Why we need more sixth century historians

“All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”  – Battlestar Galactica

Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University, Patrick Johnston, caused a furore this week with his comments claiming that “society does not need a 21-year-old that’s a sixth century historian”. Instead, he opined that “It needs a 21-year-old 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.”

It is difficult to know where one might start attempting to refute these astonishingly absurd comments. Many of the issues that bedevilled sixth century rulers will be very familiar to their modern counterparts, such as economic inequality, taxation, monetary policy, and even how to handle refugees and those fleeing religious persecution.

So let us attempt to drive society forward through thought, and contribute to society by understanding the tenets of leadership. In other words, let’s analyse sixth century things.

Justinian I, Byzantine emperor from 527 to 565, spent much of his reign attempting to regain the lost western half of the Roman Empire. However, his efforts to “Make the Byzantine Empire Great Again!” were to prove a heavy drain on the empire’s coffers. It has been estimated that the Byzantine Empire collected 6m solidi per year in tax revenue (1 solidus was originally made with 4.48g of gold), and incurred about 5m solidi in annual expenditures on non-military spending.

However, Justinian’s various adventures in Italy and elsewhere would have cost more than 35m solidi, which would have put the treasury under considerable strain. The difficulties of maintaining domestic spending on top of the cost of financing military adventures is evidently not a new problem.

Therefore Justinian did what would prove to be a popular option for rulers who found themselves short of money – he made some more of it. The imperial mint in Constantinople gradually started reducing the amount of gold in the solidus, allowing the solidi received in tax revenues to be stretched further. As the modern world struggles with questions of monetary policy, it is useful to remember bear in mind that our ancestors dabbled with a spot of unconventional monetary policy from time to time as well.

Many of Justinian’s woes were due to the expense of both fighting and paying tribute to the Sasanian Empire, situated to the east of the Byzantine Empire in and around modern day Iran. The Sasanian Empire spent much of the sixth century under the rule of Emperor Khosrow I.

Khosrow I, amongst many other achievements, is often remembered for his tax reforms. He introduced a system of taxation based upon the productive value of land, with varying rates for land which produced grain, olive trees and so on, and the tax was collected three times per year. He also clamped down on corruption by tax collectors. Tax revenues became both higher and more predictable as a result of Khosrow’s reforms.

It has been inferred that Khosrow gained the inspiration for many of his reforms from the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who reigned as Emperor between 284 and 305. Diocletian found his economic record under scrutiny in the runup to the 2012 US Presidential Election, when Republican candidate Ron Paul claimed that the United States could find itself meeting a similar fate to the Roman Empire if it embarked upon the policy of Quantitative Easing, citing Diocletian’s economic policies including debasement of the Roman currency.

However it is not Diocletian’s fiscal record that caused the Roman Empire’s subsequent problems, academics argue, nor the debasement of the currency under his watch. “What eventually did afflict the Roman state very seriously, as Republicans would no doubt hate to hear, was that it failed to tax the rich sufficiently.”

Not all sixth century rulers were as wise as Khosrau I in matters of taxation. The short lived Sui Dynasty in China (581-618) brought in a form of taxation that charged a flat tax on all households, regardless of their income. This represented an enormous burden on ordinary peasants, whilst princes and high officials were exempt from taxation altogether. This, together with widespread popular discontentment with the extravagant lifestyle of contemporary elites, sparked popular protests that led to Emperor Yang being murdered by one of his own officials.

However, the Sui Dynasty did see a Government restructure that saw the number of ministries cut by three, when they moved from the Three Lords and Nine Ministers system to the Three Departments and Six Ministries system. So it is nice to see Northern Ireland following international best practice.

In summary, the modern world is struggling with government coffers being put under severe strain, controversies over monetary policies, conflict in the Middle East, widespread anger with elites and the difficulties of getting the wealthiest to pay their fair share in taxes.

There is only one group of people who can help us in our hour of need.

We need more sixth century historians.

A qualified accountant and data analyst, interested in politics, economics and data. Twitter: @peterdonaghy

  • Gopher

    Nope we simply need good Historians, its a question whether what we turn out are any use. Britain recently has been blessed by a good crop of historians (though not 6th century ones)

    John Brooks (electrical and mechanic) Adam Tooze (Modern European History and Economic) Stephen Bungay (Modern Languages and Philosophy), James Holland (History) Andrew Gordon (War studies and Economics) Richard J Evans (History (I think) Frederick Taylor ((History and Modern languages ). I would love to know the path that takes you from writing Auf wedershien pet to one of the best works on area bombing))

    Great those these guys are I think our historians need to get out from behind the desk more.

    Around half a century ago a war correspondent covering the growing American involvement in South Vietnam could not believe what he was seeing at first hand. A French citizen and American educated correspondent Bernard Fall, who had covered the first Indo China War seen the US “Military Assistance Command Vietnam” or MACV repeat the mistakes of that war as if it had never happened set out to write and publish a book on that conflict and more importantly what went wrong to attempt to educate the present.

    “Street without joy” or La rue sans joi as it was known to the French forces that served was one of the most dangerous provinces in Vietnam a principle supply route connecting North to South gave the book its title. More poignantly than ironically the author met his death on a land mine while covering an American operation there and as with the untimely death of fellow war correspondent Chester Wilmot we were robbed of one of the most insightful and readable historians of the post war. Fall had been in the French resistance and served in the liberation. Historians, ones without military service at least just don’t have the life experience of conflict to bring to their craft, the desk is their parapet, the military ones don’t have style to make their subject matter anything other than dry. Fall’s style and interspersed personal observations from his diary make the book hard to put down, the description of the Officers tennis match and its dynamic is one of the best I have read in literature never mind in a historical work. Possessed of Sang-froid and humour, neither is out of place in this work and he can effortlessly change between describing the death throes of an isolated French garrison in one chapter to the work of the “Bordels Mobiles de Campagn” (BMC) or mobile brothels in those isolated garrisons in another.

    Rather than a straight history of the war Fall picks out phases of the war and specific operations to illuminate what went wrong in South east Asia and the isolated cases of what actually went right. The experience of Mobile Group 100 (GM 100) an elite unit in the classical western sense is described in great detail and it lets the reader draw his own parallel with subsequent conflict in Vietnam. Having as a teacher interviewed Ho Chi Mihn, Fall though this is essentially a work seen from the French perspective does not ignore the North Vietnamese perspective and I was surprised to learn in such an uncompromising revolutionary war certain NVA units gained a reputation for chivalry among the French. Unfortunately further behind the lines were ideology took over from combat all such chivalry ceased.

    We need to send more 6th century history students to combat zones!

  • hgreen

    With views like this I think the Vice Chancellor really needs to reconsider his position. If not then Queens should show him the door.

  • chrisjones2

    If its a choice between a 6th Centuiry historian and a chemist engineer or biologist I know where the money should go

    And too much of it goes to ultimately non-productive degrees where students (who now pay so much) are encouraged to indulge themselves in degrees that are less marketable in their future careers – unless they want to teach other 6th century historians

  • Gopher

    Yes it seems a bit of an educational Ponzi scheme.

  • Dominic Hendron

    Good article, shows how smart men can say the stupidest things while others digress

  • Declan Doyle

    Well not really. When you consider that there is such a broad diversity in terms of aptitude. The sciences and similar high profession subjects do not suit everyone’s strengths nor do they cater in anyway towards the study or investigation of our social history. Some people are naturally talented in terms of the arts, history and the classics etc. It is wrong to assume that such degrees are of lesser value. Such studies serve to open the minds of students and gift them essential skills in terms of research, international comparison and human understanding. This in turn can lead to exposing considerable skills in terms of writing or guiding students into careers such as teaching, journalism and indeed politics. Skill sets vary and natural talent cannot be simply corralled towards one specific areas or narrow collection of areas. Having a choice is crucial to delivering higher level education opportunities across all strata of society. We should never allow our education funding to collapse where so many options are abandoned, thus abandoning young students and ultimately diluting the numbers of degree educated academics. Or worse, they are fored to leave our shores and take up options elsewhere.

  • Brendan Heading

    I’ve got some sympathy with the vice-chancellor here. The Northern Ireland economy is not doing well, and we don’t have the space in the labour market to absorb large numbers of people with arts and social sciences degrees, alongside some branches of the sciences.

    The same applies to teacher training, a subject I’ve opined on at some length (it may be a fact that St Mary’s excels at training excellent teachers; less clear is whether or not the public money spent doing this is yielding a return), as well as accounting and law. To me it should be a straightforward application of economics; the state should not invest in branches of education that will not lead to a return. This would manifest itself in the form of supporting different levels of fees for different kinds of degrees, perhaps with a scholarship type system providing free education in some of these areas to small numbers of people from low-income backgrounds.

    I respect the argument that a healthy society is educated in a balanced range of subject areas. But at the moment, we don’t have the luxury of this. We need to build a sustainable economy that provides high quality jobs and attract workers.

  • hgreen

    It’s only choice if we choose to make it a choice.

    If it’s a choice between a historian and weapons that could return us to the dark ages I know where the money should go.

  • Odd that. QUB got rid of several degree courses in subjects that were and are needed for the economy, such as Management and Information Systems, because too few sixth formers choose to study them, despite companies crying out for those skills. So the new Vice Chancellor is reaping what he sowed previously.

    We need to change from a system where everyone is meant to learn everything when young, to one where we go to university later in life, when we know what we want to do, and our first job has become technologically obsolete. Go from school to further education, get a diploma in what is needed right now, then, 3 or more years later, learn how to learn in a university degree.

  • terence patrick hewett

    I am afraid the VC is almost entirely correct:

    Universities are there to teach the disciplinary languages so that graduates may join in the debate. Above all, they are there to teach people how to think clearly and rationally.

    A university should be the basis from which our knowledge grows. The primary function of a university is not to educate: ‘educate’ is a weasel word, covering many mortal sins. Universities are there to foster scholarship; to produce high quality academic results and teach to standards which are above those of the rest of the world; and to produce world-beating research. Ideas in research may not always seem relevant but it is from this background that great inventions are born.

    Today, many institutions in the UK are engaged in remedial teaching, trying to repair the damage done by a corrupt pre-university system of state schooling. Over the last one hundred years the state has progressively tried and failed to institute an effective system of schooling; the same arguments and questions posed in 1908 are still here unanswered; both by the Fisher Act and by the Education Act 1944.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    (I’m a BSG fan, deal with it)

  • chrisjones2

    Yeah …weapons every time as customers will buy them then we can feed our children

  • chrisjones2

    ………..but if we have too many ‘liberal arts ‘ students there may be no jobs for them

  • chrisjones2

    Some of it is. We have escaped the worst of the meejah studies plague in England but still we need to focus. We need a few 6th Century Historians ….but only a few

  • chrisjones2

    Yeah…sack him for telling the truth ….

  • SeaanUiNeill

    So civilisation, culture and the arts can go hang. That explains a lot chris, thanks.

  • Brian Walker

    Granted that university funding cuts mean tough choices. The pressure on Queen’s is great. Cuts create a vicious circle. Students can’t afford to travel elsewhere to courses it doesn’t provide. The university is under pressure to drop courses in non-vocational pure learning whose outputs are hard to measure in terms of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) which dominates the sector. . But Johnson’s approach verges on the illiterate.

    A cancer specialist ,Johnson seems like a victim of the Two Cultures split in learning identified by the novelist and physicist CP Snow in the 1960s. and a servant of the functional approach to universities with now determines government funding. Upskilling is fine but isn’t everything a university stands for. Nor are universities necessarily best for vocational training.

    His description of the student is so vague as to be almost meaningless.It is not a response to remedial teaching.If anything it sounds like the 19th century imperial mission.

    “Society” needs a 21-year-old 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. I don’t talk about producing graduates, I talk about producing citizens that have the potential for leadership in society.”

    His apology is little better. Too much linkage between subjects dilutes each component and could reduce the quality that allows Queen’s to keep Russell Group.

    He has form as reported in Wiki

    “His tenure at Queen’s has been controversial. He is seen by many to be interested only in financial gain and establishing corporate strategies that endanger the nature of the university as a seat of culture, learning, open-mindedness and free speech. On 20th April 2015, Johnston cancelled a conference that was to be held on ‘Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo’, citing his worries regarding ‘security risks’ and ‘the reputation of the university’. He was heavily criticised for censoring this academic forum on the subject of free speech. [6] Due to the outcry produced by his decision he quickly reconsidered and the conference was reapproved”.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Have you encountered the idea of citizen income Chris? we could afford it. We are producing more than a sufficency for our communities economically, even in a seemingly endless slump. What you are effectively saying here is that we need to end civilisation and the liberal arts just so that someone can look at his bank account and investments and smile thinking he has enough to keep a small town going over his lifetime, and its all his to hold back. And that is not even starting on the Trumps of this world.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Gopher, while I’d mentiion other names (me for a start) thank you for yet again hitting the nail on the head, and again reminding us of Chester Wilmot! We’d disagree on some issues I know, but we both appaer to understand how all of this goes into the construction of a culture.

    I’d add that It’s all too often forgotten that our interpretation of our lives and cultures has been enriched until recently by a general knowledge of the classics. The work of those you mention’s broad minded approch was nurtured by this generally accepted culture of Europe. This is now fading and so nonsence such as the denegration of knowledge for its own sake is an easy “pop” for the bean counters. They tend to forget that who they are and hwo they think has not simply been constructed from a knowledge of electrical engeneering, or even physics.

  • Korhomme

    Is a university for education or for training?

  • Gopher

    As a historian without a degree or o’level I would worry that perhaps we let too many people take worthless degrees. I would rather we increase the quality of degree so the next time I decide to read a 6th century history it is actually good and If I take a tour round 6th century ruin the guide and display will actually tell me more than I already know. I remain unconvinced about the quality of student we are producing in the fields of Art, History. Literature etc.

    Dearer to my heart is as we push out more historical numpties is the number of first rate history books that go out of print. For me Queens would do the civilized world a bigger favour tightening up their history courses and with the saved money digitizing out of print historical work.

    As for the classics Hume, Wedgewood, Gibbon, Livy and uniquely Churchill set the bar for the future historians to follow. I dont think lowering it as cheapening history courses does presently improves output. We should be setting the highest possible bar for history students.

  • Gopher

    The arts is in fantastic shape if your painting has value it sells if it does not you need to look for another job and it might be in the civil service pushing a pen. It finds its level. Arts or rather luxury is the most effective tax on wealth but the fact is a hundred Bill Gates could not keep the the art students we produce in that field.

    I would rather we produce better civil servants than crap artists who end up in the civil service.

  • Harlequin

    So pro free markets when it comes to weaponry and anti free markets when it comes to higher education? What a wit.

  • Gopher

    But it is not free market Universities like Queens are heavily subsidized


  • Declan Doyle

    Oh yes, you are quite correct. So the emphasis needs to be on providing a balance that reflects reality.

  • kensei

    Kinda lost it a bit midway through season 3. But brilliant until then. That Season 1 finale.

  • terence patrick hewett

    A re-reading of Snow’s “The Two Cultures” shows that nothing has changed since then:

    “If the scientists have the future in their bones,” he claimed, “then the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist.”

    F R Leavis’s poisonous response exemplified this attitude and it triumphed: we
    abandoned the future for navel contemplation.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    So civilisation, culture and the arts can go hang for you too, gopher. the real issue is that our culture is not a number of disconnected threads but a spider-web where any one thing denigrated or damaged will influence other things. The point perhaps is that you are not going to have good civil servants in isolation, they will be an expression of a cultured society, rather than the kind of financial and intellectual reductivism which is the main contributory factor in producing “carp” graduates in all fields.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Where, Gopher am I suggesting that we “push out more historical numpties”? I’d be with you in wishing that the quality of work was honed in our teaching practice to produce a higher standard of work, and that the numbers game is scrapped. But you are perhaps underplaying just how important it is to have a professional culture of historians and in other humanities and arts subjects. It sets the standard, as any of us reading history for writing it must quickly realise, if you begin to intelligently consider what historiography would look like if it was entirely “privatised”.

    We will have to disagree over the much over-rated Churchill. In a generation or two his inclusion alongside Gibbon and Livy will perhaps look as odd as the enthusiastic early eighteenth century linking of the geniuses of Shakespere and Cully Cibber looks to us today. I can only stand alongside Pope here in scratching my head at the ability of my contemporaries to over-value showy ill thought out dross simply because all the others do. Mind you, my old “A” Level History master in the 1960s, a worshiper of Winston and an ex-boxer in the forces, used to punch me on my exposed ears for my essay critiques of Churchill’s ancestor Marlborough, but he still had to gave me “A” grades for the argument!

  • Gopher

    Nope Seaan it’s a question of preserving what is worth preserving for me rather blowing all our money on something we don’t need because a 6th century History for a student is a low bar for the “university experience”. This case is repeated throughout the arts. I have been to enough degree shows to testify to this. If your good at something you get paid if you arnt it’s a hobby.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The point is Gopher, you don’t get to be good enough to be paid without any education of some sort. Same as any other field. You don’t get good art, music, or history any more than you get good surgery in medicine by simply hoping the market will somehow do it all. I’m no fan of the centralised state, you’ve only to follow me on a few threads to find that out, but if we simply let the “market” (that great reification!) get on with doing it for us, we’d end up with no roads, no law and order, and incidentally, no culture above styles of scraping animal skins on the floors of our caves. You are forgetting in your admiration of maverick historians that they themselves are usually standing on the shoulders of professional historians. We don’t get to become anything on our own, any more than we can get ourselves born without a woman’s engagement in the act.

    And anything worth preserving is only worth preserving because other people cared enough once about the building of a culture for to create the circumstance for it to come into being. Its quality is the end product of people professionally developing traditions of learning and skills, not something that the reductiveness of market forces can ever be expected to do.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Exactly! No harm on the old Polytechnic system, but it was roughly about training while the university system was supposed to educate. Are we experiencing the death of the University in these suggestions which would reduce its role to that of the old Poly?

  • Gopher

    I did not think I was accusing you, I am just alluding to the commitment to the craft rather than the “university experience”. The historians I tend to follow many work their socks off on the lecture tour and believe me they arnt lecturing to “numpties” that is why they get paid. That is where the professional culture exists. Does anyone in Northern Ireland like to get lectured to? Sure we know it all.
    Churchill is unique in that outside Lincoln no leader of a great nation had such a command of the written word. We are fortunate that Churchill left a memoir of both World Wars. Without his book on the Second World War Alanbrookes dairies such an important source have no foil. No such reliable cross reference source exists in any other nation. Not only that but Churchills books make a fine read.

    As for Sheakspeare if Livy had not wrote his speeches for him in the “War against Hannibal” English culture would have been much the poorer. That’s how the free market worked back in the day.

  • terence patrick hewett

    One function of a University which to my mind is often forgotten: that of providing asylum for the totally insane! I must read Porterhouse Blue again.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Forgive me Gopher if I have misrepresented you in this. I’d still however question your characterisation of “professional” as simply raking in the shekels. The people you mention all draw on the are; professionals, who do not simply write popular books, but spend lives in archives weighing up evidence. It is their published research we all rely on as historians. Some of these people earn big bucks at US universities, but in my own work I find that many scraping a living on the edges of academia with short teaching contracts may produce work which seriously questions the major assumptions of popular history. This is the real rock face, and historians such as Scott Sowerby (who piped me in the publication of certain findings, and saved me a lot of hard slog) are valuable non-numptie products of our academic system where a genuine commitment to the craft of in depth research produces work that does not simply repeat the assumptions of others:


    And a little corrective perhaps! You are aware that Churchill used ghost writers, are you not? The historians AL Rowse, JH Plumb and Asa Briggs all were involved in actually writing his “History of the English Peoples”. This is one interesting instance from the late 1930s:


    Of those books where Churchill principally wrote, such as the four volume Marlborough life, they clearly show much rather less than rigorous evasion and selection, in contrast to the exacting standards of a professional historian. Have you encountered Herbert Butterfield’s “The Whig Interpretation of History”? You may never be able to view Chuchill’s historiography in quite the same light ever again, should you read it, although, as I remember,r nowhere is his name mentioned.

    Try reading Livy in the original Latin, for while I enjoy Shakespere’s popularisations for themselves, Titus Livius is in many ways a much, much deeper thinker and is certainly more than capable of standing on his own two feet without the poets assistance. For example:

    “pretending to want fair shares for all, every man raises himself by depressing his neighbour; our anxiety to avoid oppression leads us to practice it ourselves; the injustice we repel, we visit in turn upon others, as if there were no choice except either to do it or to suffer it.”

    That just about sums up the habits of the political culture of NI from every angle, including this failure to recognise the importance of pure research in the humanities.

  • Gopher

    My definition of a professional historian is someone that supports himself through whatever medium to pursue his craft. Sometimes Seaan to anyone in interested in History we can shake our head in dismay at certain commercial facts of life around the subject. My favourite if favorite is the word, is when American historians need a few dollars we get yet another work on the Battle of Gettysburg which from a historical and analytical perspective is about as interesting as explaining the sun will rise in the east tomorrow.

    Then you get the sensationalist historians who make up some wild conspiracy to attempt to sell books Sometimes these guys get so annoying you actually get some good historical work in the debunking of their trash like in the case of HMAS Sydney.

    Nope we don’t like like shekels for the sake of Shekels and populist Historians like Hastings and Beevor sometimes chase them just a bit too hard but at least they are no drain on the public purse and get their readers to delve deeper since they are mainly the source driven work that you allude to. So they do actually help the broader family.

    I dont think employing ghost writers to expedite work negates anything I have said about Churchill they hardly contributed in any original form to his voluminous writing which are on record. Whether that be his speeches, his letter writing or his books which all point to a masterful command of the written word. With someone like Churchill who thought on the hoof secretaries who jotted down his every thought could hardly be accused of any creativity now could they?

    As for Livy my point is the great bard just ripped off his dramatic style around great character speeches yet poor Livy does not get a single credit it is not a reflection on his capability. I read Livy in English and enjoy his narration of events especially the dramatic above mentioned speeches which of course nobody could have possibly recorded. I believe Gibbon and Churchill at least tipped their hats in his direction.

  • terence patrick hewett

    I have an eccentric dislike of the word “education” it is redolent of the unpleasant taste of “re-education” “department of education” “education inspector.” The best teachers whom we all knew in our youth and loved, inspired us and sometimes terrorised us: but they did not “educate” us like filling beer into a pot.

  • _NMcC_

    I think he is right to some extent. Looking at the subject from a competitive point of view, say as an employer. Who would you rather pick for an accountancy job, a STEM or a Humanities graduate? I realise that Historians do pick up a certain amount of analytical skills from looking at sources and motives for historical actions but at the end of the day, it’s pure problem solving Mathematics vs a certain amount of analysis. For a lot of jobs, STEM beats humanities. I don’t think it’s wrong to point out that the humanities market is saturated. At least he isn’t lying about it.

    He is wrong though to say that society doesn’t need Historians. You do have to be intelligent to do history and it shows that you have a strong work ethic, I’d be too lazy to write a 500 page dissertation on WW2. Historical analysis like the OP has done would definitely make you a good politician and could assist in the decision making process in economics, learning from ideas or mistakes. So History with X, I think is better. You can always teach as well. Of course the VC is biased towards the STEM community as he has done significant research in medicine but he should know better.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    For me, Gopher, a professional historian is one who carries out original research that adds to our understanding of our past. We all have to earn a living to eat, but the professionalism I’d esteem is a dedication oft the discipline, and this stretches across the range, from those who continue to write and research, even though they may need to support themselves by teaching or even some activity outside of the discipline. The real issue is their commitment to history itself, not simply one aspect of our modern deity, that final arbiter for its devotees, the market.

    Its pretty well known that Winnie increasingly wrote less and less of “his” work. It’s not a matter of a few “secretaries” here and there! Far from a situation where “they hardly contributed in any original form to his voluminous writing which are on record” it was a matter of his publisher bringing in historians of repute who actually researched and completed the work under his name and, one well known example, shifted the direction of his “History of the English Peoples” well way from the rather bumptious Whiggery of his earlier work:

    “The task was completed by a syndicate of academic ghostwriters, among them AL Rowse, JH Plumb and Asa Briggs. They tried to introduce scholarly rigour into Winston’s Whiggish saga and the work ended up betwixt and between. But no one cared: Churchill made money, so did his publishers, and he had long since written himself into immortality.”


  • SeaanUiNeill

    A sizeable part of my own education would have been from my querulous family, and such friends as they dragged into their arguments on culture, the arts, politics biography, music, and virtually anything else they thought it fit for growing children to be exposed to. I’d encountered some of what would be my best teachers at school years earlier arguing the merits of Yeats, Patrick Sarsfield or Tully with someone from my family.

    So when I use “educate” I’m implying automatically the imparting of knowledge through the clash of opinions, rather than the 2 times tables, or lists of Latin words!!!!!

  • Gopher

    I don’t think you even need to have original research to be a professional historian. If for instance a 6th century history student from Queens turns “The Campaign in Russia 1812” by Clausewitz into a more readable form and gives it the “Livy” treatment there is no need for him to do any research yet he will have done History a great service. Plenty of books fit this criteria.

    Ah the Guardian, god love it.

    You failed to mention Churchill’s exhaustion after completing his excellent world war two memoir. You also fail to mention he made his career on the back of being a war correspondent and had been writing since the Sudan or did he have a Ghost writer for that? You don’t like Churchill he conflicts with your perceptions, I don’t like Gallipoli, POW and Repulse or Dodecanese but credit were credit is due the man could write.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’m perhaps larding the disagreements quite thickly, Gopher, and with a room temperature Romanée Conti and a few hours I’d imagine we’d be agreeing over much, much more, as I’d implied in my first posting, perhaps even over some of the other historians you admire.

    But not Churchill. I have every regard for your spirited defence of old Winston, but grew up with both sides of my family loathing the man (my grandmother was amongst the crowd of Unionist women who would have overturned the car the “Auld Turncoat”, was driving towards the Kings Hall in to preach Home Rule, while other liberal family abhorred his unprincipled opportunism at every stage of his career, and it was their critique of his many failings as a self styled historian which informed my own early reading of his work. But there is no final truth in these things, even I enjoy his “fictions” at times (especially my own blue pencil notes) and neither you or I will be around to see how he (or more accurately, his “ghosts”) might be remembered in a couple of centuries. But for now, I’m taking his much quoted comment that he knew he’d be honoured in the historical record as he’d write his own accolades as a very good reason to question virtually everything we may have been told about him.

  • Gopher

    Debating Churchill takes us far from the opening post Seaan. I don’t think there can be much debate of Churchill’s passion for History whatever you feel about his ability or his personality, sometimes the devil has all the best music. If you produced students passionate about History and the discipline there would not be a problem. All we are producing is degrees and pretty meaningless ones, if there is no passion the cognitive link is broken which is why I believe we should throw more resources at fewer students and let the “University Experience brigade” be trained to become the clerks they are destined to be.

    Lets face facts about 6th century history and earlier. Troy has been discovered, there is no Iron Curtain to come down and new information is going to flood in. Geopolitically and Militarily there is little that the ancients can teach us. If your going to make a living out of 6th century history (and earlier) your going to have to be bloody good.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Gopher You are perfectly right in marking our digression into the value of Churchill as a derailment of the true points on which we met here! So to get back to the issues, yes, I’d agree that the general quality of history graduate leaves much to be desired, but the system still produces top class professional historians, and an amazing amount of good research which turns canonic “givens” tip over hoop, such as Scott Sowerby’s brilliant work. So the system is working, and feeding material to the popular historians to build their big bucks on, and so the real issue is that it should be improved, rather the scrapped.

    As someone educated in the 1960s and accordingly one of the last generations who began to learn “grammar” in the form of Greek and Latin in my secondary education (oh a little Irish from family also), I’m all too aware of the actual value of a classical education for our general culture, and simply cannot support your statement that “Geopolitically and Militarily there is little that the ancients can teach us.” Simply try and imagine Churchill for one thing without an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Classics!!!

    Much of what you seemingly see as simply the landscape of our culture would not be there without the nurture of the classics (would we even have anything resembling law as we know it without Cicero?). No, more “sixth century historians” are an utter necessity if we are not to entirely loose the direction which those guiding intellects of our culture have gifted to us all. Queens has been in the forefront of such vandalism, axing the teaching of Classical languages in 2002, and finally closing their world class Institute of Bysantine Studies where classics had a very short reprieve. Those of us familiar with Professor Margaret Mullett’s brilliant work as Director of the Institute of Byzantine Studies at QUB can only grieve the loss of such a talent to our whole community.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I just love the madness of Dr Baltar.