, are verifiable events.

So stories of ghost sightings are difficult to use as evidence, but people’s response to the stories is explicit and can be studied. It’s often only through external manifestations that one can see the internal anyway (it’s not like biographers actually get inside the mind of their subjects). Instead of doing interdisciplinary work with sociologists and psychologists, one can focus on historical method as one would with any other topic.

As a historian, I have no problem with studying the reactions of people to any sort of event, when that can be documented. Sometimes, though, evidence of reactions is hard to find. Often I have students who want to work with propaganda, particularly war-time posters, as evidence. They’re great sources, but they cannot be used to prove that people did what the posters wanted them to do (buy war bonds) or feel the way they were encouraged to feel (hatred toward the enemy). That would have to be proven with other sources, and it would be very difficult to show that a particular poster generated a particular effect.

With cause and effect in general in disrepute (thanks partly to post-modernism), it becomes necessary for historians to divide what can be documented from what cannot, or at least what sort of evidence can be used to prove something. Ghost stories show this particular difficulty, and the historians’ solution, very well.