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Pieces of history

Dr John Maddicott finds Oxford's new history syllabus fragmented, incoherent and confused

Oxford University has abandoned any attempt to study English history in a continuous way. The result has been the fragmentation of the syllabus and its transformation into a sort of self-service restaurant, where the menu is exclusively à la carte and the tables are almost all separate.

Thirty years ago the Oxford modern history syllabus had not changed in any radical way since its devising just over a century earlier. At its centre lay the continuous study of English history from the end of Roman Britain to the mid-twentieth century. The syllabus kept a respectable balance between England and Europe, compulsion and choice, breadth and depth, primary sources and secondary authorities.

But there was much to be said against it. The inauguration ritual was a one-term preliminary examination which, with its five papers, including unseens in two foreign languages, was an ordeal to freshmen who were often homesick, unconfident and linguistically inept. Undergraduates then moved to a regime of three essays a fortnight, in some colleges two a week, for most of their remaining time. The syllabus gave only limited opportunities to study non-European history.

It was for its biases and omissions, rather than for its demands, that this syllabus came increasingly under attack from both dons and undergraduates between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s. It was seen as being too much governed by the outdated ideals of education for public life and public service, too Anglocentric, too much dominated by politics, too strictly directed towards chronology, narrative and the broad sweep, too negligent of both middle-aged disciplines, such as art history and the history of science, and of younger ones, such as anthropology and sociology. It had failed to move with the times.

Yet its critics ignored some of the chief strengths of the syllabus. However narrow it might seem - and it was not very narrow - it gave undergraduates a secure grounding in what was for the great majority the history of their own country over a very long period. It allowed them to observe the slow processes of evolution and change, to follow through the development of institutions, such as parliament, or fluctuations in society and economy, such as those of population, and to make comparisons across the centuries. It also met the need for English citizens to know the history of England in some detail.

Thirty years on, the whole tradition represented by [the old] syllabus has disintegrated, and the presuppositions which sustained it have disappeared.

To some extent change has been a matter of reacting to external forces, affecting other subjects besides history. The norm of one essay per week, for example, was implemented only when the explosion of secondary literature seemed to make fewer and longer reading-lists inevitable; though it was predicated too on a rather pessimistic assessment of undergraduates' capacity for academic work. In a similar way the marked decline of vacation reading, the result mainly of the more pressing need for paid employment in the vacations, accelerated the trend away from a comprehensive and well-integrated syllabus. Undergraduates could no longer be expected to have familiarised themselves with a period, and to have read the classic commentaries on it, before moving on to detailed study in the term. But there were other more endogenous factors which arose from new views about what the history course itself should contain.

The degree to which political and cultural assumptions have shaped the history syllabus is nothing to be surprised at. The original syllabus was formed as much by contemporary notions of empire, service and race as the syllabus of the 1990s is by a view of England's (and Britain's) diminished place in a vastly different world. But while the Victorian ideals gave rise to a course which was coherent in the range of history which it covered, the scholarship on which it rested and the education which it provided, the present course lacks any such quality. What Oxford historians know when they graduate is now largely a matter of bits and pieces. It certainly cannot be assumed that they have a working knowledge of how their own country has evolved.

It is now possible to take finals without ever having encountered the Magna Carta or the Reformation or the Revolution of 1688 or the Reform Bill of 1832. If this seems too Whiggish and political a selection one could equally well substitute the medieval peasant economy, the Black Death, the Industrial Revolution, or nineteenth-century social reform. Nor has any comparable structure replaced what has been lost - least of all, perhaps, one founded on the aspirations of those who, a generation and more ago, hoped to see 'a new kind of history' embodied in the Oxford syllabus.

Art history, the history of science, the history of ideas, are there; but they sit on the margins, set apart in 'special and further subjects' for the benefit of aficionados. The position of the newer disciplines such as anthropology and sociology is still more marginal. The average undergraduate is hardly more likely to have digested Evans-Pritchard on witchcraft among the Azande than, nowadays, to have read Michael Brock on the Great Reform Bill. What has emerged is not a new syllabus but an old one broken into pieces.

This was not at all what the young Turks of the 1950s and 60s had in mind when they urged reform on a conservative faculty. That aspiration and achievement have diverged so widely is not only to be explained in terms of responses to the unpredicted and unpredictable social and political changes of the long 30-year interim. The pressures applied from that direction have clearly played their part. But more salient have been a decline in academic confidence, an easy acceptance of what is fashionable and an overriding reluctance to try to decide what the subject of history at Oxford ought to be about. The result is incoherence and confusion: an outcome which no would-be reformer in the pre-reform era can have wanted and one that has been eventually arrived at almost (as Gibbon would have said) insensibly.

Dr John Maddicott is a fellow and tutor at Exeter College, Oxford. This is an edited version of an article in Oxford Magazine, no158

Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999

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