How does a student of history write his or her essays? Typically I gather information and evidence, recommended by lecturers in lectures and seminars or presented on a long reading list, to inform a potential answer to an essay question. Reviewing the primary sources as well as the many books and journal articles written by today's historians, I put together an argument in response to the question.
This, I admit, is lazy history. Here I am, like many other students, cramming in the hard research of a number of renowned scholars into a few thousands words of argument. The long books, the products of weeks and months of an academic's labour, are plundered for a few pages of relevant detail, then cast aside.
R. G. Collingwood calls this scissors-and-paste history: the process of reading the arguments and ideas of respected past historians in order to compose an argument of your own. There is no creativity, no individual interpretation of each source, but the restatement of established norms and thoughts about the past. We are cutting out the ideas of Carr, Hobsbawm, Figes, Taylor and so on and pasting them into our own essays.
"Many people, even some historians, believe that this is a fair description of history," Collingwood writes in The Idea of History. "They think that historical writing means copying out selected passages from trustworthy authorities, and that to be a good historian means remembering a great many things that you have read in such books." A little bit of this kind of "blind reliance on authority" is acceptable: if historians went around disputing the basic claims, they would be wasting a lot of time. Many historians use others' work as a starting point and build on it. But this isn't real history. "The real business of history," Collingwood goes on, "begins when this dogmatic stage is left behind and historical thought becomes critical." Historians start making active contributions to the discipline when they stop happily nodding to accepted theories or recycling old ideas and make their own judgments about sources.
But, for the moment at least, I cannot accept Collingwood's argument. What choice do students of history have but to engage in scissors-and-paste history? We enter the study of history as non-experts in our fields; it is natural that we seek guidance in the arguments of previous scholars, who have had the opportunity to study the evidence carefully for a much longer period of time than three years of undergraduate study.
Last year, for one academic term, I studied American history from 1776 - 1877, having never studied American history before besides the American involvement in international politics in the post-war period, ending in the Cuban Missile Crisis. My knowledge of the period came from the tutelage of the lecturer and the seminar leader, both of whom are scholars in American political, urban and cultural history, as well as the works that were recommended during the course. I encountered the scholarship of historians such as Eric Foner, Adam Rothman, Carol Berkin, Gordon S. Wood, Jay Sexton and Don E. Fehrenbacher; and (when examining the economic consequences of the American slave trade) economic historians such as Maldwyn A. Jones, Alfred H. Conrad, John R. Meyer, Eugene D. Genovese, Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch. To an extent I was able to interpret sources myself, gaining extracts from Thomas Paine's writings and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and his electoral opponent Stephen A. Douglas; but for the large part, my knowledge of American history in the period was derived from the work and arguments of the academics I've listed above.
Where I agree with Collingwood concerns how lazy it feels to rely so much on the work of these historians when it comes to making my own arguments and writing my own essays. On the other hand, without the luxuries of time, access to an array of primary sources and the finances to fund my research and travel, do I have much choice? Students do not have the opportunity to critique the work of scholars as Collingwood might like us. I could spend thousands of words scrutinising Eric Foner, for example, but neither would I have the resources and time to do it nor would it be something asked of me. We are asked to participate in a historical debate, having researched the arguments of historians and looked at sources ourselves, but we have access mainly to the books and journals these historians have published, not necessarily the sources they had in front of them.
Of course, I do not blindly accept the authority of anyone who has acquired a doctorate or published a book. There are plenty of scholars whose work is so poor that one questions how they acquired their degrees in the first place. We are encouraged to look at the historian himself and ask what might be affecting his judgment. But, by and large, without the opportunity to adopt the months- or years-long investigations of renowned historians ourselves and come to our own conclusions about the same evidence, ordinary undergraduate students are in some ways condemned to engage in some form of scissors-and-paste history.
Collingwood's philosophy of history would best apply to me if I were an accomplished academic, writing this blog from his office at a university. It would encourage me to go beyond repeating age-old conclusions made by historians who may have judged events very differently in their day in comparison to how I would judge them. It would encourage me also to look at why historians, or indeed the people of the past, believed what they believed and why they thought what they thought. It would encourage me not to dismiss historical accounts if they included something that would be considered irrational today - for example, the diary of a medieval expedition leader who elected to change his route to avoid the demons in the mountains - and ask me to think instead why the expedition leader was worried about the demons.
But, as a student who lacks the fine knowledge of a specific historical period gained through research and rational thinking, it seems impossible for me not to defer to another authority in some way. Collingwood's argument comes over more as inspiration for budding historians - don't blindly accept what you read, don't recycle other people's arguments, think for yourself - than guidance for good historiographical practice.
History students are routinely asked to define the subject that they are studying. Often the debate is dull and difficult, culminating in a number of answers that feel as awkward as the way in which the discussion is fostered. "A study of the past," one might say; "a study of previous events using sources to inform our understanding," is getting better, but far from perfect. This is not the fault of the students, however, and I am not going to spend this post implying that History students aren't up to scratch, nor that somehow I possess the answer and other students don't. We spend three years studying history, both as an academic discipline investigating periods and elements of past societies and nations and as a discipline itself. The more we learn, both about the peoples and cultures that have gone before and about the discipline, the more our answer changes.
(The way we examine the fundamental questions about our discipline does not help. I have suffered many seminars of awkward silence after a seminar leader poses a number of questions about the nature of history. We endure painful moments of looking into each other's eyes, waiting for someone to provide an answer, a sentence or maybe a few words to satisfy the question or at least fill the void. Adding to the confusion is the decision of academics to continue hounding us with these quasi-existential questions as we are simultaneously being briefed and directed to commence our dissertations, the longest pieces of work in our three-year undergraduate degrees; therefore we end up engaging in our largest and most analytic piece of work at the same time that we are instilled with the largest doubts about what we are studying, why we bother and what, if anything, we can learn, both accurately and meaningfully, about a study of previous generations. When working in an archive, historians examine sources and the surrounding factors and context; they are not paralysed in the archive reception by grandiose questions about what an argument is, what a source is and what a society is.
Anyway, this is something for another blog post. The point, when narrowed down, is that we should not be committed to the hardest work and the largest doubt in what we are doing at the same time. There is a time and a place for philosophy of history.)
Take a look at E.H. Carr's lecture on "The Historian and His Facts" and you will be confronted with many more questions than just the question in the lecture, what is history? Not only do we realise that our place in society and time has somewhat determined how we are going to answer the question, but we also discover just how much we rely on the accounts of others to answer questions we should take pride in answering ourselves.
One of the hardest hitting points in Carr's lecture is his examination of facts. The facts that we recall and use in our essays have been called 'facts' by previous historians for one reason or another; there are plenty of other facts that have no place in the study of history. Millions of people have crossed the river known as the Rubicon, something for which historians have almost zero concern; but Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon is well-remembered, as Carr argues. Caesar could have been one of the many millions who stepped across the stream, forgotten by historians both of today and of Caesar's day, but his crossing is a key fact of history. How so? Historians have decided it to be so.
Facts are relative to the investigation at hand, something that a contemporary of Carr's, R.G. Collingwood, mentions in his earlier work on evidence. The fact that I'm writing this blog post in the university library has absolutely no relevance at all to why Napoleon's Russian campaign failed. The fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49BCE has just as little bearing on Napoloen's loss. But the Russian winter is hugely relevant to a historian examining why Napoleon did not succeed in conquering Russia. Evidence, as used in arguments, is not lying around the world, waiting to be scraped off the floor by prowling historians; evidence is relative. The evidence for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is relevant to questions concerning how Lincoln was killed, by whom, when and why, but not to the assassination of Leon Trotsky.
How are facts deemed relevant and irrelevant? Facts and evidence are totally worthless on their own. It's a fact that the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. So what? Without any questions about it, it's simply an event in history - something that happened. It tells us nothing about Germany and Poland in 1939, the international context, who the National Socialists were and for what they stood, why the invasion of Poland was a bad thing and whether it led to any larger consequences (e.g. the breakout of a large international conflict). We must "not make a fetish out of [facts]. They do not themselves constitute history; they provide in themselves no ready-made answer to this tiresome question, What Is History?" wrote Carr. Facts are useless if they are not cited in relation to something. Without asking anything about the context of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the invasion of Poland is, historically, as irrelevant as my choice of breakfast last Tuesday.
For clarity, I do not mean to suggest that the invasion of Poland and the subsequent horrors and evil of the Second World War are irrelevant or tedious; but events in history, individual facts or occurrences, do not tell the story of history themselves. "The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context," as Carr writes. We remember the events of the Second World War, both as a period of history and as a social, political and moral event, due to the opinions of the historians of the day and the scholars of today. Perhaps in a hundred or a thousand years there will be a world war twice, thrice or even ten times as destructive as the Second World War, dwarfing all conflict that had preceded it. In that era we might consider the Second World War to have been, in comparison, a minor skirmish between European nations. Alternatively, perhaps in a hundred or a thousand years, historians of the future will take a hugely different view of the Second World War. Future historians might perceive the Nazis to have been the forces of good, and describe the Second World War as a great defeat of a noble cause.
At the end of his lecture, Carr answers the question: "... it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past." Carr's answer highlights the fluid nature of our study of history. Generations judge the same thing in different ways. For example, atheism has in previous eras been a crime punishable by death in Europe, whereas now it is a respected and perhaps trendy position. The dialogue, as Carr writes, is "unending" because historians never cease to discover new things about the past which inform our understanding of our ancestors' ways of life, nor do they cease to approach the discipline with their own original ideas and mentalities.
History is also subject to constant revision and reform. Before reaching the end of his lecture, Carr rejects a primitive version of the historian's job: spending a long time gathering facts and reading old books and then composing another book based on what he has read. In fact, the historian is always reading and writing. Separating reading, or learning about the past and researching old ways, and writing leads to two fallacies: "Either you write scissors-and-paste history without meaning or significance; or you write propaganda or historical fiction, and merely use facts of the past to embroider a kind of writing which has nothing to do with history."
I have my own doubts about the inherent incompetence of scissors-and-paste history, a concept investigated greatly by Collingwood, which stem from my own beliefs on the possible objectivity of rationality. However, Carr's principle should surely be a guide for all historians and students of history: the study of history should be fluid and unending, always informed by new discoveries. The historian should always be prepared to argue from a new perspective on the basis of new evidence and should never settle for facts that have been crowned as important and unforgettable by past scholars.
There are a number of videos to be found on YouTube dedicated entirely to bashing someone else's political movement, usually in an incompetent and unfair way. Take the one below. "Girl completely steamrolls feminist with logic," the title reads. Apparently, in the course of the next few minutes, a girl effortlessly defeats a feminist in an argument using the simple tool of logic, something that, the title would suggest, is beyond a feminist.
The video shoots itself in the foot at the first word of its title.
That's not simply 'a girl'. That 'girl' is Kate Andrews, a twenty-five-year-old grown woman, the current News Editor of the Institute of Economic Affairs and formerly Head of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute. She has appeared on numerous television channels, appeared at conferences and written several articles and columns for newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and the Times. Kate Andrews is not just 'a girl' and I bet she wouldn't like to be introduced as such, whether you are a fan of her or the Institute of Economic Affairs or not. In fact, introducing young women as 'girls' without any reference to what they do besides being of the female sex only adds strength to the feminist argument, the one that the video uploader is trying to trash.
The fact that the uploader of this video described Andrews simply as a girl would suggest that he or she knew absolutely nothing about the context of the debate - who the participants were, what they do for a living, and what had prompted the interview, for example. To the uploader, those factors weren't relevant. What mattered more was providing another example of a feminist getting into an argument and allegedly losing.
Plenty of YouTube users do this. None of the surrounding details matter when there is an opportunity to suggest that feminists, liberals, conservatives, Black Lives Matter activists or whoever are thick, or showcase a moment where they lose a debate. Somehow their loss in the debate is an indication that the entire movement of people who subscribe to the same or similar views would also lose the debate and are also a bit thick.
The fact that Kate Smurthwaite, Kate Andrews' opponent in this debate, is a feminist does not automatically and swiftly exclude her from the rest of the logic-using population of the world; nor does Kate Andrews' position in the Institute of Economic Affairs or her ideology as a free marketeer indicate that she is on a higher plane than anyone else. There are geniuses and lackwits in all ideological camps.
Imagine how the leading figures of the Republican Party must be feeling right now. Their party has been stolen from them and they can only watch as it destroys itself.
Donald Trump was not supposed to win so many primaries and caucuses. He was not meant to become the official nominee of the party. His presidential bid was meant to be a self-interested stunt, satisfying his ego and whipping up a crowd of enthusiasts to return Trump to a picture of prosperity and fame.
Few expected the rest of the story to play out as it did. Many, including myself, were expecting a Tea Party takeover: a Ted Cruz- or Marco Rubio-like hero would emerge and become the nominee, rallying the party around its supposed core values of conservatism, the free market, Christianity and individual rights. From the Republican Party would come a strong and sustained assault on the Affordable Care Act ("ObamaCare") and Planned Parenthood, a sharp reduction in taxation, a drive for an even smaller state and a reduction of spending and more focus on private enterprise.
The Republican candidates largely embodied the values that have come to be known as central to the party. Many of them are derived from the conservatism and 'New Right' movement of the later twentieth century, as well as the economic attitudes informed by the Reagan administration. Christianity informed their convictions: Mike Huckabee is an ordained minister, Rick Perry supported anti-sodomy laws and Dr. Ben Carson believes he has a personal relationship with Christ, as literally illustrated in a painting that hangs in his home. Many made references to the U.S. Constitution and the Founding Fathers, the principles embodied within the document and how they inform American society.
The post-Reagan clamour for a small state, a free market and the return of Christian America has continued in other forms. The Tea Party has operated within the political sphere, egging the Republicans on. Outside of it, a lot of this kind of conservatism has made its way online. Below, their fifteen "Non-negotiable core beliefs":
1. Illegal aliens are here illegally.
Things continue online. Take a look at the videos of Prager University. Video after video espouses the beliefs common within this branch of conservatism. Government interventionism never benefits the economy, capitalism is a morally good political economy, the private sector creates wealth and the public sector takes wealth, science argues in favour of the existence of God. Watch any video and you will get a sense of a conservative dialect: listen out for words and phrases like "big government," "the Left" and "the Right," "freedom," "a free market," "wealth creation" and the like. Prager University doesn't make any effort to hide its colours, going so far as to feature a video on why conservatism is the right path (presented by a Fox commentator whose main objective is clearly to plug his latest book) and another on why liberals (in the American sense) are more likely to be racists that conservatives.
This strand of conservatism has been growing rapidly over the last decade-and-a-half. In the wake of the late-2000s economic disasters that exploded national debt and resulted in several huge companies receiving government bailouts, people like me expected the 2016 Republican frontrunner to be talking non-stop about the free market, why tax is theft and why government should never meddle in the affairs of the economy again.
The emergence of Donald Trump as the frontrunner was a major surprise. Trump is no Republican and he spends his time talking about vastly different things to other Republicans. But now the Republican Party finds itself tied to supporting someone whose values and priorities are so misinformed and delusional that most commentators have called their presidential predictions already. A victory for Clinton is now thought of as inevitable.
I do feel sorry for Republicans like Paul Ryan. They had such high hopes that 2016 was the year of the Grand Old Party's return to the White House. This was the year that the people had grown tired of incompetent government intervention in the economy, immoral government intervention in their rights to bear arms, the destruction of the traditional understanding of marriage and the restrictions on their liberty. This was the election that would throw out a dishonest President. Now their figurehead is neither a Republican nor a credible candidate. His daily offences, cock-ups and outrages could lead to a hugely embarrassing defeat for the party.
Worse still, what happens when Trump goes? The party nominee has attracted a new voting base which won't go away anytime soon. How will the Republican Party acquaint itself with voters who want more government intervention to return the jobs they have lost, a stronger position in world affairs and a much firmer attitude toward Islam?
The views of Trump's supporters are a sign of a new political movement, something I shall discuss in a later post, but the Republican Party has been one of the movement's largest casualties. The Trump episode will fundamentally change the nature of the party for the foreseeable future. If Republicans like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee etc. can no longer win over crowds with appeals to freedom, property and the free market, what will they do next?
I did not expect to be more tired in my first week of my third year of study than my first. Freshers' Week is renowned for being a week of partying, drinking, sleep deprivation and general madness. To my surprise, I experienced all of these things, albeit not in my own first week of university life.
I have been working as a Second & Third Year Contact - a STYC - for my college at the university. STYCs are there to be guides for new students, from helping lift their suitcases into their new accommodation and giving them directions on campus to accompanying them on their first nights out in town.
All STYCs are required to sign an agreement, stating that they will behave appropriately while in their role. The STYCs pledge to assist new students when they need advice and suggestions and to cooperate with Head STYCs and members of the Junior Common Room Committee. STYCs promise that they will not make assumptions about incoming students on the basis of their looks, accent, sex and opinions; that they will not give instructions about matters far beyond their jurisdiction; and that they will not judge students on what they believe, what they wear and what they like to do. STYCs also promise not to ignore the instructions of Head STYCs, be drunk on the job or have sex with new students.
STYCs who fail to keep to their promises run the risk of being barred from particular events, or being dismissed altogether - 'de-STYCed', as it is known. Some misbehaving STYCs will be asked to avoid evening events or events that typically involve alcohol, or, in more drastic cases, be ejected from a nightclub by bouncers and ordered home.
During my time as a Head STYC I have probably had more fun than I did in my own Freshers' Week. I've had the opportunity to work with old friends and housemates as well as new faces, making new relationships and strengthening old bonds. Working with a team of different backgrounds, faiths and attitudes to ensure the wellbeing and enjoyment of a fresh generation of students has been one of the most exhilarating experiences I have had while at university.
That said, there was one moment that stood out during Freshers' Week, something that saddened me greatly. Though it has not spoiled my time as a Head STYC, it made me think deeply about a lot of things.
At 3am one morning I was on my way home from a college event at a nightclub. Almost every student of my college had left and the designated 'responsible persons' of the JCRC had ordered me home.
I walked across the bridge on (the aptly-named) Bridge Street. I thought about walking down the river path, which would eventually take me very close to my home. As I came to the steps descending to the riverside pubs, I saw two students, a male STYC and a female student, talking. The conversation seemed frustrated.
As I walked down the steps, I heard the scrape of shoes against the stone. "Are you all right?" I asked, whipping around. The STYC had slipped but was still on his feet. He mumbled something incomprehensible - he was drunk. I repeated my question, but he responded with something that sounded like, "f*ckin' shag 'er".
I walked on. Something wasn't right. The students were not having a happy chat. I decided to pause and watch from afar. Standing under the sign of the King's Head, I observed for five minutes or so. They talked; the girl made two phone calls, pacing back and forth as she spoke. She looked alert.
The STYC looked impatient and eventually walked away. The student turned and walked in the other direction, back across the bridge, alone. I raced up the steps. When I reached the top, the STYC had vanished, but the student was crying, wrapped in the arms of a group of friends. I went over and introduced myself as a Head STYC of another college before holding her.
The two students had kissed in the same nightclub from which I had been walking. Kissing a Fresher is an offence for STYCs and the STYC had been booted from the club. (In fact, I was outside as his wristband was removed by his superior. We had marvelled at how swiftly he had been disciplined.) But the STYC, drunk, pursued the student afterward. In her words, he "expected more." He had expected more than a kiss to follow. The STYC and the Fresher had walked to Bridge Street but things had turned sour. The phone calls she made were to her friends, asking for immediate help.
But the girl was crying for another reason. "I got him de-STYCed!" she said. We tried to convince her that it wasn't important: he had signed a contract to behave appropriately and he had violated it. "But I got him de-STYCed..." she said back again.
The students promised me that they would take a taxi home immediately. I walked home by the river alone. Maybe it was just the wind in my eyes but I came close to crying myself. In the face of not just improper advances from a supposedly responsible student but also the expectation that she would sleep with him on their return to campus, she held herself responsible. If it wasn't for her, she thought, he would not have been dismissed.
People do very stupid things when they are drunk. Maybe it would be cruel to attack the STYC now - he might be a much more well-behaved person when he is sober. I didn't catch his name (nor the name of the student) and I wish him no ill will for what happened. But whether he was sober or drunk at the time, it was a STYC who had promised and failed to treat his students with dignity, yet it was a student who felt responsible for his disobedience. She could not see that he had broken his vows and that he expected her to have sex with him later; she saw herself as the wrongdoer.
One of the largest factors that make victims of sexual assault unwilling to report their plight is the thought that they were somehow responsible for it. Too often we enforce the idea that a victim was in some way inviting his or her own assault. We still live in a society where, when a woman comes forward as the victim of rape, people her ask about what she was wearing at the time; a society where some capricious men respond to accusations of sexual assault with the putrid defence, "but she was asking for it."
At today's Freshers' Fair I became a member of the Feminist Society. It's a controversial society with members of various schools of feminist thought; it's also something with which I have previously had little interaction. However, I believe that victims of sexual assault should never feel guilt or wonder if they had invited the abuse they received from someone else; feminism and the empowerment of women are necessary to erode the dangerous mentality of self-blame.