Is Medieval History Bunk?

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I don’t mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is reason for the State to pay for them.” These comments, splashed across the Times Higher Education Supplement on Friday, created a furore in the academic world. Academics are usually defensive about their subject but stung them to learn that these remarks were made by the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke. It would seem that Clarke likes to create controversy in the academic circle. He has upset many students with the likely introduction of top-up fees and is set to interfere with university admissions through his proposed access regulator. However, his latest comments struck at the very heartland of academia in attacking the value of subjects that people have devoted their time (and money) to studying. Regardless of whether he was accurately quoted on Friday morning, Charles Clarke provoked an angry response, with at least one tutor branding him a “lout and a philistine”. Mark Thakkar, of Balliol College, said “Clarke, and other like-minded fools, just don’t have the minimal intellectual ability to see that their arguments apply to most, if not all, academic subjects.” Academics across the field accused Clarke of being against degrees which do not have a “clear usefulness.” The Secretary seemed to imply that some subjects have no use beyond study for study’s sake as they are unlikely to benefit modern society. “The medieval concept of a community of scholars seeking truth,” he remarked “is not in itself a justification for the state to put money into that…they don’t, in my opinion, add up to an explanation or justification for how the state provides resources for universities in the modern world.” Robert Crowe, a Classicist at Lady Margaret Hall, defended his subject, saying “Classics is influential, that is why we study the whole of the civilisation. We see ourselves in classics, we see classics in ourselves, around us in architecture, in our literature, in our politics”. Historians argue, too, that their subjects do provide valuable grounding for future careers and modern society. Dr Mark Whittow, a tutor of medieval history at St Peter’s College, said Oxford students are highly sought after organisations such as the civil service, because of the skills they have picked up. “We are increasingly moving into a world with masses of information and this makes skills of historians more important. History encourages you process large piles of information, argue with it, deploy it for analysis and interpret various forms spin. This is crucial in providing vital intellectual training which can be applied in many careers”. Clarke studied mathematics and economics at Cambridge University. He might believe these subjects to be more useful than history but Professor David Vines, who teaches economics at Balliol College, said that “both subjects are viable in the working of society because of the processes which lie beneath each”. He added that it would be impossible to study one without the other. Of course, economics does prepare students for future careers. Catherine McMillan, an economics and management student, said her subject, “uses and encourages logical thinking, and provides explanations of real world phenomena as well as methods of predicting future happenings.” However, subjects are not simply about obtaining information. Study develops the mind regardless of the content of the subject and Oxford University is keen that people should not be studying simply for their future career. Professor Vines says it is important to remind people of this, that “it is crucial to encourage students to study for pleasure and simply do what interests them.” Clarke has, of course, defended himself, saying that “I am a very strong supporter of the study history, including medieval and classical history, and I believe that the state should fund its study universities”. He also denied ever using the phrase “university medievalists”. His comments, however, will go down in history perhaps the reason he wanted discourage its study.
ARCHIVE: 3rd Week TT 2003

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