Project Officer: This interview is being conducted for the
‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’, and the Project Officer
Danny Millum will be speaking to Professor Quentin Skinner about his
experience of, and views on, changes in the discipline and the academic
profession of history.
Professor Skinner, may we start with you giving us some brief biographical information?
Quentin Skinner: Yes, certainly. I was born near Manchester in 1940. My father was a colonial administrator, who spent his career in west Africa, and my mother before her marriage was a school teacher. My family background was Scottish, but I was born and educated in England, where I have spent almost the whole of my life. I am married to Susan James, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of London, and we have two grown-up children.
PO: How did you come into the profession?
QS: I came into the profession in large part through a desire to be a teacher. When I left school, I had some months spare before going up to Cambridge, and I spent that time teaching in a Secondary Modern School near Maidstone in Kent. I found it very demanding, partly because I was teaching students who were scarcely younger than myself. I was eighteen, but in some of my classes the boys and girls were fifteen. The classes were sometimes as much as forty in size, and they were of course mixed, which was also new to me, as I had spent my life up to that point in a single-sex boarding school.
This initial experience certainly didn’t make me cease to want to be a teacher, although it did make me wonder if I could cope with being a school teacher. When I got to University, I was strongly encouraged by several of my supervisors to consider an academic career, and this seemed such a natural development out of my earlier ambitions that I never considered any other profession -- and I should add that I have never regretted my choice.
What I found surprising was how easily I gained admission to the profession. I came from a very fortunate generation, the one that graduated soon after the implementation of the Robbins Report on higher education. When I went up to Cambridge in 1959, only about four percent of young people were receiving a University education. After the Robbins Report was adopted, that figure rose to thirteen percent. One consequence was that the profession of University teaching had to rise in numbers to keep pace. A more specific consequence, which might have been foreseen, was that a large number of very able people in mid-career at such major research Universities as Cambridge, London and Oxford found themselves, with some suddenness, Professors at the new Universities. This created a vacuum in the older Universities into which young scholars like myself very easily stepped.
My own story is that Christ’s College in the summer of 1962 lost one of its principal teaching Fellows, John Kenyon, in just the way I’ve described. He went off at very short notice to a Professorship, and the College was left looking for a Fellow to teach the freshmen, who were due to arrive in a matter of weeks. I had taken my B.A. in June 1962, and by October I was installed as a Fellow of Christ’s, a position I have occupied ever since. I was twenty-one years old, and I not only didn’t have a PhD, but I didn’t have any University teaching experience at all. I was marked out simply because I had done well in my Final examinations. That was, in those days, felt to be enough.
PO: So, very different from the procedure as it would operate nowadays?
QS: It would be impossible now, I think, to gain a teaching position in any English University without a PhD. Whereas I still have no PhD, and upon my appointment was simply trusted to get on with my own research in my own way.
PO: We might come back to that a little later on with the changes in the nature of the profession and entry into the profession. But you’ve explained there why it was you wanted to be a teacher. I was wondering if you could explain why it was history that you wanted to teach?
QS: I’m not really sure that I did in fact want to teach history. When I was planning to go to University I hovered between applying in history and in philosophy, and I only chose history because I won a Scholarship in that subject and was persuaded, I am sure rightly, that I would be more likely to do well in history than in philosophy. Then I found to my delight that, in the Historical Tripos at Cambridge, it was possible to specialise, particularly in the second part of the course, in the history of philosophy, and above all in the history of moral and political philosophy. When I started to teach, I was required to supervise in a broad range of subjects, but it was only the intellectual history options that I really wanted to teach. I don’t think I was ever very successful in teaching the other subjects at all.
PO: And could you tell us a little bit about your influences both from the philosophy side and the history side?
QS: Yes, certainly, but maybe it would make good sense to divide my answer into intellectual and personal influences. When I was a teenager I was already passionately interested in the history of ideas, and I found for myself two writers who exercised a very strong influence upon my intellectual development, although neither of them was part of any syllabus. One was Bertrand Russell, whose History of Western Philosophy I read and re-read at school until I knew quite a lot of it by heart. This book introduced me to a world of thought I had never known about before, and I can still recall the excitement with which I read the early chapters on ancient philosophy. But another reason why I admired the book so much was that it seemed to me -- and it still seems to me -- a marvel of English prose. Russell won the Nobel Prize, and he won it for literature, and surely quite rightly. One could never hope to come anywhere near to emulating his style, but for me it has always remained a model of academic prose. The other philosopher I want to mention is R. G. Collingwood, who was chiefly interested in questions about interpretation and historical explanation. I first read him at school too, and although I’m not sure that I understood at the time what he was arguing, he subsequently exercised a very direct influence on my own approach to studying the history of ideas.
If I were now to say something about personal influences, I would have to single out one very remarkable school teacher, John Eyre, who taught me English literature as well as History for several years. John and I always remained in touch, right up to the time of his death only a couple of years ago, and I owe him a tremendous debt. He was a true intellectual, interested in a broad range of academic subjects, and also a person of deep and radical political commitments. He introduced me to much of English poetry and drama as well as teaching me English and European history, and he inspired me and very many others whom he taught. I had some very gifted teachers at Cambridge as well, of course, but no one who made such a profound and lasting impression on me as John Eyre.
The other personal influences that shaped my early career arose within my peer group in Cambridge, which contained some immensely talented people who went on to distinguished careers in academic life. Among these was John Dunn, one of my exact contemporaries, who like me has taught at Cambridge throughout his career. When we first began to do research we used to talk endlessly about our projects, and he had a great influence on my early work.
PO: And in terms of the progression of your ideas, are there other figures that came to be influences as obviously your ideas and your thinking evolved and changed?
QS: Yes, undoubtedly. When I started out, the study of intellectual history was generally felt to be of marginal significance. The Cambridge history syllabus was heavily slanted towards traditional political history, and the other parts of the course that were really felt to matter were social and especially economic history. The impact of these emphases on intellectual history was fairly dire, especially because the political as well as the economic historians tended to operate with a kind of Marxist approach. I don’t mean they were actually Marxists, but they certainly accepted the Marxist assumption that the beliefs and principles we invoke to justify our actions are nothing but rationalisations, and consequently play no independent role in the explanation of our behaviour. The effect of these assumptions was to make the study of intellectual history seem marginal at best, and probably irrelevant to the study of historical change.
There were, however, some major figures who were important to me when I was first starting out, and I’d like to single out three names. One was Peter Laslett, who published while I was an undergraduate his classic edition of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. Laslett’s research was methodologically as well as historically important to me, because he tried to place Locke’s text within the precise historical context that made sense of Locke’s preoccupations and commitments. I already believed in the need for such an approach, largely through my reading of Collingwood (who must surely have influenced Laslett too). But Laslett’s edition seemed to me -- and still seems to me -- to exemplify the approach brilliantly. A second name I want to mention is that of Keith Thomas. I still recall reading his essay on the social origins of Hobbes’s political theory, which was published shortly after I began research on Hobbes’s philosophy myself. I was amazed by its sheer learning, and exhilarated by its success in situating Hobbes’s thinking within its ideological context. The third name is in some ways the most important to me, and is that of John Pocock, who trained at Cambridge but subsequently worked in the United States. His first book, which appeared in 1957 under the title The Ancient Constitution and the Feual Law, was one that I was directed to read as an undergraduate. It made a profound impression on me, again by showing how political thinking is not an activity that stands apart from politics but is part of politics itself.
PO: And it was yourself and John Pocock that, perhaps, became the most noted of what was called the Cambridge school?
QS: I’m not sure if there is really a ‘Cambridge School’, and I’m not sure that John Pocock and I agree except at the most general level about historical method. But it is certainly true that, in the course of the 1960s, a number of people began to write the history of philosophy, and intellectual history more generally, in a new and different style. Rather than focusing on a procession of great texts and examining their internal coherence and the truth-claims they put forward, an attempt was instead made to situate such texts within the intellectual contexts in which they had been formed. John Dunn and I were both part of this movement. I took Hobbes and John took Locke. John got off the blocks a lot quicker than me, and by 1969 he had published his classic monograph, The Political Thought of John Locke, in which this approach was so influentially put into practice.
PO: So in that sense it is more some shared methodological approaches you might have taken rather than a concrete institution? For the purpose of this project we’re interested in looking at significant institutions and organizations as well as people within the development of history. In your particular field, are there any institutions that have played a role such as that?
QS: I would want to distinguish institutions from organisations, especially if by institutions you simply mean Universities. Some Universities have always taken the study of intellectual history seriously, especially in the United States. For a long time this kind of study has flourished in such major centres as Chicago, Harvard and Princeton. As I have already said, this was not so much the case in England when I first started out. The study of intellectual history and political theory were both marginalised by the views on historical method then prevailing. The rise of these subjects to greater popularity has been part of a wider trend that has seen the study of cultural history grow to a position of almost hegemonic importance.
If I were to speak of organisations apart from University institutions, I should want to single out the role of the Cambridge University Press, which has played a crucial part in popularising the kind of history we are talking about. This has largely been due to the inspiration of two remarkable publishers. First, Jeremy Mynott, who until recently was head of the Press, and latterly Richard Fisher, who is now in charge of Humanities and Social Science publishing there.
I have myself worked closely with both these publishers in helping to run two series that have done as much as anything to raise the profile of my subject. Early in the 1980s Jeremy Mynott set up a series called Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, which was originally edited by Professor Richard Tuck, Professor Raymond Geuss and myself. We commissioned editions and translations in which major works of political theory were not only made more readily available but were edited in such a way as to situate them within their intellectual contexts. To date we have published well over a hundred such volumes, and the series continues to grow. Soon after this Jeremy Mynott set up the series called Ideas in Context, which I currently co-edit with Professor James Tully. From the general title you can infer what we are trying to do, and so far we have published nearly a hundred monographs written in what I might call a contextualising style. By the way, if I think about these editorial teams -- Guess, Tuck, Tully and myself -- I begin to feel that there may indeed be a ‘Cambridge School’ after all.
PO: And you alluded before to the decline of the Marxist approach and the rise of cultural approaches in history. I was wondering if you could maybe speak in a little more detail, with regard to the realm of the history of ideas, what you think are the major debates or points of contention in this area since you’ve been working in it?
QS: One major contention has been about the point or purpose of studying the history of philosophy. As a result, there have been extensive discussions about questions of method in this particular sub-discipline. This is because the question of what you think the point of the subject is, and the question of how you think the subject should be approached, are obviously closely linked.
When I first started out, there was general agreement about the point of studying the history of philosophy. There were held to be certain texts that are worth studying because they raise questions or put forward theories that seem immediately relevant to us. Once you turn the history of philosophy into genuine history, however, and instead ask why particular ideas arose at particular times, then questions about what we might take to be the truth or falsity of those ideas tend to assume a secondary place. One continuing debate has therefore been about how historically-minded the history of philosophy should be, and whether the effect of making it a fully historical subject undermines the point of studying it.
I myself think that this alleged dichotomy is a misleading one, simply because the historical study of past philosophies often throws up questions that may be of current philosophical interest simply because they do not address questions that we currently ask, or else because they address familiar questions but offer unfamiliar answers. To write history is not in the least to stop doing philosophy; rather it is a way of doing philosophy, of raising questions that either have or ought to have relevance for us here and now. That this is so is important to me, for I think that historians ought to be willing to explain why the study of the past matters, and I don’t feel that they ask that question often enough.
A second area of contention arose out of post-structuralist critiques of traditional humanistic scholarship. During the 1960s, Barth and Foucault were already placing a question-mark against the figure of the author, and urging us to study discourses rather than individual authors and texts. During the 1970s Derrida became celebrated for raising radical doubts about our capacity to offer interpretations of texts at all. He popularised a tendency to emphasise ambiguity, lack of closure, the impossibility of ever ascribing intentions to authors with any degree of assurance. For a time this approach enjoyed an immense vogue, especially in the United States. I should add that, while these movements gave rise to sometimes bitter debates, I myself sympathised to a considerable degree with much of what these post-structuralists wanted to say.
PO: You say that there are instances where your thinking chimes with those of poststructuralists – are there points at which you would diverge from the concerns of poststructuralists, or other postmodernists?
QS: Yes, I diverge from them in several ways. First of all, I do not want completely to dispose of the traditional figure of the author. I want to retain the notion of authorial intentionality to help account for processes of conceptual change. It is sometimes possible to identify moments in the history of philosophy when a new theme emerges, or a new way of thinking about an established concept or argument is introduced. It is hard to write satisfactory history unless we are willing to acknowledge that individual authors may sometimes stand behind such changes, and indeed may serve to explain them.
A further point of divergence is that I baulk at the deconstructionist tendency to repudiate the possibility of textual interpretation, to replace it with nothing more than a map of misreadings. Derrida never preached this excess, but some of his epigoni undoubtedly did, and the eventual effect was I think to efface the differences between texts in a rather boring way. After a while, it seems to me, it ceases to be very interesting to be told that yet another author turns out not to be fully in control of their own texts. There are other things that seem more worth saying, and I’m thankful to add that in recent times they are being said all over again as the deconstructionist tide has ebbed away. I need to reiterate, however, that the post-modernist movements I’ve mentioned seem to me to have been of great value and interest, and they certainly changed my own practice as an historian in a number of ways.
PO: And you mentioned there continental philosophers, and their acceptance in American university spheres. How do you see these ideas as being taken up in this country by historians here, who at least allegedly have been seen as more resistant to theory? Do you think this is still the case or …?
QS: I can’t generalise about the historical profession as a whole, although there has, I think, been a philistine tradition of brute empiricism in English historiography which has always been resistant to theoretical reflection of any kind. Within my own sub-discipline, however, there is currently a very high degree of methodological self-consciousness. Too high, some of my colleagues want to insist. I am regularly accused of spending too much time pontificating about method and not enough time writing history.
PO: And if we move now to talk about the profession in general a little bit, I’ve got some more questions on this.
QS: Yes. That’s good.
PO: So I thought I’d fire them at you, and see how we go with those.
QS: Yes, yes.
PO: To start with, a question that I have been asking everyone in these interviews, is I wonder what you think about the pressures in academics and how they’ve changed during your career?
QS: Well, the pressures have certainly changed. In some ways I think they have eased. When I first became a University teacher, the possibility of taking more leave from one’s duties than was allowed by the traditional sabbatical system was out of the question. Nowadays there are far more opportunities for lifting yourself out of the ordinary rut of teaching and administration to concentrate exclusively on your research. Here I should like to pay tribute to the Leverhulme Foundation, which has made huge sums of money available to grant special leave to researchers in the humanities. And the government’s funding agencies have been supplying far more in the way of such opportunities as well.
It seems to me true, however, that in some ways the pressures have increased. It appears to be widely agreed that there is an increased pressure to publish. I cannot say, however, that this is a pressure I have ever felt myself. I have always been interested in publishing my research, and I do not feel that the introduction of the government’s Research Assessment exercise much affected my practice. Like very many others, I was already doing what was asked. It is certainly true, however, that the level at which our research is now monitored is preposterously detailed, and there is no need for it. If the government merely wishes to know -- and it seems to me that it has every right to know -- whether public money is being properly spent by those engaged in academic research, then it doesn’t need anything like the huge paraphernalia of investigation to which we are currently subjected, and which wastes so much of everyone’s time.
I don’t want to sound unduly complacent, though. I have certainly experienced an increase of pressure in my professional life in recent times, and in at least two ways. One is that we all play a far larger role nowadays in the administration of our Departments and Universities. It’s true that no democrat can really object to this change, for it largely stems from democratic demands for greater transparency and accountability. Anyone who joined the profession as long ago as I did can assure you that better accountability was urgently needed a generation ago. There’s no doubt, however, that meeting this need has resulted in a great deal more in the way of form-filling, appraising, mentoring, monitoring, and sitting on seemingly endless committees.
The other increase in pressure stems from the fact that, at some point in the early 1990s, many Universities shifted from being mainly devoted to undergraduate teaching to being at last as much concerned with training students for graduate degrees. My own University set up a number of so-called taught Masters courses about fifteen years ago, and since that time we have all had to contribute to a three-tier system of teaching instead of the traditional two tiers of undergraduates and PhD students. The graduates we teach in our Masters programmes need a great deal of attention, and we provide them with this teaching on top of our normal teaching loads. The resulting burden seems to get heavier by the year. On the other hand, many of these MPhil students are wonderfully gifted young people, so that it’s also a privilege to teach them -- and, I should add, to learn from them too.
PO: You’ve mentioned certain things which allude to this question I want to ask, namely what your views were on the institutional changes that have occurred since the 1960s?
QS: Yes, well, the institutional changes in my own University since the 1960s have been very extensive. One important change we discussed at the start of our talk, namely that the profession has grown in size, and that Departments of History have consequently enlarged. When I joined the Cambridge Faculty of History in the 1960s there were forty-three tenured academic staff; now there are fifty-four, a very considerable growth in percentage terms.
A second important change has been that greater justice has been done to women who have wished to become professional historians. Since you are asking for my views about the institutional changes that have taken place, I should add that, while this development has been hugely beneficial, there still seems to me a long way to go. When I joined the Cambridge Faculty of History, among the forty-three academic staff, only two were women. Now, out of fifty-four, there are sixteen women. This is obviously a big improvement, but equally obviously it is not big enough.
The most important change in the Faculty of History at Cambridge since I joined has been in the percentage of women undergraduates reading History. When I took my Finals in 1962, only eight percent of the graduating class were women; now the ratio would be almost exactly fifty-fifty. The change began to take place in the late 1970s, when the men’s Colleges at Cambridge finally opened their doors to women entrants. Most Colleges now have a roughly equal gender balance, and this has been the greatest institutional change in Cambridge in my lifetime. A change immensely for the better, obviously, for the failure to give women equal educational rights was not merely an affront to justice but a loss of a deep reservoir of talent.
One other obvious institutional change has stemmed from two developments we have already discussed: the demands of governments for greater accountability, and the decision of Universities to expand graduate education. One outcome has been that we now have enormously larger University bureaucracies. When I joined the Cambridge Faculty of History, it employed a single administrative officer; now it employs fourteen We need them all, and they work very hard, but it’s an astonishing measure of the extent to which -- and the speed with which -- Universities have been bureaucratised.
PO: And that’s a point that other people that I’ve spoken to have made, comparing academic and administrative staff in that way, so that is quite interesting.
QS: Yes, I’m sure.
PO: I wanted to bring you back to a topic we have discussed to a certain extent, but maybe from a slightly different angle. I was wondering if you had any views on how the relationship between teaching and research had changed?
QS: That’s a very interesting question, but I have to be a little careful in giving my answer because I am very conscious of the fact that I’ve spent my entire career in a highly elite University. With that large proviso, I would say that there has been very little change, for I have always been able to base my teaching on my research.
QS: I should add that I have always taken as much advantage as I could of that possibility. My first book, which was called The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, originated in a course of lectures I gave in the sixties under the same title. I’m not saying that the book was a product of the lectures; it was a product of the lectures and of several years’ more work. But the obligation to give the lectures forced me to clarify the issues I then handled in the book.
If there has been a change, I would say that it has been in the direction of making it even easier to base one’s teaching on one’s research. When I first started lecturing in Cambridge, you were expected to cover a much broader span of time and range of topics than would nowadays be thought appropriate, so that one’s lectures were more in the nature of text-book outlines than drafts of monographs. Now the opposite is often the case. For example, in the Cambridge History Faculty we offer a range of so-called Special Subjects to our final-year students, which are very detailed courses. I have been teaching one of these for the past four years, and in that time I have been working up my lectures into a book, which I have just published. The relationship in this case between my lectures and my book is so close that I couldn’t now give that course of lectures again.
PO: It’s been covered in the book now?
QS: It’s been covered in the book. However, so far I have been talking about the relations between lecturing and research. If we shift to seminar teaching, or to what in Cambridge is known as supervision (tutorials on a one-to-one basis), then it seems to me that the pressures and demands upon teachers have risen, and that these demands tend very seriously to get in the way of research. Students nowadays expect far more in the way of discussion, bibliographical help, written comments on their work. Cambridge supervisors have to work harder than ever to keep up with the bodies of secondary literature they have to master if they are to remain competent to teach the spectrum of subjects that’s expected of them.
PO: And, in turn, students in these tutorials would therefore not necessarily be receiving the benefits of someone’s research because they were being taught by someone who was, to a certain extent, stepping outside their field of specialization?
QS: That is true, although it is also true that the tutorial system has now become more professional than it was when I was an undergraduate. It used to be assumed that you would be taught within your own College, but now the Colleges swap students in elaborate exchanges of teaching expertise. Nevertheless, what you say is still basically correct. If, for example, a student is studying a subject like (say) ‘The History of Political Theory before 1700’ (to cite the title of a course I have frequently taught) they would still find themselves being taught by someone whose professional expertise covered only a fraction of that field.
PO: Moving to a broader perspective, I was wondering if you had observed any particular trends in the popularity of different periods or approaches? Any trends or any changes over the time that you’ve been in the profession?
QS: I’ve noticed many trends of this character, and we touched on some of them earlier. One important change is that the hegemony of political history, and to a lesser extent of social and economic history, has dissolved. A second and perhaps associated change is that the sort of cultural history in which I am interested has become more popular. Indeed I notice that many political historians have been re-branding themselves as students of political culture. We are now living in a culture in which texts have come to occupy a place of central importance -- texts in the broad sense in which paintings and buildings no less than poems and philosophical treatises can be viewed and interpreted as texts.
A second trend one cannot fail to notice is that most students arrive from school having specialised in very recent periods of history. Since students nowadays tend to play very safe, they tend to continue along the same tram-lines, so that it sometimes feels as if the study of modern European history is shrinking to the study of the rise of Fascism. Much less ancient and Medieval history is studied than when I was an undergraduate, and to some extent the early-modern period is being deserted too.
PO: And, alongside those observations you’re making there, is there anything else you could observe on the effects of changes in the teaching of history in schools? Obviously viewing it as it leads through to the university system, I suppose.
QS: Yes. Again I can speak only from my own perspective. If you ask in general terms about History in schools, there seems no doubt that the subject is in decline. Fewer students take History at A-level every year. On the other hand, the kind of history in which I am interested is benefiting from the recent introduction of Philosophy as an A-level subject, since much of the course is devoted in effect to studying the history of ideas.
The main change that affects the kind of history I teach is the decline of language teaching in schools. When I was first lecturing in Cambridge, you could assume that everyone in your audience would have a fairly good command of Latin. Nowadays hardly anyone knows any Latin at all. This is serious, for it is hard to teach early-modern philosophy to students who have no understanding of the language in which so much of it was written.
PO: Do you think that is a consequence of a decline in language teaching or partly because universities now draw a from a much wider cohort, and as a consequence it might well have been the case that people outside the grammar schools were never being taught languages?
QS: I wish it were true that the universities are drawing from a much wider cohort. I cannot generalize about the whole University system, of course. But I am very aware, as I confront my undergraduate seminar year after year, that the socio-economic status of undergraduates at Cambridge has changed embarrassingly little since the 1960s. The fact that there has been no proper investment by a succession of governments in secondary schooling, and thus that the salaries of school teachers have not kept pace, has made the Universities far more the prisoners than they should be of the independent school system. I myself went to an independent school, as I confessed at the outset, and I received an excellent education there. But in my view the entire system of independent schooling ought to be abolished by law. I speak simply as a democrat. The present system is profoundly unfair, and it must be losing our society a great deal of talent as well.
I feel strongly that something is seriously wrong with admissions to the elite universities in this country. I can’t exactly put my finger on it, because if you talk to Admissions Tutors it’s not that they generally disagree. They spend a great deal of time and intelligence in trying to outwit the injustices built into our system. But until we do something about the independent schools -- a system that’s virtually unknown in continental Europe and the United States -- we cannot hope to democratize our Universities. So that’s the first thing I would want to say, although in effect it refuses the premise of your question.
PO: Or rather indicates, I suppose quite correctly, that there is a difference between the elite universities and the other universities, where given that the number of young people going to university increased rapidly, particularly following the 1960’s, the 1990’s. there has been an opening up. It’s interesting for you to point out that this has not been reflected at Cambridge, and presumably at Oxford as well.
QS: I’m not sure about current statistics, but I think that Oxford may have an even worse record than Cambridge in preferring students from the independent sector. But in any case both Universities are guilty as charged. However, I am sure you must be right that, more generally, there has been an opening up of the University system to talent from all quarters. In fact that must be the case, for we are now educating more than thirty percent of the age cohort at University level, whereas a generation ago, as I said earlier, it was less than a sixth of that figure.
To go back to the point about the teaching of languages, the decline has I think been the product of wider cultural changes, which I certainly see reflected in the lives of my own children. When they were students they travelled all over the world, but their experience was that, wherever they went, they could hope to make themselves understood by speaking English. This has been a great change in my own lifetime. When my work on the Italian Renaissance first won attention in Italy, and when I was invited to speak about it in Italian Universities, I was expected to be able to lecture in Italian; likewise, when I was first invited to lecture in France, I was expected to speak French. But now I am welcome to use my own language. It is hardly surprising, then, that students whose first language is English are not strongly motivated to learn other languages: they simply do not encounter the need.
PO: That’s really interesting, and we could go on discussing various aspects of that. But I wanted to ask you another question now, again coming from a completely different angle, and that is whether you had any views on how the relationship between academic and popular history has changed?
QS: That’s a very interesting question, and I think I have a number of reflections to make. One way in which the relationship has changed has been due to the increasing popularity of biography. Few serious professional historians used to write biographies. Perhaps the rise of biography has had something to do with the decline of Marxism. No Marxist cares about biography, as individuals are not felt to be significant vectors of social change. But in our intensely individualist culture there has come to be a large public for serious biography, and many academic historians are now writing in that genre.
A second change in the relationship between academic and popular history has obviously been due to television. A few serious historians showed themselves masters of that medium at an early stage, most famously A. J .P. Taylor. But nowadays a far larger number of academic historians use the medium to powerful effect. It’s true that the resulting programmes tend to be rather conservative in approach, generally taking the form of biographies or political narratives. But in the hands of someone like Simon Schama, a true story-teller with a wonderful control of the language, the result can be a genuine fusion of academic and popular history.
I confess, however, that I’m not happy with the way in which the distinction between academic and popular history nowadays tends to be deployed. The term ‘academic history’ is too often used to denigrate books that are held to lack a wide readership, while younger scholars are encouraged by trade publishers to write for a more popular market and thereby increase their sales. But there’s something of an irony here. Sometimes it’s the academic books that turn out to have the larger sales, simply because they are put on University book-lists and often continue to sell for decades. By contrast, the purportedly popular books often seem, after an initial fanfare, to sink without trace, simply because they are of no value in training University students.
I suppose what I’m saying is that I don’t like the invidious distinction which is increasingly drawn between those who write ‘merely for the profession’, who are thereby said to address a miserably small audience, and those write ‘for a broader audience’. One reason I don’t like the distinction is that it often seems to me a self-deceiving one. If I think about my own case, then I certainly write with a professional audience of colleagues and students exclusively in mind. But this is in fact a very large audience, especially once one’s books begin to be translated. I probably sell more copies in Chinese than in English.
PO: Good market to get into.
QS: It certainly is a good market to get into, but my point is that it’s a large academic market. What I’m questioning is the assumption that, if you write only for the profession, you are necessarily addressing only a very small number of readers. Several of my own books, for example, are available in over twenty languages, and they probably reach as large an audience as many works conceived for a so-called ‘popular’ readership. I’m beginning to sound vainglorious, but the general point I’m trying to make is that the distinction between ‘academic’ and ‘popular’ history isn’t necessarily a distinction in size of audience.
PO: And do you see that as being another process that has changed? You’re talking about the translations of your work appearing and finding a market, do you find that is different from when you were originally writing and publishing?
QS: Undoubtedly, yes. It seems to me that the readership for the kind of books I write has grown throughout my lifetime. That has certainly been my own experience. But I don’t think this is because there are more translations than there used to be. In fact translating has become so expensive that the opposite is probably the case. The growth of readership is partly due, I suspect, to the fact that English has recently become such an international language. But a further reason is undoubtedly that most of the rich countries are nowadays educating a much larger percentage of their young people at University level than they used to, and students still buy books.
PO: And I’ve got one last question for you, which is of a much more speculative nature, just wondering what thoughts you might have on the future of the discipline?
QS: The future of the discipline. Well, my general thoughts about the future are gloomy at the moment. I’m shocked by the incapacity of late capitalism to come to terms with the fact that it turns out to be so self-destructive. Although it’s a cliché, it’s also true that, unless we radically change our patterns of production and consumption, there may not be a future for our civilisation at all. I’m aware that it’s very common for people, as they get older, to get more pessimistic, but I don’t think that’s generally true in my own case. However, I am undoubtedly becoming increasingly pessimistic about our willingness, and hence our ability, to live our lives in a such way as to enable our habitat to continue to accommodate us. Those are somewhat apocalyptic reflections, but they need to preface anything more specific I try to say about the future.
Speaking about the future of the historical profession, I’d like to
end by offering two contrasting thoughts. One is that I do not believe
the future of history as a University subject to be a rosy one. The
subject is in decline, partly I think because it is being narrowly taught
in schools, with far too much emphasis on very recent history, and partly
because it has more rivals than it used to have within University syllabuses.
Students who want to learn about other cultures can study anthropology
or classics; students who want to examine long-term social and political
trends can study politics or sociology; students who want a generally
humane training nowadays turn in increasing numbers to the study of
On the other hand, I feel more confident about the future of the kind of history in which I am interested. The history of western philosophy remains of interest to a wide range of people in a way that the history of what Gladstone said to Disraeli does not. I see a continuing role for intellectual history, and more broadly cultural history, in a more globalised world, in which ideas will continue to be shared although local traditions may increasingly die out. So that, perhaps, is a less gloomy note on which to end.
PO: Professor Quentin Skinner, thank you very much.
QS: Well, thank you very much.