Project Officer: This interview is being conducted for the project
‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’, and the Project Officer
Danny Millum will be speaking to Professor David Cannadine about his
experience of, and views on, changes in the discipline and the academic
profession of history.
Professor Cannadine, may we start with your giving us some brief biographical information?
David Cannadine: I still belong to a generation who can memorise their resumé. I was born in 1950. I’m in every sense a child of the welfare state. I got a very good state education, for which my parents didn’t have to pay, which was just as well because they couldn’t have afforded it.
I was the first member of my family to go to university. I went to Cambridge, and then went to Oxford and did a doctorate and in the middle of that I went to Princeton for a year. And I was a Research Fellow in Cambridge, then a University Lecturer in Cambridge, then a Professor of History at Colombia, and then I came to London as Director of the Institute of Historical Research. So I suppose it’s a kind of standard academic CV.
PO: And how did you come into the profession or decide to become a historian?
DC: An answer that I suspect lots of people give, and not just for history. I had an inspired schoolmaster, called Graham Butler, at the school I was at, and the way he taught history captured my imagination and it’s remained captured ever since.
So I read history at university. I gave a bit of thought to either going into the Civil Service – I think that may be all I thought of doing. And I went to the Careers Office in Cambridge and said that I’d thought of the Civil Service, but it didn’t seem a good idea, so I thought I’d probably become a historian, and they said to me: ‘We don’t think the Civil Service would be good for you, we think you ought to become a historian’. And I said ‘Thank you for that wonderful advice’, and that’s what happened. So actually the brutal truth is that I never really thought of doing anything else, and maybe I should have done, but I didn’t.
PO: And it’s too late now.
DC: It’s too late now.
PO: And besides your school teacher what other influences were there in your formation?
DC: Well it was a wonderful time to be growing up, in the 1960s, when there was this astonishing array of historians like Eric Hobsbawm and Asa Briggs and John Elliott and Owen Chadwick and Richard Southern and A. J. P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper and Lawrence Stone and Christopher Hill, all of whom wrote books that were intended to reach a large public audience, and I suppose even at the age of 16 or 17 I was part of that audience. And so I think that there was this sense that history was being written by people in universities for a broad audience in a way that in retrospect really hadn’t ever been true before, because there hadn’t been those sort of people in those sort of universities on that sort of scale before the Second World War.
So that was part of it, that one just grew up in this world and it was all around you. I suppose more specifically the influences were two in particular. Eric Hobsbawm and Asa Briggs, who were writing on the 19th and 20th centuries, not just about Britain but more broadly, and not just one particular bit of history – they did economic, social, political, cultural. And I’ve never been comfortable with being typecast as a specific sort of sub-disciplinary historian, and I think Asa and Eric were very influential in that way. I didn’t know them at that time, and only got to know them much later, but I suppose of the people who were writing in the period I became interested in they were the two most significant, and as it were inspirational and exemplary figures.
PO: And were there any particular tutors that you had that you think might have had an influence as well?
DC: Well, at Cambridge I was taught by Derek Beales for the Modern British History papers, and again he was interested in Britain and Europe, and he was interested in lots of different forms of history, so again I didn’t imbibe from him the sense that I should become an economic historian and not any other sort of historian, or a political historian and not any other sort. So he was a considerable influence.
And I also did what in those days was rather pretentiously or perhaps parochially called ‘The Expansion of Europe’, and then did a special subject with a man called D. C. M. Platt, who died of a brain tumour some years ago now. And that gave me an interest in the world beyond Britain – the Empire, formal and informal, which has always been something that I’ve been interested in. Hence in part the writing of Ornamentalism.
And then more precisely as a graduate student I was supervised by Peter Mathias, an economic historian, though in fact I worked on urban history, the aristocracy as real estate developers. And that brought me in touch with two people who have been great influences, H. J. Dyos, Jim Dyos, who kind of invented urban history (alas now dead for 20 years and more), and F. M. L. Thompson, by agreeable coincidence my predecessor but two here, who wrote about landowners and English landed society and wrote about suburbs in his book on Hampstead (Hampstead: Building a Borough 1650–1964). So in terms of the first work I did I think Asa Briggs, Jim Dyos, Peter Mathias and Michael Thompson were really the most influential, and that’s how I got started.
And that work, on the Calthorpe family as real estate developers in Birmingham: it was economic history, social history, urban history, a bit of cultural history, and it was a slightly strange way of looking at the interconnectedness between aristocracy and middle-class people in the context of Birmingham. And so that gave me a take, I suppose, on an approach to history, which again is very sceptical of these very narrow hermetically sealed, methodologically siloed boxes, if I can put it that way.
PO: And it we look at the discipline in general I was wondering if you had any reflections, over the period of your career, or maybe even before that, as to trends in the popularity of different periods and different approaches that you might have observed?
DC: This doesn’t quite answer your question but I think it answers one later, and while I’m on this I’ll have a go at it. One of the ways in which the profession of course has changed enormously in my lifetime is that even in 1950 when I was born there were barely a hundred people teaching history in universities in this country. There are now about 3000. And the huge explosion of numbers, firstly in the 1960s and then again in the 1980s and 1990s, is astonishing, and the notion that the state should keep in business 3000 people to teach history, and subsidise another 3000 to get PhDs in history is an utterly extraordinary phenomenon.
It’s replicated in America and perhaps in one or two other countries, but it’s wholly without precedent in the whole of human history. So in that sense I’ve been extremely lucky to live my life while this has been going on, but there’s no guarantee it’ll last, and I suspect that as global warming and cost of healthcare go up, government will discover that it actually can’t spend all this money on people like us. Though naturally I hope that won’t be true. So in some senses the most extraordinary aspect of history in my lifetime has been the way in which the state has assumed this astonishing role of funding an enormous number of people to practise history in universities. And nobody I think in 1950, or even in 1970, could quite have foreseen that.
And therefore part of the business about how the profession has changed is really unpacking the implications of that trend I’ve just described. So for instance in the old days history was done in Cambridge, Oxford and London and not in many other places. But now it’s done across the length and the breadth of the country in universities.
Because there are so many more people doing it many more books are written, there’s a whole variety of sub-disciplines that have been invented in my lifetime. In the 1950s there was political history, there was economic history, there was religious history, there was international relations, and that was about it. Now there’s social history, gender history, ethnic history, women’s history, global history, world history, cultural history – goodness knows what. And part of the reason for that is that there are many more people doing history than there used to be. I suppose what’s also changed is the gender, not much the ethnic, but certainly the gender background and the social background of people doing history. Up until the 1960s most of them were people who were public-school and Oxford and Cambridge and London, and that was kind of it. They’re all in Noel Annan’s book Our Age.
Whereas nowadays it’s grammar school boys, it’s people who’ve been to comprehensives, a growing number of women. It’s sociologically a much more diverse profession. And I don’t think it’s coincidental that as the profession has become more diverse the range of people that history has looked at has got broader. I’m sure there’s a connection.
PO: And in terms of debates, or points of contention that you’ve encountered in your career are there any particular themes that have run through that. I know that you’ve mentioned in previous interviews the idea that in the 1960s people were interested in change and looking for change and conflict, and subsequent to that there was an emphasis on continuity. Is that a theme that you’ve seen?
DC: Well I think that’s certainly altered quite a lot. In the 1960s and 1970s everybody was interested in causes, and in explanation and in change. I think that’s certainly true, and there’s a whole set of books that have titles like The Making of the English Working Class, The Origins of Modern English Society, The Origins of American Politics, The Crisis of the Aristocracy. Everybody was concerned with change, with the explanation, with causes, with crisis. I think that’s true.
Whereas I think over the last 20 years or so that’s all been put on one side, and what people are now interested in is meaning and understanding, and trying to get a sense that earlier worlds are different, and we just need to understand how they operated. The difficulty with the change view was that everything was always perpetually in motion, and that clearly wasn’t true. The problem with the meaning and understanding view is it’s not clear how we get from there to here, because according to that nothing ever seems to change.
Well this is the way the historical dialectic works, and I don’t quite know what’s going to come next, but certainly that’s been a major shift in focus in my lifetime. If one thinks about it another way, in terms of controversies, when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s there were a whole set of these. The Tudor revolution in government, the storm over the gentry, George III (what was he up to, what was he like), the standard of living in the industrial revolution, the 19th-century revolution in government, the origins of the Second World War. There were a set of these things which interestingly were fought out mainly in Cambridge, Oxford and London. Not much elsewhere. Almost entirely men. And because there were a relatively limited number of people doing history at that time they attracted a lot of general attention and they all of those certainly spilled over into the newspapers.
And they were very ferocious controversies. I don’t think it’s quite like that now. There’s been plenty of controversy over post-modernism and all that, but those are controversies really over the way you do history rather than specific episodes in history as the earlier ones were.
PO: Methodological –
DC: Rather than substantive in a way. So I suppose that’s a noticeable change as well. But I think also the agenda of history has got so much broader, and the numbers of participants has gone up (back to my point about the graph of people employed), so that the notion that the whole profession could be enthralled by a limited number of people getting very cross about a limited number of issues isn’t really viable anymore.
PO: OK. And the next thing I was going to ask you, referring back to something that you’ve already mentioned, was that you talked in your article called One Hundred Years of History in Britain about a kind of constant dichotomy throughout the ages between people who are advocating the birth of a new paradigm which is going to transform the subject and those claiming that this is going to be the end of it. I was wondering if you might reflect a little bit on that idea for us.
DC: Yes, well I think it’s probably true that there are always those who are saying that the new history is the way forward and we should chuck everything that’s gone on so far because that didn’t work, and whatever the new line is will unlock all the secrets of the human past in a way that nothing did before. And I’ve now lived long enough to see three or four different sub-disciplines make those claims which in the long run always turn out to be vain.
So that’s one way it moves forward. The other way it moves forward is the people who say all of this spells the ruin of the discipline, if it goes this way it’ll just be over. Well, the discipline’s still here, so that can’t be true either. So in a sense there are the wildly optimistic people who think they’ve found the holy grail, and there are the wildly pessimistic people who think that we’re heading to Armegeddon, and fortunately neither of them is actually true, but that does seem to be the way the profession does somehow proceed.
DM: And on a slightly different tack I was wondering as well if you had any views on how pressures on academics had changed during your career?
DC: I think when I began it was a relatively leisured life, and if you had to spend ten years on writing a book and didn’t produce much in between nobody seemed to mind. And the world of performance indicators and the RAE, and accountability and transparency and all the buzz words of our time just didn’t exist. So when I began lecturing in the late 1970s, one just got on and did it really, and nobody thought to see whether I needed training to lecture, and nobody thought to assess how good I was at it. I of course think that that was a rather good way to be made to do it, but that’s not thought appropriate now.
So I think that there are far more pressures on academics now in terms of how they spend their time. I think that there are very strong pressures to produce much more much sooner than there used to be, and I think that the endless performance indicators are often more counter-productive than they are stimulating. I think it’s a much more regulated world than it used to be. I also think it’s a less esteemed world than it was. I think that academics now are basically treated by the government as kind of local government officials really, and I would of course regret that. But maybe that’s what happens – if you have 3000 of them their scarcity value goes down.
Look at job adverts in higher education in the last 10 or 15 years. In the old days the jobs that were advertised on the first page were Vice-Chancellors and Professors, and there wasn’t much else. Nowadays there are endless Deans and Heads of Schools and a whole raft of administrators who are clearly though to be far more significant than Professors, who are now on about page five or six.
So I think that, regulation has gone up, esteem has gone down, bureaucrats proliferate, and academics who actually research and write are much lower down the pecking order than they used to be. Since I’m an academic who researches and writes I naturally regret that. Since I’ve also spent my time as an administrator I can understand how it’s come to be like that, but I don’t applaud it.
PO: And do you think your ten years in the States gave you a perspective on developments here, in that you could come back having been away for a while and see the changes?
DC: It was interesting working in the States on the east coast because the biggest difference between Ivy League universities and British universities is that Ivy League universities are private institutions. They’re not branches of the state in the way that actually British universities including Oxford and Cambridge are. They are internally self-regulated rather than externally monitored and regulated. And I liked the freedom that gave you – to set up courses, to teach, and if nobody showed up to your lectures, well you weren’t thought to be very good and they didn’t pay you any more. Whereas if people did show up to your lectures this was thought to suggest you were rather good at it, and if you wrote books people thought you were doing well, and so your salary went up.
So that in a sense British universities are regulated by state bureaucracy, American private universities are regulated by the free market. And while I’m no unbridled free marketeer, far from it, I have to say that I think as a way of apportioning resources in higher education the free market has a lot to be said for it, but I think apportioning resources in higher education via bureaucracy in a kind of Stalinist command economy is actually very inefficient. So it may well be that I have reached that view about British universities as a function of having worked outside them. Yes, I think that is true, and I think British universities are over-rigid, over-bureaucratised, not very good at fundraising, not very good at being flexible and innovative in a way that private American universities are.
I think in that sense British universities have got a lot of catching up to do, and I think they will catch up, because I think the present huge cumbersome Stalinist bureaucracy and command economy is not indefinitely sustainable.
PO: I suppose you may have answered some of this already there, but I was wondering on a slightly different note whether you had any views on any other institutional changes that had occurred since the 1960s, again possibly contrasting these with your experience across the other side of the Atlantic.
DC: Well, in terms of higher education here there’s no doubt that the state has become much more intrusive and regulatory and some would say overbearing. I don’t think there’s any doubt of that. And from their perspective you can see why – they give a huge amount of money to higher education and they want to know what it’s being spent on. So I suppose that that’s the biggest change: this sense that universities are no longer independent seats of learning, which until maybe the 1950s or 1960s they were. They really are now branches of the state. And that’s become more and more true in my academic lifetime.
Now in the United States, state universities are also branches of the state, they’re branches of states, not the federal government. Private universities aren’t. Harvard has an endowment of $35 billion dollars. That’s a kind of separate city state. And east coast universities and Chicago and Stanford and one or two others are in a sense city states, because they are so rich.. Although they are dependent for a lot of their scientific research on federal funding, they are private institutions and that does make them very different from British universities.
PO: And are there any other institutions besides universities that you think have played an important part in the way that history has changed over the course of your career?
DC: Well I suppose the inevitable ones are publishing houses and the media more broadly. The way of being a historian outside of researching and writing for one’s colleagues and teaching undergraduates is to reach a broader public. And the way you do that is either by writing books which sell a lot, which trade publishers rather than university presses do, or by writing in the newspapers, or by appearing on radio and television.
I think that as long as there have been trade publishers some historians have written books which have sold well, Trevelyan being an obvious example of that. And ever since there’s been wireless historians have appeared on it, Trevelyan again an example, and since television historians have appeared on that. I grew up in the era when A. J. P. Taylor lectured on the television with no notes, live, in a way which nobody has ever really managed since. And in 1969, my gap year between school and university, Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ aired on television.
So I think that whatever the media has been there have always been historians involved in it, as well as involved in universities. What is different now is that just as there are more historians in universities than ever before so there are more historians involved in the media than ever before. Partly because there’s more of the media to be involved with – for instance, an amazing proliferation of channels. So there is in that sense probably more history on television now than there’s ever been before.
PO: And what about the relationship between academic history and the popular history that you describe. Do you think that’s changed at all?
DC: I’m not sure it has. There are still plenty of people in universities who like to do stuff on the media. I mean David Starkey and Simon Schama would be the two most famous examples, but there are plenty of others who do that, and I’m not sure that’s changed.
I think what may have changed, but I don’t know that this is anything more than a hunch, is the relationship between history and the media, and history in schools. It may be the case, I don’t know – I hope soon to have a chance to find out – that one of the reasons that history on television is so attractive now is because history is not very much taught in schools, and that television is providing an alternative to that. I don’t know – I think that’s probably far too neat an explanation to stand up, but it’s certainly something worth looking into.
PO: And that brings me onto the next question I wanted to ask, which was whether you’d observed any changes in the way in which history in schools was taught, or how that fed into history in universities. I know that you’d said that back in the 1900s there was a big concern about the standard of history teaching in Britain, so I was wondering whether you see that as being a perennial concern throughout the last century or-
DC: Well I suspect it is. I suspect that just as some people have always thought that history is about to embrace the golden dawn of a new age, and others have always thought it’s on the brink of complete collapse, so I suspect it’s probably also true that people have always worried that history could be taught more and taught better in schools. And it may be that that’s a kind of given, that that’s always been there. But of course that leaves aside the question how much plausibility attaches to such concerns at different times.
It’s also important to remember that until the Butler Education Act of 1944, most people left school at 14 or 15, so the notion of a huge number of people who had been educated through to 16, 17 or 18, and who read voraciously about the nation’s history before 1945 is pretty much mythological. So I think there are a set of reality checks one has to run on any debate about whether it’s all going to the dogs now, because it seems to me if there ever was a golden age when everybody read history until 15 or 16 in well taught secondary schools it was of pretty short duration if it ever existed at all.
PO: I mean presumably in secondary moderns this was unlikely to be the case.
DC: I think that’s right – it’s not at all clear that that was what was taught. Though interestingly we actually know very little about the teaching of history in schools in Britain in the 20th century. It is ironically a debate which operates on a set of presumptions about how it has been taught, most of which we’re not in a position yet to validate or not.
I suppose it does concern me that the sense of the length of history and the sense of chronology doesn’t seem to get much attention in the teaching of history in schools these days, and that people seem to do an awful lot on the Nazis. And while I think we do need to know of the atrocities of the 20th century we do need to know about a broader perspective on things than that. And we also need to know that while the Germans may have been wicked when led by Hitler, Germany since 1945 has been a remarkable success story, and that isn’t taught.
So I think that I do worry about both the lack of length and breadth and what seems to be an unhealthy obsession with the Nazis and the Second World War. And I think that that isn’t, to put it mildly, ideal.
PO: And I think that the last thing that I wanted was to give you the opportunity to speculate, which I know you’ve done before, and to see if you had any thoughts on the future of either the discipline or the profession?
DC: Well, one should never speculate. Historians shouldn’t do that. The only time I ever did so was when I reviewed Hugo Young’s wonderful biography of Margaret Thatcher (One of Us) and predicted she’d win the general election of 1992, and of course she wasn’t even Prime Minister by then, so one ought to be very careful about that.
I think that the gap between history as taught in Britain and history as taught in America is getting wider as the resources become more discrepant; and as American universities get richer and as British universities get relatively poorer, and as British history seems a less global subject than it used to seem, despite some heroic attempts recently to make it so. I think there’s a set of issues there which are quite significant.
I think there’s a set of issues about how well-trained PhD students in Britain now are when they have to get through everything very fast compared to how well trained they are in America where there is very generous funding for a much longer span of time. I think that’s an issue which has very significant long-term consequences.
I think it’s worrying that language teaching is disintegrating in schools so that far too many historians don’t have foreign languages. It is one of the more extraordinary aspects of British history, that’s to say history as done by people in Britain, that it’s made a major contribution to the histories of Spain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia for instance. I mean major works by British historians which carry weight in the countries about which they’ve written. And I worry that that will come to an end, and that would I think be very regrettable. So there’s a set of concerns about that.
I also think that it is highly unlikely that 40 or 50 years from now the state will continue to be willing to pay to employ 3000 people to teach history. There’s no guarantee that this will last – it’s a very recent phenomenon. I hope it does last, but I think realistically it’s not clear that it will.
So in terms of structure and institutions that’s a set of, I wouldn’t say predictions about the future, but concerns about the future. How aside from that the substance of the discipline is going to evolve I think it’s not very easy to predict at the moment. I think that cultural history, post-colonialism, the linguistic turn – the things that have been and maybe still are fashionable – won’t last as fashionable subjects because fashionable subjects never do, but what exactly will replace them I don’t think is yet clear. So I think I would like to be guardedly optimistic about the future, and I certainly hope that people of your age will have the same opportunities I’ve had. I would like to be more confident about that than in fact at the moment I am.