Project Officer: This interview is being conducted for the
‘Making history: The discipline in perspective’ project, and the Project
Officer Danny Millum will be speaking to Professor Martin Daunton about
his experience of and views on changes in the discipline and the academic
profession of history.
Professor Daunton, may we start with your giving us some brief biographical information?
Martin Daunton: Yes. I grew up in South Wales, was born there in 1949. So the development of the coal industry, the steel industry, and the shipping industry of my home town of Cardiff and the surrounding areas was well past its peak, but I remember visiting the docks and seeing the tail end of the coal export trade going out from the port in Cardiff. And visiting the decayed steelworks industry up in Merthyr Tydfil and being fascinated, perhaps in a rather romantic way, by that development.
I then went to grammar school in Barry. I grew up in a small village which was still an agricultural village attached to a big landed estate – rather unusual for South Wales – but I went to school in Barry which was a few miles away. And there there was a very strong historical tradition. The history master had recently taught Sir Keith Thomas, so we were brought up thinking that there were only two things one could possibly be, the leader of the Labour Party or a historian. And I think I decided fairly soon that the historian was the much better thing to be.
At the time that I was at school both David Joslin (Professor of Economic History at Cambridge) and Sir John Habbakuk (Professor of Economic History at Oxford) were old boys of the school, as well as this bright up and coming historian Keith Thomas, so that was very much in the air at the time, to become a historian. And to understand the process of economic growth and then decline that I just described.
The history master Teifion Phillips, with whom I kept in touch right up until his death, as did Keith, was himself the product of the West of Glamorgan anthracite coalmining industry where his father had worked down the pit and had died when he was a young man. He’d walked every day down to Swansea University and got a degree in history. So it was very much a tradition in which history was not something which was elitist or separate, it was something which was part of the community and of the understanding of that society.
PO: OK. And from that background what was the process by which you came into the profession itself?
MD: Well in the sixth form I was doing economics, history and English. I had a very good English teacher with whom I’m still in touch. He again was from a mining background, and his father had died from pneumoconiosis, so he was very much a part of that world. He’d wanted me to read English, and I’d decided not to. It was the history and the economics together which seemed to make the greatest appeal.
I applied for university in 1966, and consciously decided not to apply for either Oxford or Cambridge because their syllabus there seemed to be rather sleepy. I was probably wrong, but that was the perception. And I decided to do a course in economic history. I did also apply to a number of other universities to do politics – I wanted to keep my options open. I was very much interested in the issues about policy and the nature of British society and politics as it then was, but I decided in the end to do economic history and went to Nottingham.
PO: Right. And from that point onward, and I suppose I mean in terms of tutors and in terms of intellectual influences, could you say a little bit about the people who have influenced you in your practice of history so to speak?
MD: The course at Nottingham was rather old-fashioned I suppose for two years. We studied 3 subjects – history, and I did sociology and economic history. The history was taught in very old-fashioned way indeed and I gained very little from that at all. I think the quality of the teaching, despite the fact that the staff-student ratio was very favourable, was really dreadful. One only had one supervision a term, and that was it.
Sociology was rather similar. Though doing it for two years, I remember having only one supervision, that was given by a PhD student in a class of about 15–20 students, who admitted that he’d lost all of our essays. It makes one think that perhaps the auditing culture that we’ve had since was actually rather beneficial.
So I can’t say I got anything at all in addition to what I’d done at A-level in the history element. With sociology I gained something from reading Max Weber and other great sociologists of the past like Durkheim, which had a continued influence. In the economic history there were some teachers who did have an impact. Jan Titow did the medieval period, and I much enjoyed that, and that brought me into contact with the work of Michael Postan, whose work I’ve always greatly admired, and whose Chair I now hold, rather curiously.
The history of economic thought was taught by Bob Coats, and although I didn’t take his specialised third year course, I’ve always remained interested in the history of economic thought, and in trying to understand the economy through how people perceive the economy. But not only through formal economic thought but through cultural meanings. I’ve always wanted to bring together cultural history and economic history.
Alan Armstrong, who went onto Kent where I did my PhD, was there for my first year, and his work on demographic history and the use of the censuses was another influence. But I suppose the person who had greatest influence was Helen Mellor, who I still see very regularly. I did her third-year course on urban history, and that’s what I suppose I went on to do for the first part of my academic career. So it was very much Helen Mellor’s work on urban history, social history, understanding Victorian towns and understanding charity. Inter-class relationships within towns. It was those issues which she studied in her PhD on Bristol which interested me, and which I then went on to study in my PhD, going back to what I was saying a moment ago about South Wales, and trying to understand that society in a more systematic way.
PO: And moving to talk a bit about economic history – you’ve mentioned there your immediate influences, and the tutors that you’d come into contact with. Would you be able to cast your mind a little bit more broadly and tell me who you see as the most important figures in the development of this field?
MD: Well if I start with people whom I was reading when I was a student, the people I admired then and still do. It was Michael Postan, the Middle Ages and thinking about the constant balancing between resources and population.
And that theme I think would continue into the work of Tony Wrigley, who again held Postan’s chair. I always greatly admired his work, and I can still remember reading his essay in Past and Present on the impact of London on the growth of the English economy. I subscribed to Past and Present from being a first year undergraduate and I can remember reading that still. I can remember where I was when I read it. Thinking through that impact of the growth of cities on the development of the economy had a huge influence – so Tony Wrigley I think would be another person.
A person I read a lot when I was student, and now would not see as such a great influence was E. P. Thompson. Being a student in the 1960s, and actually taking part in some of the sit-ins in Nottingham (in 1969 I suppose it was), Edward Thompson’s work at the Centre for Social History at Warwick had a lot of influence. I always found intellectual problems with the interpretation of the class-conscious proletariat and so on, but that sense of passion, and the writing, the style, the engagement, the trying to understand what economic change meant for the individual I really liked. I would now be much more critical of his interpretation, but certainly he had an influence at the time.
Another person perhaps less well remembered now was Jack Fisher at the LSE, who wrote very little but had an immense wit and charm. He was the external examiner when I was a student, and I read all of his work, and had the dubious privilege of being cross-examined by him at a viva when I got my degree. So again he’s very much within the same sort of approach I suppose as Postan and Wrigley – looking at the balance between resource and population and how that changes over time, and how that’s mediated by all sorts of political, social, cultural practices.
PO: And you mention Past and Present there, did you see that as a journal that was of particular salience to economic history and to the sort of history that you were looking to pursue?
MD: The sort of thing that I did, yes. Obviously the Economic History Review I read then and now, but I found the articles in Past and Present much more exciting and stimulating. Of course one person I haven’t mentioned is Eric Hobsbawm, whose work again had a big impact when I was a student. Again, I would be much more critical of his approach now, but reading his early essays on labouring men and primitive rebels again I found very interesting and provocative and again they were about the same thing – how to understand political-social-cultural reactions to economic change.
I never really myself wanted to study the processes of economic growth, to measure GNP, to do the sort of work which very great scholars like Charles Feinstein were doing. I very greatly admire Charles Feinstein’s work and that of others and that provides a basis for a lot of other things, but what I was interested in were the reactions to economic change. How did one make sense of that? How did one react to it?
I suppose that goes back to what I was talking about in my early upbringing in South Wales – what did that mean to that particular type of society? How did they make sense of it through their religion, through their Eisteddfod or whatever it might be. So Past and Present obviously was important. Tony Wrigley’s essays there had a great impact on me. But also things like Eric Hobsbawm’s work on the crisis of the early 17th century which I remember debating and writing about when I was an undergraduate.
Also some of the work of Keith Thomas for example, going back to him. Not of course that he was an economic historian, but to understand how religion helps us to understand society is I think very, very important.
PO: And would there be any other institutions that you would see as important in the development of economic history as a discipline?
MD: Well clearly the Economic History Society was important. I went to that from being an undergraduate, and that was very important indeed in terms of networking and bringing people together. A body which had a lot of impact on me, and I think upon a number of other people of my generation, which is now not seen as so central, was the Urban History Group. There was no Social History Society at that time, rather curiously, and the Economic History Society didn’t really take account of the wider social history. It was Jim Dyos at Leicester and what became their Urban History Centre, the Urban History Yearbook and the Urban History Group which had a lot of impact.
It would meet immediately before the meeting of the Economic History Society, and that’s where I met people from my own generation, Bob Morris, David Cannadine Rick Trainer and many others, and people of a slightly older generation – Tony Sutcliffe for example, and Derek Fraser, and David Reader.
What they were interested in were the social structures of cities, the process of urban governance within cities, and how to make sense of the process of urban growth which Tony Wrigley had written about in those articles in Past and Present and elsewhere. And that had a big impact on me and upon those other people of that generation – before they rather fragmented. Because of Jim Dyos’s early death, and then the creation of the Social History Society, as some of the people that I’ve talked about tended to move into that Social History Society, which personally I didn’t do to anything like the same extent. I did attend the first meeting at Lancaster. I can’t remember the date now, but the key figure there was Harold Perkin, who I suppose had quite a bit of influence at that stage on social history.
PO: And you’ve mentioned a few times there your interest in bringing other disciplines to bear on economic history, and not being stuck in possibly a dry analysis of the statistics of economic history. Is this one of the debates or areas of contention in this area between different types of approach?
MD: Well let me go back to autobiography, because what I didn’t say was the jobs I then held, and that would be indicative of some of the tensions and strains.
I went to Nottingham and did a degree in economic history, and then when I did my PhD at Kent, with Theo Barker, who had been recommended to me by Helen Mellor – Theo examined Helen’s PhD thesis. That again was a separate department of economic and social history. I then had my first job at Durham, in a separate department of economic and social history. And all of those departments have now disappeared as separate entities. In fact it’s difficult to think of any departments which now do survive as separate entities apart from the LSE. And I think that what happened with economic history in the late 70s and 80s was it became rather introverted. It started to feel it was under threat and under challenge. It became very defensive. I didn’t like that attitude, so I felt that the best thing to do was actually engage with historians.
Some economic historians felt that historians did not want to listen to what they were doing, that the historians were too much about high politics, and that they weren’t really willing to engage in debate. I felt that one should engage in debate. If one was going to understand the development of the economy one needed to understand, as I said before, debates over policy and meanings and interpretations – rather than just assume that markets are there and markets function.
So I never accepted the approach of the cliometricians, of counter-factual history, which always seemed to me – seeing the work of Donald and Deidre McCloskey – to assume markets function without asking how markets were created, and how they differ between different societies, and vary over time.
So what I wanted to do was to become part of a wider history faculty. Which I did at University College London, where there was a group of economic historians within the history department.
There was a separate degree with economics, but that also had its tensions because the economists wanted a highly mathematical intellectual formation for the students, which the students didn’t have. And in the end that joint degree was abandoned, and I then moved much more into history itself.
That’s still remained a bit of a struggle because students tend to run a mile when they hear the words economic history, thinking that it is about cliometrics, it is about statistics.
PO: So in a sense economic history has got a bad name.
MD: Economic history has got a bad name amongst the students.
Now I moved to Cambridge, away from being Professor of British History at UCL to being Professor of Economic History at Cambridge. I don’t think I’ve changed what I do despite the change of title. All students in history at Cambridge must take a paper in economic history. Now they might go into it slightly groaning at the prospect, but it soon becomes possible to engage their interest, if one approaches it in the way that I’ve just outlined.
Now there are also in Cambridge economic historians within the faculty of economics who will have a different approach, will be much more attuned to economic theory, but we can behave in a way which is complementary, so there does not need to be a tension. And I think what is now happening is that there is a coming together, so that works like Douglass North’s recent Understanding the Process of Economic Change or David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (and many other books like that) are indeed talking as economists about the need to understand culture, human motivation, politics.
The work that I’ve done myself recently on taxation for example will use some of the terminology from the economics field. From game theory, about credible commitment and so on, but trying to understand all that historically by using archives. So I think it is perfectly possible to bring these things together. The work of Douglass North on patents, for example, or upon property rights, is something that historians, or economic historians, who are much more attuned to the archives, can actually follow up.
I don’t agree with everything Douglass North says by any stretch of the imagination, because he rather relies on secondary literature to understand the historical past without doing any detailed historical work, and very often falls into simple historical error or simplification. But he’s asking the right sort of questions.
PO: So for you the closing of economic history departments, or the merger of those with history departments, in a sense has been a good thing?
MD: Absolutely. Yes, I think what we’ve had is an ending of that rather inward-looking approach and a now much wider approach which should appeal to many more students. And I never liked that defensive attitude that I mentioned back in the 1980s, and remember speaking at various conferences about that and saying that this was the wrong approach to take.
Students now are very interested in economic history. There was obviously a cultural turn in history generally, but now the cultural turn can be applied to understanding of the economy. Also students are naturally concerned about their future economic careers, so that the course that I teach in Cambridge on the nature of the post-war economic institutions (the IMF and so on) and how economic crises were managed, is something that students today reading in the newspapers about financial meltdowns do find very very interesting.
PO: They can find it relevant – the economics with the politics put back in?
MD: Precisely, yes.
PO: And moving from there to the profession in general, I wanted to ask you, besides developments in economic history, if you’d noticed any particular trends in the popularity of different periods and approaches over the time you’ve been in the profession?
MD: I suppose when I started the industrial revolution in the 19th century was at the heart of what we did, but I think it’s much less the case now. I think then the 18th century was much more the sleepy period and that’s risen in significance and importance as we’ve tried to push back the understanding of when economic change occurred. Clearly with school history it’s the 20th century which has become very important and in my own teaching I’ve started to do much more on the post-Second World War period, because as I get older and students get younger that seems to be something that they find very interesting and rightly so. The process of reconstruction after the war and the great post-war boom.
So I think in periodisation that the Victorian period both in politics and in the economy now seems to be less exciting, and there’s been a pushing back and a pushing forward from that. I don’t keep up with the Middle Ages so I wouldn’t like to comment so much on that.
Obviously the culture of history has been a theme which has grown very much, and some really very interesting work been done, including on economic history. I think of my old PhD student Bernhard Rieger’s work on how modern technology was culturally perceived. It’s that sort of approach which has had a lot of interest, or Frank Trentmann’s work on the political culture of free trade. Again trying to understand that way of looking at free trade rather than looking at interest groups as if they are pre-existing material groupings, and trying to understand how interest groups are rhetorically created. I think that’s been a fairly interesting issue. And of course has changed the whole way in which Edward Thompson’s work has been approached, and his simple shift from moral economy to political economy. We would now say, well, within the laissez-faire Victorian state there was a fair degree of moral economy in how things like credit were interpreted, how the market was interpreted. So I think trying to shift understanding, to look at these issues culturally, has been one of the major changes.
PO: And is a far cry from just assuming that markets are there?
MD: Exist, yes.
PO: And, a slightly different tack, you’ve got experience of a number of different universities over a period of time. Could you say something about how you think the pressures on academics have changed during your career?
MD: Well if I went back to what I was saying about my undergraduate career, I think it’s rather astonishing that at a very good well-funded university such as Nottingham back in the late 60s the quality of some of the teaching was actually so poor. I’m not talking about economic history. Very little direction. Very little or no sense of student questionnaire and feedback – that’s one of the reasons why there was the student trouble there in 1969. There was very little publishing going on – some of the senior professors in other departments had published one book and that was it.
PO: So they weren’t teaching and they weren’t publishing?
PO: What were they doing?
MD: Well one wonders. Being gentleman scholars I suspect.
Moving on then to the University of Kent, a new university, the situation there was that a lot of people had been appointed quite young in that great expansion, and some of them had never really achieved what they might have been expected to achieve. And again looking at it now – I actually took part a few years ago in a review of that department – there was no mentoring, no career appraisal, no sense of pressure (as in the Research Assessment Exercise) to publish. Now I don’t want to sound as if I’m an apologist for the Research Assessment Exercise, and various Quality Assurance Agency visitations, but I think that there was a radical need for change.
I went to Durham to my first post in 1973 and I remember then the head of the history department, who was close to retirement, saying that the best days had been, that we were all going to face as young academics much more pressure on us than he had ever faced. Which is true. We did. But the advice he gave young academics if they wrote anything was: ‘Well, put it in your drawer and let it mature a bit before you put it into print’.
PO: That’s interesting.
MD: And the attitude towards myself and another colleague who arrived a year after me, Ranald Michie (who’s now Professor at Durham) was that we were scribbling, and that there was something wrong with us because we were publishing.
So it was a very curious ethos. Obviously I was in economic history and I’m talking about history. The history department there of course is now one of the top departments in the country – the whole attitude, the whole culture of it shifted.
But I seriously thought about leaving the academic profession at that time because it was not challenging, it wasn’t exciting. The person who was challenging and exciting, actually, was Philip Abrams, who was the Professor of Sociology. In my first year in Durham he edited a book for Past and Present with Tony Wrigley on the impact of towns on society, and I did a chapter in there on towns and economic growth in the eighteenth century. So it was interesting that there wasn’t really much sense of intellectual excitement apart from this one individual.
When I went to University College London again there was not a huge degree of publication amongst the other economic historians there. There were three others. One could get away with doing very little. I think the attitude changed very rapidly say from the mid-80s. I think for the better – a much greater degree of professionalism, a sense of trying to do things for graduate students, trying to make sure that they were being mentored and developed. Much more sense of what we were doing as teachers, and how we designed courses and how students reacted to them.
This all created a huge amount of pressure, but I think it actually led to a lot of change for the better.
PO: So there was more pressure and more administration,, but this was justified by the results that have been achieved, or the changes that have come about as a consequence?
MD: I think that there was very valuable change taking place. Probably now the level of auditing and the degree of complication of the Research Assessment Exercise has gone far too far and that needs to be rolled back.
PO: The pendulum has swung…
MD: …too far the other way. But I think it was justified at the outset.
PO: And connected to that, I wondered if you could say something about institutional changes since the 1960s. You alluded to the expansion of the universities in the late 50s, early 60s, and I know as well that you were President of the Royal Historical Society –
MD: I still am, yes.
PO: And still are-
MD: Until November.
PO: Until November, ok! I won’t retire you prematurely.
MD: No, no, don’t do that.
PO: And therefore presumably in that role had some interaction with the likes of the AHRC?
MD: Yes. I became treasurer of the Royal Historical Society initially. I can’t remember what date that would have been – about 1985 I suppose. The Royal Historical Society then was very much a scholarly publishing society – it published the Camden Series, the Transactions, had papers read, and that was about it really. It was not an active campaigning body. It wasn’t consulted about various issues, and a result of that was another body was set up, to try to protect the history departments from funding cuts (which we haven’t really talked about) as well as trying to argue various cases about the nature of the RAE and other audit systems. That other body was HUDG (the History at the Universities Defence Group). Now what has happened since, during the presidency of Michael Thompson (from here at the Institute), Jinty Nelson and Peter Marshall and then myself is that the RHS has tried to take part in discussions with these other bodies.
So the Research Assessment Exercise for example, we nominate who should sit on the panels. We have argued over the nature of the criteria to be used, we have been in discussions with the AHRC and before that the AHRB – and was it before that something else, I lose track of all the acronyms. So we’ve been very active indeed on that, and I think we’ve had some influence.
We’ve also discussed with the Historical Association, the IHR and HUDG the teaching of history in schools, because obviously if history is not taught in school there’s a possibility that the number applying to read history at universities will fall off. But we’ve also been concerned about the way in which history in schools might become part of a wider citizenship agenda, with the concern over what that might actually entail. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but one has to be very careful that it doesn’t have a political purpose, which would be rather detrimental.
So the Royal Historical Society has engaged with all these other bodies, and of course the setting up of the AHRC has had a huge impact on the profession in terms of providing funding. For economic and social historians the body that was more important earlier on was the ESRC. My own PhD was funded by the ESRC. I suppose we’re in a fortunate position in that we can apply both to the ESRC and to the AHRC, with their different remits and different agenda.
PO: And when you say that it’s had an enormous effect – you’re saying there that the amount of money available for research has increased?
MD: Yes. There is the issue about the purposes for which the money has increased. The ESRC of course had much more focus, it had much more sense of what its thematic priorities would be, and initially the AHRC could be much more individualistic in terms of providing research leave for people to finish off books, and to fund individual projects. There’s perhaps now more of a move in the direction of the ESRC and various thematic priorities and big research centres. That change in the culture of the profession has been a very interesting one. I think it can be very beneficial.
PO: So are these developments occurring simultaneously as far as you see them. That you both talk about more money being available for research, but you are also talking about the funding cuts of the early 80s, and the History at the Universities Defence Group reaction to that.
MD: I have to think carefully about the chronology of this. My remembrance of it is that there was pressure on university finance first, and then an interlude before a stream of money coming in from the AHRC created a greater sense of opportunities. So I suspect that there was a dip and a period of gloom and despair before we came into the sunlit uplands that we now have.
I’m not sure if I say that sarcastically or not!
PO: We can interpret it as we will!
MD: As you will!
PO: I wanted to ask you as well about the teaching of history in schools, which it sounds like you’ve taken an interest in. What changes again have you observed, or had reported to you there?
MD: Well if I go back to economic history, my own particular brand of history, that is now very little taught in schools, in terms of A-level history. When I was involved with The Economic History Society and The Economic History Review there was an attempt to reach out to the schools there. But I don’t think it’s now taught as much as it used to be.
Obviously in terms of history teaching there is the problem that history is not compulsory to an age that it is in the rest of Europe, and there is some fear about it actually shrinking. I think we were told at the Royal Historical Society that especially in Scotland there’s very little history teaching in schools now. I think that’s dangerous. That’s something we need to keep an eye on.
The argument about citizenship is that it’s a way of allowing everybody to understand some history even if they’re not formally studying history. As President of the Royal Historical Society I go to ministerial meetings with the other bodies in history. And we meet with people from OFSTED and other bodies. And they say that most pupils at school will not be interested in history, will not want to become historians, but that it’s important, and the example always given is of a plumber in Blackburn (I don’t know why plumbers and why Blackburn). If you’re a plumber in Blackburn and you go to fix a tap or plumb in a washing machine in somebody’s house and they come originally from the Caribbean or from Asia one needs to understand why. One needs to understand their background, and their religion and their culture.
So the argument there is that one should go from present – here is an issue, immigration – to past – there have been immigrants in the past such as Huguenots or whoever, and they have been integrated in society in different ways, and this is all part of the formation of the British society that we all know – and then back to present – what do we now learn about it.
Well one can see that might be very beneficial in certain respects, one could think about slavery. For example if one’s in Blackburn, where did the cotton come from that was being woven in Blackburn – it came from slave plantations. And you can understand how you can try to engage people with their own backgrounds in that way. It can become very dangerous when we have the Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, making speeches to the Fabian Society about Britishness, which is a rather skewed and peculiar interpretation of history.
So I think we need to be very careful indeed about how history is being used in schools and in the wider community. I’ve just been invited to a seminar on a new government proposal which is to establish a museum of British History, and one wonders what might be the agenda behind that. So I think that teaching history in schools is a very important and a very contentious issue at the moment.
There has been a recent document produced, I think by Keith Ajegbo, which is about this use of history in the citizenship agenda. What that can do is partly what I’ve just been talking about, but also move away from a very present-centred view of history, which seems a bit odd that one is teaching citizenship and saying that one can move away from a present-centred view. His argument would be that if one is talking about civil rights of course one can talk about Magna Carta, but one should not then interpret it in a Whiggish view that there has been this long march of English liberty.
So they very much want to put in medieval history, as well as contemporary history into this understanding of issues. One might want to understand the emergence of common law for example, so one could then want to go back some distance into the past.
Anyway, these are all issues which I think are being fought about very much at the moment, and the Royal Historical Society, the Institute of Historical Research and other bodies are engaging with the government in these discussions.
PO: I was wondering whether you had any views on the relationship between academic history and popular history (to use a shorthand), and again how that might have changed during your career?
MD: Well, I’ll pick up two issues there. One is museums, and the other one is publishing. Perhaps I could take three as well – of course, there’s television.
Picking up museums first, I mentioned my scepticism about this idea of the Museum of British History. I’m on the board at the moment of the National Maritime Museum, and I think that’s absolutely fascinating, to try and understand how to interpret issues like slavery. Clearly the maritime museum cannot ignore that subject. We’ve just opened a new gallery on the Atlantic World, and slavery is at the heart of it, but there’s a very difficult issue there, about how does one interpret, how does one exhibit objects like manacles that were used on slaves in the Middle Passage? They were called at the time slave bracelets. Now does one describe them as slave bracelets, does one call them handcuffs, does one call them manacles? That’s just one very simple example – how does one interpret that? How is the link with African slavery within Africa to be interpreted?
It’s a very very difficult issue, and the museum went through a process of engagement with members of the Afro-Caribbean community, who had their very strong, very articulate views over what language should be used. Perhaps some of these terms should be replaced by African terms. Perhaps some of these objects should not be displayed at all, that they were just too offensive. So it was a very interesting debate about how to get this over.
But also, however subtle one wants to be, one has to think about the ‘dwell’ time on each display case being in seconds, and how to get over a headline word and then a little bit of text below it. So I think that historians in universities need to be much more engaged with this sort of interpretation through museums.
Now going onto publishing. I’m very struck by the way in which my colleagues at Cambridge publish books which have been winning the Wolfson prize, which of course is set up in order to celebrate works which are accessible. These are very scholarly books like Adam Tooze’s The Wages of Destruction, on the economics of the Third Reich, but books that nevertheless are widely reviewed, address very important and highly emotive subjects, and win the Wolfson prize. Or Chris Clark’s book on Prussia (Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia), or Tim Harper and Chris Bayly’s book on the end of the war in Asia (Forgotten Armies of the East). Or Richard Evans’ work The Coming of the Third Reich.
It seems to me that there is this deep engagement with very important issues by an intelligent public. It’s not going to be mass audiences for that sort of thing, but readers of the quality press, I suppose, that’s where they’re being reviewed. I think that’s very very different indeed from the days in which somebody like A. J. P. Taylor could not be appointed Regius Professor because he did too much of that sort of thing.
PO: That the practitioners of popular history at the moment are now accepted by the academic establishment?
MD: Absolutely. Well, the history establishment are practitioners of popular history is another way of putting it. Obviously some people like David Starkey were academics and gave it up in order to become television historians, my third category. But still, David is a serious historian, he’s still to be seen in the university library in Cambridge, he still supervises PhD students in Cambridge – he thinks it’s very important to maintain that link with professional historians. Simon Schama perhaps even more so in that he is still in academic post, Niall Ferguson…
I mean going back to economic history – the fact that Niall Ferguson can write a book such as the Cash Nexus and make the history of the discount –rate of bonds exciting I think is quite a tribute. If one can write economic history which the reader of the Economist and the Financial Times wants to pick up and read, I think that is a jolly good thing.
PO: And kind of follows on to your complaints about the discipline when it turned in on itself in the late 60s and 70s?
MD: That’s right.
PO: Again this is an opportunity to reach out…
MD: Yes. I think that a historian like Niall Ferguson, or Barry Eichengreen in the States for example, can do both. They can both write very scholarly articles for fellow economists or economic historians in the learned journals, but then they know how to step back from that and to make their work very appealing and important for contemporary issues.
PO: Yes. I wanted to go back, again returning maybe more to the university practice of history, and ask has the relationship between teaching and research changed at all?
MD: Not in my own career I think. I’ve not taught at anything other than the top Russell Group universities, and the attitude at Cambridge is that one’s teaching is inspired by research. That was also very much the case at University College London. So most of the books I mention by colleagues in Cambridge emerge from their third year special subjects. David Reynolds would be another example with his recent book Summits, where he says in the preface that this emerged from his teaching of his special subject.
The rule at Cambridge is that special subjects are normally taught for five years and then they stop. But what most people do is they teach for five years and write the book, and move on. It’s what I’m going to do myself. I’ve just signed the contract with Penguin for the book on my current special subject.
And so that very much is the continued intersection of the two. Of course one can be criticised for being rather self-indulgent. That perhaps this is not the way to do it for undergraduates, perhaps it’s not starting from what their needs are but from what our career objectives might be.
And that of course is a huge danger with the RAE, because the RAE gives universities funding for research, but does not give additional funding for teaching. So I think there is a danger in some places that you can appoint very very good people to positions (I won’t name any universities), where they hold research professorships, where they don’t need to do the teaching. That is I think a function of some of the faults with the auditing system which I was earlier on saying had actually led to some improvement.
It can also lead to something which is unfortunate, which is the chasing of RAE points, and then to a concern about the undergraduate teaching. It might then be that too much of the undergraduate teaching is being done by a more casualised staff – by research students, or temporary teachers, who then don’t really have the opportunity to write their own books. So I think there are dangers –
PO: Of the possibility of the link between the two being –
PO: But that hasn’t been your experience?
MD: That’s not been my experience where I’ve been. I think it can actually be good to get graduate students to do teaching, provided it’s done within a structured format. I mentioned earlier on Bernhard Rieger, one of my PhD students. That was at University College London, where we introduced a scheme whereby the department itself out of any spare cash that it had employed or engaged PhD candidates for four years, rather than a standard three years, and they would then do some teaching, but within an existing course and being monitored. So it was about training.
And of course what’s now happening is that we now expect that all PhD students should do some teaching, that they should be monitored and mentored to do that. I think that can be very good in terms of improving the way in which we look after PhD students from the days when I started, when it was a glass of sherry at the beginning of the first year and come back with a PhD at the end of three years. Or not, the completion rates being absolutely appalling! So I think it depends how we handle this issue. If PhD students are actually working on a subject which is closely related to the academic’s research, and that’s related to the teaching and they can be integrated into that, that is really good, that’s creating the sense of a team, and career development. If it’s casualisation, and you have research professors who’ve never set foot inside the university, then I think that’s bad.
PO: So it’s a question of how these things are implemented.
MD: Yes. I think there’s a lot of very good practice out there, but also I suspect that there’s some poor pratice.
PO: And I guess that connected to that my last question would be if you had any thoughts on the future of history, whether it be the discipline itself or the profession?
MD: That’s an interesting one. I always say as a historian I look at the past and I don’t like to project into the future, but that of course is a copout isn’t it?
I think one thing that is very interesting about the profession since I entered it is how international it now is, in terms of who is joining the departments around the country. There are a large number of Germans and Italians in particular, which reflects the poor career profiles in those countries. So we seem more appealing in the sense of giving more independence at an earlier age, having research grants available and so on. I think that’s been a huge change for the better in the profession, and I think that’s going to continue. And that must have a beneficial impact in all sorts of ways in terms of making British history part of a wider European history.
PO: That’s an interesting take, because other people have mentioned that phenomenon, but ascribed it to the declining language skills of English history students.
MD: Well, there is that as well. I wouldn’t deny that. But I think it’s also fact that many of these German, Dutch, whatever, historians not only have very good language skills but they have very poor job prospects at home, and very little freedom.
And I think that what is likely to happen, I think it has started to happen, is that they will make people doing British history think in a more European way. I’m very struck by having various PhD students I’m co-supervising at the moment one now working on comparative or transnational history. I think that’s actually a very important thing that’s going to continue to develop, getting away from national histories.
I don’t think it’s just comparative history, which I suppose was flavour of the month when I was starting out, but also what one could call connective history – the way in which ideas connect across nations or are transmitted across national boundaries. For instance, the links between British history and imperial history, and not just British history and imperial history but also French, Dutch – whatever. I think that’s a major change.
The way in which in Cambridge the courses are still divided up into British history, European History and the rest. One might think that one does not just talk about the rest of the world as in fact the extra-European, or overseas. I’m sure that one thing which is going to happen with this widening of the historical profession in terms of different nationalities coming into it will be more historians coming from Asian backgrounds or Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, or whatever. That will change the whole way in which we’re looking at world history, and I think that’s going to be a massive change. Is it going to be feasible for one of the great departments in Britain and Cambridge to have not a single historian of China within it. We do have historians of China, but in the faculty of Oriental Studies – those courses are barely available to historians. The absence of historians of Japan, for example, again they exist in Oriental Studies but the courses are not really available to students in history.
I think the widening of the coverage in that way is going to be a very important thing for the future.
PO: Professor Daunton, thanks very much indeed for that.
MD: Thank you.