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 Ralph Griffiths about
his experience of, and views on, changes in the discipline and the academic
profession of history.
Professor Griffiths, may we start with your giving us some brief biographical information?
Ralph Griffiths: To begin at the beginning, I come from one of the mining valleys on the border between Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, where I was brought up. I went to one of Wales’ good grammar schools, I would say, and I was well taught in most subjects.
I then went to the University of Bristol, where I graduated, embarked on research and spent most of my time here in London. Then I got a research fellowship in the University of Wales, and eventually an academic appointment.
PO: And that was at Swansea, is that right?
RG: At Swansea, yes.
PO: And how was it that you decided to become a historian?
RG: I’m not sure I can answer that with a faulty memory. I was fascinated by history when I was very young, and pestered my parents to take me here there and everywhere to see sites. I lived not far, perhaps ten miles or so, from Caerphilly Castle, which was an extraordinary thing for a six, seven or eight year old boy to see. At university I was fascinated with both history and geography, and I suppose I then discovered my prime interest in history, and especially medieval history, though not exclusively so.
As to when I wanted to enter the teaching profession in the universities, I think I wanted to be a teacher because I had much enjoyed my time in school and I thought these teachers seemed to have a high old time and were doing something very valuable. And so I thought at that early stage I might like to be a teacher. I never trained to be a teacher, because research took over.
As to when I wanted to be a university teacher – well I had no idea what that was of course until I went to university. But I do recall saying to one of my history tutors at university at the end of my first year with all the naivety that you have at that age that I wanted to be a university teacher please. And he didn’t take to that very well, I thought – it was rather an unusual question. I realised the preliminary of course is a period of constructive research, to bring things to a conclusion, but I retained the ambition from being an undergraduate, and eventually it worked out. I wouldn’t say that I had planned it, but my inclinations were clear to me.
PO: In terms of your development as a historian who would you say your influences were? Perhaps even going back to the tutors you might have had at university.
RG: Yes, I think like most historians one can recall and identify rather key figures who seemed giants to one at the time I suppose. At school I was extremely well taught by a history master, very talented, whom by pure chance I met again yesterday [22nd July 2008], and whom I see very very occasionally. He’s very elderly of course. That was key as far as I was concerned. As a student there were a number of people.
In terms of weaning me towards later medieval history, medieval history generally, I suppose firstly it was a woman called Margaret Sharp, who was the great T. F. Tout’s daughter, and she was a very inspiring teacher. Rather a no nonsense character, but she seemed to know everybody, and as a result she produced people to talk to seminars and lectures who were the giants in the profession, so I rather admired her. But she taught jointly with a much younger man, Charles Ross, who was a 15th-century historian, and I opted to do the special subject which they taught together – I suppose looking back on it, as far as we were concerned quite easily, but from their point of view it was probably rather difficult, because he was very young and she was in the latter stages of her career. But they did it extremely well.
I was impressed too as an undergraduate by David Douglas, the Norman historian, who, I still feel today, was one of the finest lecturers in a formal way I ever heard. And, I don’t know whether I learnt anything about how to lecture formally from him. I hope I did, because he was a very fine lecturer.
After that I suppose before I went to Swansea, in the course of my researches in London here, the then Director of the Institute was a Welshman, a distinguished man Sir Goronwy Edwards. And he supervised my research fellowship, in the University of Wales, here in London.
RG: And he was of course a man of few words in many ways but a very congenial and friendly person. He had a very precise mind. One major thing he taught me. If I’m stuck having to write something, give a lecture or something, always go to the Oxford English Dictionary, its multi-volumes and it’s a storehouse of knowledge. You’ll always pick something up there. I went to his seminars here on palaeography, introduction to history and so forth.
And then in Swansea I suppose the great Welsh historian, who was then head of the department, and died two or three years ago, Glanmor Williams, who was an inspiring person and of a different calibre completely: down to earth, treated everybody alike, no sense of hierarchy whatsoever. And in Cardiff not so far away, by my good luck I suppose, was the doyen of 15th century history in Britain, S. B. Chrimes, who I became quite friendly with. He much older of course and near retiring, and I a whippersnapper, but we hit it off well and he was extremely helpful to me.
And then lastly I suppose a group of people with whom I worked as a student here in London working in the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane and the British Museum as it then was: Rees Davies, who was also a Welshman, same age as we were. He was then from London and Oxford. Colin Richmond from Keele, then was in Oxford, and also a man who I became very friendly with and began to edit the Welsh History Review with soon after I went to Swansea, a modern historian Kenneth Morgan, now Lord Morgan.
I would say if I have hurriedly to choose six to eight they would be – different generations – they would be the main influences.
PO: Right. And were there any intellectual influences beyond this that you might pick on as being particularly important to you? I’m thinking of people that you might have read rather than people that you actually encountered?
RG: Yes. Well certainly the amount of material then in print then available of a secondary nature for the young students to read was very limited compared with what’s available today. But I suppose I would say how impressed I was with reading someone who’s very unfashionable nowadays, and that is T. F. Tout. Administrative historian in some ways, but that doesn’t do justice to his work, it’s much broader in conception, political, and though he wouldn’t have described himself I suspect as social historian, there is a certain amount of social history in there too.
And that came to me I suppose through Margaret Sharp. Through Charles Ross came admiration, though I only met him once, for K. B. McFarlane and his quite different approach to history. Political in a sense, but much more heavily social. Much less concerned with high politics and the doings of medieval kings and queens and royal families and courts, and more to deal with the nobility and the gentry of England. And I certainly came to admire much of what he wrote, all of what he wrote. Though it was fascinating in my own mind to put the Toutian approach and the McFarlane approach together, and I must be a bit unusual in having had the opportunity to do that at close hand.
I’d say that once he started to write the approaches and the calibre of mind of Rees Davies, which one could only admire without emulating, was very very impressive. He used to give me some of his things to read before he published them, and I’d make these rather foolish comments on them, and in later life I’d realise what a presumptuous thing it was. And he of course, for me, gave the Welsh dimension as well as the British dimension to our studies, and that I share with him. Fascination with relations between England and the other countries within the British Isles.
I’d say also Glanmor Williams. He wrote such beautiful English, though he was bilingual in Welsh and English, and he wrote in both. His English has a beautiful, mellifluous style and I learnt a great deal from that. I would say also veering more towards the social side and the ideas side, Gwyn Alfred Williams, a modern historian (though he’d begun as a medievalist). He and Glanmor Williams and several others, like Kenneth Morgan, were in the forefront of a revolution in the writing of Welsh history. And I was very glad being in Swansea to become part of that.
So all those were sort of a mixture of influences in some ways. But they all, they don’t cancel one another out, they all sort of contribute to things, at least in my mind.
PO: And you talk there about a revolution in Welsh history. I was wondering if you had any observations the way in Welsh history and the study of it have changed during your career. Perhaps in terms, as well, of changes in the way in which relations between England and its so-called dominions have been studied in that time.
RG: The place of the study of Wales, and the teaching of Wales’s history, in Great Britain, has changed several times over the last 100 years I suppose. The study of Welsh history was a little slower to get off the ground in the scientific, academic direction. For the rest of Britain, in England, it would have been the 1870s or so, and thereafter. In Wales it’s probably only the 1890s, 1900s and thereafter. There’s a big change there.
PO: And that’s a change from?
RG: That’s a change from the romantic, mythological, grand themes approach to the scientific, based upon research, striving towards understanding rather than writing and teaching in order to praise the nation and the struggles of the Welsh people. That dates from the beginnings of the 20th century. Welsh history as a subject figures in teaching in a number of universities especially in Wales in the first part of the 20th century.
And then you get from the 1930s onwards, though it’s halted to some extent by the war, the creation of separate departments of Welsh history in some of the university colleges in Wales. So that, in a way, giving it a higher profile, giving it greater respectability. Not in all – Cardiff and Swansea were never very keen on separating into separate departments, for good intellectual reasons, that it was not healthy for the subject.
And I suppose over the last 20, 30 years the separateness has disappeared, and now the teaching and study of Welsh history, you could say, now that it’s come of age so to speak, are now integrated into the teaching of British history more generally. That’s occurred since the 1980s maybe.
PO: And have there been any other changes or significant debates or points of contention in your field – again that you can chart over your career?
RG: I think the one that became most obvious to me as a young lecturer was the change from predominantly political, constitutional history to history much more broadly conceived. Now at Bristol I was brought up on reflection in a tradition where politics, government, constitution, bureaucracy, how to run things in the past – these were important subjects. On the other hand, at the same time, I was given a good grounding in economic history. And by the time I became a researcher economic history of course was well established as a subject, and everybody, there was no question about it, everybody adopted economic questions in their research as often as political or anything else.
But the one thing that confronted me, I think, right at the beginning of my teaching career was the question of social history. Now social history is a more recent phenomenon. I do recall we had debates on what was social history. There were lots of people who stood up and said ‘I’m a social historian, but I’m not like you’, and others who stood up and said ‘You are not a social historian at all’. So those debates were going on.
They were assisted in a way in Wales because we had an advantage (if you knew any Welsh history) because after the end of an independent principality in 1282 Wales’s history was all social history, and economic history and so forth. But it wasn’t geared towards the state or politics, or the constitution. So social history became a very important avenue, very wide avenue of approach for most of us as we were teaching in Swansea. And I think that happened more swiftly in Swansea and some other universities than it did in others.
The other big question I suppose was – which again I confronted when I became a young lecturer – was the question of medieval history. Now this is the 1960s – I was brought up in a university in Bristol where teaching and study of medieval history were at least as important as any other field of history. And it had had distinguished teachers of medieval history. I thought everywhere was like that.
But of course they weren’t, and new universities were being founded, and although they had history in the syllabus some of them took a purposeful decision not to teach any history before the Renaissance, before let’s say around 1500 or so. Much to the annoyance of medievalists around the country.
Well I was faced with that to some extent in Swansea on a narrower level, in the discussions about, ’Well, what should be compulsory in teaching students in history? Should they be taught this and that and the other and so forth?’ And there were proposals that medieval history should be optional. People shouldn’t be expected to have a grounding in medieval history in the sense that they should have a grounding in the post-industrial revolution period.
And that led to lots of arguments. Initially it was decided – and I was glad in a way, though I resented it at the time – to give the students free choice, although we all knew that the amount of knowledge that they had of medieval history coming from school would be negligible. However, it turned out that once given free choice to the bulk of the students they opted to study medieval history!
PO: That’s interesting
RG: I think it’s because, being young people, it was different. I know there are unadventurous students who would opt to choose courses that they had studied at school, and there were some of those, and if they’d studied the Tudors and Stuarts in the great courses that existed at A-level then lots of them would love to study Tudors and Stuarts at university. But the bulk, the majority I would say, were prepared to be adventurous and did so. So in a way this meant that eventually nothing became compulsory. They had to choose packages and so on, so there was some order to it. So that was a big question.
PO: And medieval history survived perfectly well within that optional system?
RG: Indeed it did yes. And also, the colleagues,, at some universities in the 1960s and the very early 1970s, who perhaps thought that medieval history was not worth studying in the sense that recent history might be, they changed their minds.
Those were the main discussions that we had on the nature of history teaching.
This didn’t affect of course research. Throughout my teaching career – I’ve been fortunate perhaps – I’ve been allowed to do the research wherever my interests took me. Nobody ever tried to take me away from a direction. They prompted me in directions, but didn’t take me away from directions.
PO: So you were free to pursue your own interests?
PO: You mention different universities in Wales there, and their different approaches to Welsh history and the like. I was wondering if, besides the universities, any other organisations or projects have played a significant role in the development of your field of history?
RG: I think there have been. Firstly I suppose I would say the Institute here. That was a very important influence. Goronwy Edwards was the director when I was a post-graduate. That made it a congenial place. It was a splendid headquarters for those who were studying more or less permanently in London at the Public Record Office, the British Museum. The seminars were not as numerous as they are now, but they were extremely helpful. And of course you brought together people who I retained scholarly friendships with from that time to this. So that’s very important.
The second institution is in Wales, the Board of Celtic Studies, which is a University Research board – inter-collegiate – covering the whole of Wales, and I had a research fellowship with it after I graduated in Bristol. And I did about a year of research there I think, but then they advertised this research fellowship after I’d done three terms of full-time research for a PhD. My father died and I thought ‘Gosh, I’d better get a job here, and earn some money’. So I applied for this job and I got it. I was able to continue with my doctorate work and on an allied subject for the fellowship.
Now the Board of Celtic Studies had the ability to appoint some research fellows like that, independent. It was Wales-wide. The two supervisors whom I had were Goronwy Edwards here at the Institute, because the Board brought in scholars relating to Welsh history, and other forms of Welsh academic life, from throughout the British Isles. And the other supervisor was a man, Sir David Evans, who was then the Keeper of the Public Records. So he was very good at getting me into places in the PRO where normally you don’t go. So he was extremely helpful.
Now that Board of Celtic Studies has [been] very recently abolished, within the last two years. It’s a great shame – it was founded in 1920, and from my point of view was an admirable institution.
The other institutions would be the universities. I would say, although I didn’t visit it very often – I had lots of friends there – Oxford for a medievalist was of course extremely important. University of London, and in particular University College, where Rees Davies got an appointment. We always met and I’d have lunch with him and his colleagues in University College, and he’d come to Swansea from time to time, because he’d been in Swansea as a young lecturer for about two years before he came back to London. Those I think are the main institutions.
I’ve always valued however, my contacts with American scholars and my visits to America have always been a great delight, and medievalists in America, because they are relatively speaking small in number, meet more regularly. I try to go every two or three years, I would say over the last 30 years, to the huge jamboree which they have at Western Michigan, Kalamazoo. So that organisation – that’s been important.
PO: So that conference has been a particularly useful one to gather together-
RG: It has. And to meet especially young scholars, who are giving talks at Kalamazoo, but also American scholars. Your average American university only has one medievalist – perhaps two at most – so they are delighted to go to Kalamazoo. And the delight rubs off. And they always welcome British visitors. They used to be able to fund visits from Britain more generously when I first started to go. Less so now, for economic reasons. But still, it’s a valuable thing, and it’s had little spinoffs of smaller conferences which occasionally I go to as well in the States.
PO: And you were editor of the Welsh History Review as well for a long time – what about that?
RG: Yes. I edited it with Kenneth Morgan for 38 years, 39 years. It began not long before I went to Swansea, but then Ken became the editor about 1964, 1965, and I became the assistant editor at that time. And we continued to do it until 2002, 2003 or 2004. Something like that. Started off annually, then became two a year. It grew, established a reputation even though I say it myself. It’s a good journal. It was an invention of the Board of Celtic Studies – it’s one of their initiatives. They had a number of initiatives, but that’s one.
PO: And that’s one that’s outlived its founding Board?
RG: It has, yes, and will continue to do so. There were two other initiatives that it had. One was to establish in 1925 or thereabouts a series of editions of Welsh historical materials. You have them here at the Institute, all of them, I don’t know how many volumes – 20, 25 volumes now, important, big, fundamental volumes which enabled the study of Welsh history to take place. That was one initiative. I published a volume in that series arising out of the fellowship that I had.
And the third one is much more recent and is a series of monographs in Welsh history which the Board also sponsored, of which I was a founder editor. I’m the only founder editor left now – there were three of us – I have two newer colleagues. And that I suppose has published just about 30 volumes. That began somewhere in the late 1970s. So the Board of Celtic Studies you can see I have a high regard for.
PO: It’s played a role in many different aspects it seems. If we move to talk about the profession in general now, I know you’ve mentioned developments in terms of the rise of economic history and of social history. Are there any other particular trends in the popularity of different periods or different approaches that you’ve observed?
RG: Well I’ve talked about medieval history. I’ve talked in general terms about social history. Economic history I suppose is less popular now than it used to be. History of ideas is something which has grown and become more central to the profession during my time, and in fact across the whole spectrum of history. And that’s a splendid thing. I think that’s been a very fruitful thing.
Religious history has tended I suppose to focus on the key revolutionary phases in the history of religions, but I don’t know. As a guess I would say that probably the study of religion is going to become more popular rather than less.
As to geographical fields – well the rise of British history is something of course which comes second nature to a Welsh historian. It hasn’t been something to which I have had to be converted, in a way that many English historians have had to be converted, and indeed Scots, Welsh and Irish historians too can be as inward looking about history – at least they have been in the past – as any English historian. But looking back on the time I had studying history in an English university and studying it for a doctorate in Anglo-Welsh history, and then moving to a Welsh university to do my teaching, and keeping all my contacts actually made it rather easier for me to see the study of Wales in a broader context as I think I always have – and certainly I do now.
I try – not successfully – to give the same kind of prominence to Anglo-Scottish and Anglo-Irish history as I do to Anglo-Welsh history – but I do try. And I think it’s very important and I did enjoy, just a few years ago, editing the short Oxford History of the British Isles on the later medieval period, which did enable me in writing the introduction and the epilogue to it to bring the four British countries and their histories together, both their differences and their similarities, their common experiences. That’s something which has happened in my time, and I’ve benefited greatly from that change.
American history I think was just beginning to become popular in British universities when I first began, but for a while there were few really outstanding British American historians, though things changed I think over time. Two fields that have developed have been Latin American history – geographically that was a desert when I became a teacher, in most universities, not all, but in most of them. Here in London was of course an exception. And the other one was the Commonwealth. And in the University of Wales it fitted nicely into Anglo-Welsh history, because the whole issue of migration, emigration and indeed in-migration has proven a very fruitful theme to develop.
Periods? Well I’ve mentioned about medieval history. I still feel that it attracts as much attention and rightly, the nature of medieval history is such that as newer questions come into the minds of historians it is exploring the medieval experience that remains a valuable thing to do. There is a sign in Wales – but this is an organisational worry rather a subject worry – there is a sign that the number of Welsh medieval historians is shrinking. But that may be a temporary thing. In terms of periodisation elsewhere I do recall in my time I suppose history syllabuses in Bristol did not go beyond 1914. That was swiftly changed. In Swansea we were a little more ahead, but it’s only in my time that one regards the teaching of history to go up to 2008.
PO: The emergence of contemporary history.
RG: Indeed, yes. And that’s been a major change – the actual concept of contemporary history – the idea that, as I say, we ended in 1914 in Bristol. In Swansea we probably ended in 1945. And so we moved forward, but now contemporary history has blown the whole thing wide open.
PO: There’s no end point.
RG: Apart from the one we’ve obviously reached. No, no.
PO: And the pressure on academics, how do you think that they’ve changed during your career?
RG: Pressures have changed. For somebody towards the end of his career it’s easy to say that the pressures are greater than they were. I don’t know that that’s necessarily so. The one thing that is a pressure I suppose is a pressure from the government to take many more students. And of course it is the large humanities subjects that are able to take more students so that governments can say ‘Well, we’ve raised the participation rate to, you know, 30 or 40%, and so on’. That does create problems in the nature of teaching, the balance in the use of time. The financial resources always lag behind the increase in numbers. So that is a pressure without any doubt. I don’t feel however, that it’s a pressure with which one cannot cope, but one needs to be alert to the pressure, and to devise imaginative ways of coping, and I’m not sure we always do.
PO: I suppose that leads us in a way to the next question that I wanted to ask which was about your views on institutional changes.
RG: Yes. That prompts me to recall a point I was going to make. One change which I think is a pressure, and again potentially disadvantageous is the whole business of competition as opposed to collaboration between institutions. Now that’s something that’s happened in my time. When I began, I’ve already hinted at this I suppose with the Board of Celtic Studies, the accent was on collaboration. Of individuals and of departments and of institutions. And Wales is a good example because it was one university and all its institutions collaborated. But then of course changes in government requirements, government funding, government ideology meant that institutions weren’t supposed to collaborate. That’s rather bad: they should be competitive because, in this rather simplistic way which politicians have, they think out of competition comes improvement. Which of course it may, but it’s quite likely not to come.
PO: It doesn’t necessarily follow does it.
RG: No, it doesn’t. Now that’s been something that universities have had to cope with. It began, I’m not sure when, I suppose with the Thatcher government and thereafter, the 1980s and so forth, the 1990s. Academics, being imaginative people, and being cunning people in some ways, have actually tried to cope with that by setting up their own means of collaboration. It doesn’t take place any more between institutions on a grand scale, but it still manages to take place on an individual basis, and on a subject basis. You heard me talking to Derek [Keene] just now about the conference in Leeds – the whole conference business has exploded. Conferences on every conceivable subject under the sun. And some of them of course go on from one year to the next. They establish themselves as regular conferences. And that’s a good thing. There are many more of them available now than there used to be. And I think that’s one way in which academics and historians have managed to acclimatise themselves to the competitiveness between institutions.
The funding business of history – I suppose when I started there was not a great need for large funding streams. Universities did their teaching but they also did their research and kept the two in balance. And that worked – the dual support system. There were institutions, like the Institute here, and the Board of Celtic Studies, and other institutions around the country which had sources of money which sponsored this that and the other. But the expansion, explosion of universities of course was bound to constrain funding resources, and that became quite a serious issue. Travel to archives is important for historians in a way that it’s less important for many people working in the literatures.
And I do recall arguments – having to put this point within my own university in order to ensure some funding for historians and for scholars. Scientists don’t travel as much. They use expensive laboratories of course but they don’t need travel. And scientists at the top of institutions – one had to be quite brutal with them and explain that historians need to go from A to B because the original materials are there. The pennies didn’t drop immediately, but they did eventually. Funding now has become caught up with the competitiveness, and of course as with competition the funding is never adequate.
So we have lost a good deal in terms of the ability to do one’s research unfettered. To have to compete for AHRC awards when they only give success to one in five for example: it’s not a very satisfactory state of affairs. What happens to your very worthy person who just doesn’t happen to have the right subject, the right proposal for the referees. How do they carry on their work? So funding is an issue and one has to show again a good deal of imagination in order to wheedle quite small sums which can do a good deal of good.
PO: And that connects with the next thing I was going to ask which was about the relationship between teaching and research and how that’s changed, which I think you alluded to before?
RG: We still pay lipservice, at least most of us still pay lipservice, to the thought that universities are supposed to be staffed by scholars who are both teachers and researchers. I say lip service because there are some, a minority of scholars, who perhaps are not as wedded to that principle, which goes back of course to the beginnings of the modern university in the latter part of the 19th century. I think it’s a very important link, there’s not much doubt about that. You can inspire students, even those more able than yourself, by teaching, but you have a much stronger chance of inspiring them if you can inspire them by demonstrating your own creative original work. So the link between the two I feel is very important. We are in danger of loosening the link a bit. I see it in my own institution. You’re encouraged competitively to apply for vast grants, which can have the effect of taking you away from your teaching for two, three years even, breaking the link with the students.
And it can result in temporary appointments, even postgraduates, who have always been an important element in assisting with teaching and tutoring, but there is a danger, and the students occasionally feel this, that the students are being insulated from the teachers and researchers and scholars and are being short-changed. They may be wrong there, but they feel they’re being short-changed by temporary appointments. They may have come to university because Dr So-and-So was there, or Professor This-and-That-and-The-Other and they find that they have been wafted away to some research institute and they will never see them at all. One has to guard against that. It’s possible to end up with too high a percentage of people who are learning the job themselves, too high a percentage in a department in charge of the teaching. It’s an important element, and important training for young scholars, but they mustn’t be too numerous I think. I feel that’s perhaps beginning to take place.
The creation of separate centres and institutions. I know the Institute here is one, but I was very pleased to see the Institute taking on the job of supervising postgraduate research. This happened about 12 years ago or so, and that was an important way forward. To have separate institutions and centres that are not firmly linked to a university teaching department I think is an unfortunate thing. I’m not arguing against such centres and institutes but I think they need links with universities which are quite firm ones. And perhaps there’s a danger there too, I’m not certain.
I suppose in history the threat to the Institute itself must be a worry nationally – you’d be aware of course, partly a question caught up in the University of London situation. But for institutions like this with constant links with postgraduates, and constant links with the profession throughout the country and indeed beyond, such institutions are very valuable. They are under threat.
PO: And on a different tack, do you have any views on how the relationship between academic history and so-called popular history might have changed. If you cast your mind back to what state of play there might have been in the 1950s or 1960s?
RG: The link between academic and so-called popular history is a very important one. If academics do not have input into the writing and broadcasting by whatever media of popular history and the two become separated that can only be to the disadvantage of both. One sees what happens to popular history sometimes where the link is broken. When I began as a teacher television was in its infancy as the main medium. It was radio, and at that time (and this was before independent broadcasting of course) the BBC radio stations (and there was one in Wales, and also nationally and in Scotland and Ireland) were very important. They recruited academics quite regularly to do broadcasts. We don’t do that enough now.
Some very distinguished series of broadcasts, which ended up as published books were devised. Top-notch people did them. I can think of one on the Normans, one by the BBC here in London. There was one on ‘Wales through the Ages’ in the 1950s run by the BBC in Cardiff.
PO: And in which historians would have been involved?
RG: And the historians involved would have been the Professor of Welsh History here, the Professor of Medieval History there, the Director of the Institute here, Goronwy Edwards was one. They went for the top-notch people. Of course, not everybody’s a wizard at speaking on the radio but they became used to doing it, and so they learnt.
The other thing that happened was that they also wrote the scripts. Or at least they did the guts of the scripts – they then had to be polished and so forth. I think it was an extremely valuable link between the public and academics and universities and academic history. Radio doesn’t seem to do as much of that as it used to, or if it does do it it’s more bitty. It’s less organised, it’s more single programmes, and therefore makes less of an impact.
Television is a medium that’s much more difficult to harness to the academic life I think, because what seems to me to be the common perception amongst those who run television programmes is that if you have anything more than two minutes on a subject the viewer will lose interest, and they have to have some photogenic person walking about all the time, rather than a voiceover.
All that seems to me to lose the opportunity that comes with broadcasting and therefore the connection with popular history.
As to writing – some academics are good at writing popular history and they should do as much of it as they can. Not all are good at it, and one must accept that. Some are splendid and precise and telling and original pieces of work if limited perhaps in scope – that’s fine. But the more who can turn their minds to popular history the better. After all, there is a huge market out there.
My personal experience is that the more academics link with local societies, local individuals who are interested in history [the better]. I’ve always myself gone out of my way to accept invitations to talk to county history societies, local history societies. You name it, all sorts of societies and groups. They come in all sorts of shapes and guises. And when I was an undergraduate I was conscious that in Bristol they did a lot of that. In Swansea even more. We were all encouraged to take part in community activities, spreading the gospel if you like. Pandering to an interest in history. Supporting societies of one sort or another who almost invariably were extremely grateful.
I may be wrong here but my sense here is that with the calls on academics’ time nowadays in the direction of research and the modes of assessment and so forth this is one area that tends to go by the board a little, And there’s less of it.
Similarly my own experience is that it’s valuable to join the committees of county history societies, local history societies: enterprises that advance in the community, for the public at large, an awareness of a sense of history. And I think a lot of academics still do that. I certainly do.
PO: And it’s maintaining the roots of the subject as well.
RG: It certainly is, indeed yes. And after all, they are the taxpayers too. We mustn’t forget that. And that’s the bedrock of our culture isn’t it? If you don’t feed their aspirations or ambitions people may not be fully aware of their aspirations, if you don’t feed these at ground-level. Similarly, interpreting the history that’s around them, helping to do that, is a very important function of university historians.
PO: And I suppose connected to that my penultimate question was concerned with the teaching of history in schools, which obviously is another area where the roots of the academic subject are fed, and whether you’d noticed any changes arising from any developments in the teaching of history in schools over time?
RG: Well, I’m no expert at this. I go to schools, well I used to, I used to go to schools quite often and give talks. For long after I started teaching the syllabuses were stable. The system of syllabuses was stable. The individual syllabuses themselves changed a bit, and from the 1970s onwards they began to change with great rapidity. And I recall being one of the university representatives on what in Wales was the Welsh Joint Education Committee which was the board in Wales responsible for devising syllabuses and examinations and so forth at A-level and O-level. And we had the most fearsome debates then about the changes that were taking place.
But other than that I wouldn’t want to pontificate about what’s done in schools. I do feel however that teachers have a hard time. I think they are the victims in all this. Not the kids, not the universities that take on kids afterwards, but teachers have a very hard time keeping up with all the changes in syllabuses, many of which are devised in particular subjects without their knowledge and without their input and without their advice.
The big change which took place, which has been regretted since, was to abandon survey courses and instead go for little bits drawn here and there, unconnected. The aim being to inculcate the research element into schools. To give them a taste of what being historian is like, which is a very worthy ambition, but I know it resulted in students not at all clear that William the Conqueror was in the 11th century and not the 17th century and similar oddities of that sort.
PO: In the absence of a framework?
RG: Yes. We seem to be moving away from the more extreme examples of that.
As for the preparation of students when they come to university, yes I had noticed a change. It’s linked to what we’ve just been talking about. The parameters that students were aware of in history suddenly shrank. They had no idea of vast swathes of history, and their general knowledge, which you pick up in all sorts of other ways, was poor. So one found oneself having to adjust one’s teaching at university. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you had to adjust your teaching, perhaps be more skilful in a way in the first year in dealing with students, in order to provide what previously had been provided in school.
I think here maybe the shift from radio to television had, on reflection, an unfortunate effect on youngsters. I’m not sure from the 1980s onwards how often kids in school listened to the radio. And that’s important, much more important I suspect, than television in advancing their general knowledge. Simply because you have to purposefully listen to the radio whilst you can just sit in front of the television and you may or may not take in what is being said.
PO: It’s the difference between an active and a passive pursuit.
RG: Yes. That’s a big change that has taken place. It had the unfortunate effect probably of not giving university students the wherewithal to make their freedom of choice as widely as they might in choosing what aspects of history to study. But I wouldn’t by any means want to condemn what has happened in schools. I have a lot of sympathy for school teachers and the demands that are placed upon them, and their frustrations very often in not being able to, not control, but have a contribution to make to the changes that they have to implement.
PO: That’s all very interesting. And I wanted to end by just briefly asking you if you had anything to say about the future of the discipline – either the discipline or the profession itself?
RG: Oh dear, you’re asking a historian now to predict the future.
PO: That’s been the get out clause of most people.
RG: Yes, we’re not supposed to do that. We’re trained not to do it.
I suppose I’d say that I am optimistic about the place of history in a civilised society, which we still are. I’m encouraged by some of the developments that take place sometimes despite those who are masterminding things from government. I’m encouraged by the great explosion of interest in the historic environment. As the threats to our environment get greater, it strikes me that the public, including academics, are more conscious, and remain conscious, of the environment as a historic environment, something that has conditioned us and we are conditioning. So I’m encouraged by that.
I’m encouraged by the publishing world. Though publishing in history has always been a very confused profession, nevertheless it’s an aspect of this public interest. I’m encouraged by the amount of publishing of history, not all good of course, that is taking place, especially the numbers of small publishers popping up all the time. Sometimes they disappear, or are amalgamated, or taken over by others, but I’m encouraged by the number of outlets.
Certainly when I began teaching there were far fewer publishing outlets, whether it was journals, or publishers of books. Nowadays there is a far greater array. You could say too many very often. Coming up on the train I was reading a manuscript for an article, disappointing in a way, for a journal. A disappointing one perhaps, nevertheless I edit a series of volumes and I edited the Welsh History Review, and I must say the quality of material is high that comes across your desk in many cases. So that’s an encouragement.
Universities: I was a Pro-Vice-Chancellor for some years so I saw things from the inside but also the relationships with the institutions that managed our affairs. I’m less optimistic I suppose there. Governments have become more interventionist and nowadays they want to interfere, despite what they say, and they want to intervene. And that’s fine because they’re our governments and we elect them, but they want to intervene all the time. Because their own focus is so short-lived (scarcely more than four years I suppose) they want to intervene all the time, they want to do things, to leave legacies, to alter things. And that is proving I think a heavy burden for universities to handle.
After all, universities when you look at them are physical things with huge buildings. They can’t alter buildings every four years and their uses, and they can’t suddenly build halls of residence or afford them in order to take in vast numbers of students. They can’t sack people in history in order to employ more physicists. All these things are impractical. So I’m not entirely optimistic. I’m not pessimistic about it but I’m less optimistic. There are struggles to be gone through. But as long as we continue to employ and give space in our society for thinking scholars then the country will be in good hands. And as far as I can see, though we may not be very sensible sometimes in organising our scholars so they make the best contribution to society, nevertheless we appear to be still living in a civilised society, that puts a high premium on scholars, academics, scientists, of all descriptions, and I can’t see that altering. So that’s an encouragement.
PO: Well, perhaps that reassuring thought is a good place to finish, so Professor, thanks you very much indeed.
RG: Thank you.