A Historical Scandal

Last month, Patrick Johnston, vice-chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, was said to have uttered something outrageous. In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, he justified the university’s cancellation of a course in sociology and anthropology by stating that ‘[s]ociety doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian’.

In addition, Johnston clarified that what society really needs is a graduate who ‘really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward’.

Historical solecism aside, that does not seem like an entirely unreasonably statement. After all, the implied importance of interdisciplinary work is reasonable; and on a technical level, what 21-year-old, regardless of their skills, can have any real claim to be a historian?

In any case, as soon as the interview was published, something surprising happened: historians, perhaps a little too easily stereotyped as a demure bunch, decided that what was said was beyond the pale. They sent tweets by the bucket-load; articles started appearing entitled ‘a history lesson for the vice-chancellor’ and so on. One of those ‘hilarious’ parodies also appeared on Twitter, which no doubt added to the general mirth of the righteous.

Considering that what had sparked all this amounted to little more than a throwaway comment intended to justify the economies of difficult times, this seemed a disproportionate reaction.

Rather than a specific answer to a specific question, Johnston’s comment was taken to be nothing less than an attack on history as it exists in universities across the country; and his invocation of the fateful notion of relevance compounded the anger.

Pretty soon historians – popular and unknown, academic and lay – started chiming on en masse to say that, actually, history is rather relevant, and, by implication, so are they. As usual, some of this manifested itself in tedious sarcasm: ‘The collapse of a venerable European order, the birth pangs of a new one – what earthly point studying THAT?’ wrote Tom Holland, following it up with a slightly ruder comment: ‘In the 6th [century], Ireland was emerging as a powerhouse of culture. Not much risk of that happening if Professor Patrick Johnston gets his way’.

It seems unfair to single Holland out, but since he then wrote a piece for the Belfast Telegraph itself accusing Johnston of ‘sounding off like David Brent at his most philistine’, allegations of rudeness seem a little less unwarranted.

The reaction of some historians to the debacle – which seems cliquey and unduly outraged – has been rather wrongheaded. Some have taken to reaffirming their own relevance and that of the period in question; others have concluded that Johnston must have contempt for them and their subject, which seems both unlikely and personally unreasonable. But (aside from the discourtesy) it’s the persistent attempts to demonstrate relevance which seem most odd.

An article by Charles West in History Today made this case most obviously; while accusing Johnston of talking in ‘predictably technocratic terms’, West writes that the 6th century gave rise to many events which had ‘consequences that remain urgent today’. This is, naturally, a fairly obvious remark. And its very obviousness is a weakness. It all seems rather boring, frankly.

People who study history, such as myself, and people who teach it and write about it, are all likely to care about the thing. They care about their eras and their themes. This is a good thing; but as beneficial as enthusiasm is and can be, such things can also distort matters and pervert perspectives. What Johnston said is hardly unconscionable; it’s not an ethical crime. The reaction to his remarks looks a little provincial, especially in decidedly tough times for government bodies in general and academia in particular.

The oft-invoked quotation variously attributed to Henry Kissinger, Charles Frankel and Wallace Sayre holds true here: ‘Academic politics is so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small’. And this viciousness is exacerbated in all its petty glory by the wonders of social media.

In cases such as this, the levels of vitriol which have been directed at Johnston appear unwarranted. Outsiders looking in, even within academic circles, could well see this disproportionate reaction – and let us face facts: the reaction has been wildly excessive – and think less of historians and even of history.

And anyway, why should we try so hard to prove that history is ‘relevant’ in the first place? I’ve always found what some see as irrelevance to be its chief appeal. To study the past without recourse to the contemporary – and to ditch more material concerns about employability and technocracy and whatever else – is its own delight. Advocating for this, and seeking to pursue it personally, may not be as satisfying as righteous indignation, but the benefits are clear. Maybe it’s time to put this whole thing in the past.

I appreciate that this story is a thoroughly parochial one; rather than something of real importance it relays the goings on – petty as they invariably are – of a very small world. And this small world – in academia, in media terms, in history more generally – seems in many ways to care only about its own causes, its own image, and issues relating to self-preservation and self-interest. This is not surprising; but though such things are most certainly dull, and they really are boring for many outside the club, the clique, they do matter. Pettiness matters; self-promotion matters and self-interest matters; even rudeness matters.

With the political situation as it is – containing a staggering dismissal of expert opinion and indeed the very notion of experts and expertise on a conceptual level – it would be doubly myopic for historians – especially the self-declared arbiters of ‘relevance’ among them – to take a similar position. Very clever people should not dismiss someone in the same trade in this way; they should not talk about administrators as though that class detests real learning. Rather than being very smart, it is actually rather self-defeating – quite obviously stupid, in other words.

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