Archive for the ‘history’ category

History man?

November 15, 2016

There is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump in the United States has produced much acrimonious debate and lots of anxiety in the education community, in America and elsewhere. There are clearly many questions that this turn of events should prompt us to address about social, political and educational values, at least over time; but one incident in the past couple of days invites comment now. A history teacher in a Californian high school has been placed on leave for comparing Donald Trump with Adolf Hitler. According to reports, Frank Navarro argued that ‘Hitler’s persecution of Jews and rise to power has “remarkable parallels” to Trump’s comments on Latinos, Blacks and Muslims in his own bid for power.’

I won’t offer a view on the merits of Mr Navarro’s analysis; indeed some might suggest that he has violated ‘Godwin’s Law‘, under which anyone who in an argument invokes an analogy with Hitler loses that argument. It is certainly doubtful whether Mr Trump, whatever one might say about him (and lots is being said) is contemplating genocide or the invasion of Canada.

But that is not the question here. Rather, the question is how far an educator should be allowed to go in developing an argument in front of students, even where that argument might not be thought by others to carry merit, or even where it might be thought to state a partisan political position. To assess that further, one could ask whether Mr Navarro would have been suspended if, instead of comparing Donald Trump with Hitler, he had claimed interesting parallels with Winston Churchill. The latter analogy would also have been partisan, though this time in the other direction. And if we transferred the scene from an American High School classroom to a university, would the same or different considerations apply?

The proper test is whether an argument presented in a classroom is framed as an invitation to students to question assumptions and received wisdoms, or whether it amounts to indoctrination. I cannot tell, from the little evidence I have, whether Frank Navarro crossed a line he shouldn’t have; but I am instinctively uneasy about this form of sanction, however questionable his thesis may have been. As his students see him punished for saying what he did, they may well draw the wrong conclusions about the nature of a mature free society.

Viennoiseries

October 29, 2015

As some readers may recall from an earlier post, this summer I was on a week’s holiday in Vienna. For those who do not know it, I can highly recommend the city. It is the capital of a a small and, in geopolitical terms, relatively insignificant country. But a century ago it was one of the great powers, ruling a good bit of central and Eastern Europe. The First World War brought all that to an end, but in Vienna its glamorous past can be seen everywhere, in the grandeur of the buildings and the visible traces of the once powerful Habsburgs.

Vienna is also a city of vibrant art and culture – and as far as I know is the only city with urban vineyards and wineries (Grinzing). I thoroughly recommend it.

The building above is the Hofburg, once the main palace of the emperors in the city centre. In 1938 Hitler addressed the people of Vienna from the balcony, having just annexed Austria.

schoenbrunn

The Habsburgs eventually spent much of their time in the Schönbrunn Palace, above. It is a grand complex of buildings, designed to rival Versailles. I was able to attend a concert in the Orangerie.

Of course, no serious-minded visitor to Vienna can spend a day or more there without visiting the Hotel Sacher.

sacher

This is the home of the famous Sacher Torte, a chocolate cake that everybody needs to try at least once.

Apart from Vienna, I also visited some rather beautiful nearby towns, including Baden bei Wien. In Baden, the town in which the last but one Habsburg Kaiser, Franz Josef, spent much of his time, there is a particularly striking war memorial, with the inscription ‘Vater, ich rufe Dich‘ (‘Father, I implore you’).

vaterichrufedich3

And I also crossed the border into Hungary, visiting another town favoured by the Habsburgs, Ödenburg (now called Sopron). It is also rather beautiful, but nevertheless still carries the signs of decades of neglect during communism.

oedenburg2

Throughout my week there I felt a strong sense of history, as one cannot really help feeling in much of central Europe. It is an area well worth a visit.

My research says they’re out to get me

June 22, 2015

Here’s the kind of thing I really enjoy. According to an article in the Huffington Post, the Russians are demanding an international inquiry on the NASA moon landings, because as we all know these never happened and were merely staged for gullible western television audiences. We know that because the the US flag planted by Neil Armstrong fluttered in a non-existent wind, there were clearly discernible studio lights, the ‘moon rock’ samples have disappeared: you get the idea.

It didn’t take the Russians to activate this particular conspiracy theory, it’s been around for years. In fact, the number of such theories is impressive, and there’s one to subvert every obvious historical fact you ever thought of. Napoleon was in fact a woman. The Second World War was just a staged show put up by international bankers. Aliens have landed all ver the planet and various secret agencies have suppressed the news. Elvis never died (well, that one’s credible). Princess Diana was murdered. The CIA staged the 9/11 attacks. You probably have your own favourite one.

But almost as resilient as the conspiracy theories are the theories about conspiracy theories. Earlier this year the University of Miami hosted a conference about the topic, with 36 presentations on various aspects of the phenomenon. The Leverhulme Tust and the University of Cambridge have conspired – oops, collaborated – on a project about conspiracy and democracy, with an eerily strange website. Overall, conspiracy theorists are thought to use different neurological methods of processing information from the rest of us, and the impact of their published suspicions can be significant: apparently most people believe in at least one conspiracy theory.

For myself, I find it really suspicious that the Miami conference was ‘not open to the public due to both space and catering considerations’. Really? Do they think we’re stupid?

The Berlin story

October 10, 2014

As some readers know, I am German by birth but have not lived in Germany for many years; I last emigrated from my country of birth in 1974, moving to Ireland (for the second time) in that year. Since then I have returned for visits only infrequently.

However, every so often I do visit, and last month I spent three days in Berlin. It is not a city I knew well at all, having only visited twice previously, and each time for less than 12 hours. My first visit was in 1976, when the city was still divided, and on that occasion I was also able to visit East Berlin as it then was. The second time was not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I imagine that whatever impression anyone has of Berlin, it will always include a very powerful sense of seeing a city where the storms of history have blown more than in most places. There are signs of this everywhere, from the buildings and monuments of the city’s Prussian days, to the remaining evidence of destruction in World War 2, to the surviving reminders of communism and Cold War division.

Large parts of the city are still a building site. Restoration and recreation – the erection of buildings modelled entirely on destroyed and vanished edifices – is taking place alongside modern development. It is an astonishing sight. And then there is what one Berliner called ‘the return of history’ – Berlin is now the only city outside of Israel that has a growing Jewish population, an astonishing development.

The most recognisable landmark in Berlin is still the Brandenburg Gate. It was built in the late 18th century, based on the gateway to the Acropolis in Athens. It marked part of the outer boundary of Berlin at the time. In later years it became a major part of ceremonial processions, witnessing the passing through over time of Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler and the Soviet Red Army. During the period when Germany was ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II, only he was permitted to pass through the central arch of the gate; citizens had to pass on the left or right. During the Cold War the gate marked part of the boundary between East and West Berlin. The ‘Quadriga’ on top of the gate (chariot with four horses) has had a life of its own, having been removed by Napoleon and taken to Paris, then later restored, partly destroyed in World War II and subsequently restored (but only partly) and later fully restored. The Brandenburg Gate was at the heart of the events around the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

I took this photo during this visit, just after a heavy downpour of rain.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

The centre of political activity, now as in past periods (though not during the Cold War), is the Reichstag (the old Imperial Parliament). Badly damaged in the War, it seas restored and used as an occasional home for the West German Parliament, the Bundestag (then based in Bonn), until the 1990s, despite its location right on the border between East and West. It is now the permanent location for the Bundestag. The glass cupola (containing a restaurant) was famously designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster (who also designed one of the buildings on my campus). The Reichstag is surrounded by a whole city quarter dedicated entirely to parliamentary and government buildings.

Reichstag

Reichstag

One of the most overpowering buildings in Berlin is the Lutheran (Protestant) cathedral, located on the fascinating ‘Museum Island’. Built in the early 20th century during the Wilhelmine era, it reflected the Kaiser’s desire for Berlin to have a church that would rival St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It may have, more or less, succeeded. The extraordinarily ornate interior is overwhelming.

Berlin Cathedral front elevation

Berlin Cathedral front elevation

Berlin Cathedral high altar

Berlin Cathedral high altar

Berlin is a city of museums and galleries.

Museum Island

Museum Island

My guide book says it has the largest number of such facilities of any city in the world, and certainly you could spend weeks doing nothing else but visiting them. There are several major galleries, and museums on any subject you might care to mention. Though not strictly a museum, one building that caught my attention in particular was the New Synagogue. It isn’t ‘new’ in any contemporary sense, but was built as a sign of the confidence of the German Jewish community in the 19th century, some of whose surviving descendants have amazingly returned to live in Berlin. Not all of the building has survived, but the restored parts now house both a synagogue and a museum (separate from the huge Jewish Museum elsewhere in Berlin).

New Synagogue cupola over the rooftops

New Synagogue cupola over the rooftops

New Synagogue entrance

New Synagogue entrance

The plaque next to the door has the following inscription: ’50 years after the desecration of this synagogue and 45 years after its destruction, this house will rise again in accordance with our will and with the support of many friends in this country. The Jewish community of Berlin, 9 November 1988′.

Of course history never ends. But we may hope that it will not, in this place, retrace its steps. I don’t believe it will.

A hundred years on, lest we forget

August 5, 2014

A few years ago I needed some emergency dental treatment while on a visit to Germany. As I was waiting for my turn in the dentist’s surgery I picked up an old book from the shelves there and was immediately engrossed in it. It was the autobiography of a major scholar who became Rector (Principal/President/Vice-Chancellor) of an Austrian university in 1913. In June 1914 he was about to preside over a graduation ceremony for 52 graduands. As he was entering the aula maxima, an assistant whispered to him that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, had just been assassinated in Sarajevo.

In his autobiography he wrote that he had an immediate sense of the potentially awful consequences of this act, but he continued to conduct the ceremony, and gave a short speech in Latin on the benefits of education. What he did not know then was that, of his 52 graduands, 40 would die during the 1914-18 Great War. He himself (a Jew) would spend much of the Second World War in a concentration camp (although he survived it), while one of the twelve surviving graduands would be tried for war crimes in 1946. He himself wrote his autobiography in 1947, and he died two years later at the age of 86. He wrote of that day in 1914: ‘The waves and torrents of history were about to engulf us, and I knew it. But I could only say a few platitudes about the civilising power of education.’

As we reflect on the events of 1914 and all that follows, it may be worth remembering that a reference to the civilising power of education is not a platitude. It is, sometimes, all that we have, and it is everything.

Perhaps I can end this post with a short family note. The photo below is of my grandfather, a Lieutenant in the German army during the Great War. He made history by being the first in the history of warfare to drop a bomb from a plane; it landed in the Vicarage garden in Dover, thankfully hurting nobody. On 10 November 1918, just before the war ended, he was hit in the face by shrapnel. The somewhat basic treatment available at the time involved the insertion of a metal alloy to replace parts of his broken jaw. This subsequently proceeded to poison his blood and he died a few years later of the complications. May we all heed the lessons of that terrible war, and of all wars.

Lieutenant Alfred von Prondzynski

Leutnant Alfred von Prondzynski

Southern stories

August 2, 2014

I have always been interested in the American Civil War. It was a conflict which, in many ways, introduced the industrial warfare that became so deadly in the 20th century. It was for example the first conflict in which a submarine was used successfully in a military engagement. It introduced elements of military strategy and tactics that would be copied and developed in later wars. It saw death and destruction and scorched earth measures – in particular Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea‘ along the Savannah River. But its significance extends far beyond the military events of the 1860s. The war was also a political battleground on which civilisation and culture and rights were contested. There are, I believe, few wars in history that had a greater impact on the world. It ultimately heralded and facilitated the rise of the American era in world affairs.

But it was also a human story. The Civil War gave starring roles to huge personalities such as Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. But more importantly, it is the canvas on which the stories of thousands upon thousands of ‘ordinary’ people were painted, people who struggled to understand and make sense of the changing environment in which they lived. The most interesting places in which to retrace these stories is now the American South. And that is one of the reasons why I like travelling to the southern states.

This year, for ten days I took a vacation with my family near Augusta in Georgia. Known to many people as a golfing destination, Augusta is a town steeped in history. There are two buildings that, on this visit, attracted my attention in particular. The first was the Redcliffe plantation house, just across the state line in South Carolina. The 19th century house was built for John Henry Hammond, a major politician who became known in particular for his advocacy of slavery. He declared that ‘in all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties.’ In a speech to the US Senate in 1858 he declared that nobody would wage war against the South because ‘cotton is king’. Quite apart from his political views, Hammond was an unpleasant and somewhat cruel man in almost every aspect of his life.

The plantation house, below, is now a museum, and some of the slave cabins have also been preserved.

redcliffe

The second building is in Augusta itself, the Confederate Powderworks. This was built in 1861 to provide a facility in which to manufacture gunpowder for the Confederate army. It was located here because the Savannah River provided convenient transport access. The chimney of the factory, preserved officially as a ‘Confederate Memorial’, has the following inscription on its side:

‘This Obelisk Chimney — sole remnant of the extensive Powder Works here erected under the auspices of the Confederate Government — is by the Confederate Survivors’ Association of Augusta, with the consent of the City Council, conserved in Honor of a fallen Nation, and inscribed to the memory of those who died in the Southern Armies during the War Between the States.’

confedfactory

The complexity and harshness of elements of the Southern culture is also well illustrated in the painting below, entitled ‘The Price of Blood’, by 19th century American artist Thomas Satterwhite Noble that can be seen in the ‘Southern Stories’ section of Augusta’s art gallery. What it depicts is described as follows:

‘This painting … depicts a gentleman farmer transacting the fate of his own bi-racial son. The richly dressed man stares fixedly at the viewer while the sale is conducted. His son, the barefooted young man on the left, appears to be resolved to his fate. Though connected by blood, they are clearly separated by race and all that that difference implies.’

thepriceofblood-agustagallery

The photograph of the painting was taken by me (without flash) with permission from the gallery staff.

But today’s South, while tending to nurture politicians with rightwing views, isn’t just the place that once hosted slavery. It has its own way of life and its own culture, which even though I usually disagree with the local politics has some attraction for me. Perhaps it’s illustrated by this song, Southern State of Mind, sung by black singer Darius Rucker.

Monument

January 26, 2014

In Scotland I live within sight of a monument called the Prop of Ythsie (pronounced ‘Icy’, with perhaps a hint of ‘th’ between the ‘I’ and ‘c’). It is part of the Haddo Estate, owned by Lord Aberdeen, and the Estate’s website describes it as follows:

‘It was built by the tenantry of Haddo in memory of the 4th Earl of Aberdeen, paying tribute to the extensive improvement works he carried out on the Estate for the local residents.’

The 4th Earl was a very significant historical figure; he was the British Prime Minister between 1852 and 1855, presiding over a cabinet with some extraordinary personalities. It included the later Prime Minister William Gladstone, who regarded Lord Aberdeen as a mentor and close friend.

Having long been interested in Victorian British politics (and literature), it rather tickles me that I can see the monument from my house. You can see it below, in a photo I took a week or so ago. It is already on a hill, but if you climb to the top of the monument (which you can) you get the most spectacular views of Aberdeenshire, including some of the Cairngorms.

propofythsie2-jan14

For those who might be interested, the place where I live (Ythsie) is just outside the beautifully designed (and preserved) village of Tarves (or Tarbhais, its original Gaelic name). Also in the neighbourhood are the remains of Tolquhon Castle, and the South Ythsie stone circle. It is an area full of history, and of some great beauty.

Remembering

November 12, 2013

Yesterday was Armistice Day, the day on which the fighting stopped in Europe in 1918. Over the years there have been many debates in a number of countries about the value of commemorating this day, or perhaps about the way it should be commemorated. In a piece in the Irish Times newspaper yesterday Brian Hanley, an historian from St Patrick’s College Drumcondra, suggested that the commemoration of the armistice with the use of the poppy as an iconic symbol amounts to ‘fuzzy nostalgia’ that supports ‘the justification of war’.

I suspect this perspective on the poppy and on the commemoration at this time of year, while not unique to Ireland, owes something to the complexities of Irish history. Experiencing Remembrance Day on this side of the Irish Sea (and that includes the observance in Scotland) provides a very different impression. Here every town and village has some ceremony, and in each case it is not at all about the justification of wars, but the expression of community through a shared memory of what was lost. And it is that sense of community mourning that the wearing of poppies on television, or on football pitches, conjures up.

In Europe, my generation was the first in a long time to have been able to go through our lives without the threat of imminent war or the reality of armed conflict between European nations. We have taken peace for granted, although obviously we have been well aware of its absence elsewhere in the world. And in Western Europe at least, we have had democratic government, with all its faults.

There is of course an academic role in all of this: the task of the community is to remember, but the academy should assess, analyse, question, doubt. Still, I believe that it is right for us all to commemorate November 11th, in the hope that remembering the conflicts and killings of recent history will tell each new generation that we must live with each other in peace and show tolerance and respect for the rights and dignity of all.

High value knowledge, and what to do with it

April 16, 2013

Around 830 AD the Benedictine monk and later Abbot Lupus Servatus, then living in Fulda, Germany, wrote the following in a letter to a close and learned friend: ‘Mihi satis apparent propter se ipsam appetenda sapientia.’ There are nuances in the original Latin, but the sentence has generally been translated as ‘It is quite apparent to me that knowledge should be sought for its own sake.’ Based in large part on this letter, Lupus has often been seen as the father of the humanist intellectual tradition, and the statement quoted above has been repeated and endorsed by many others, including Nietzsche and Albert Einstein. Many of those arguing for and defending a more traditional outlook on higher education repeat the formula.

In fact, the idea of ‘knowledge for its own sake’ has for many become the key test of higher education policy and strategy, suggesting a higher commitment to the integrity and independence of learning and scholarship; and often placed in opposition to a more impact-oriented or use-directed application of knowledge. But this affects not just higher education policy, but also the appropriateness and legitimacy of the strategic direction of some universities, and perhaps of certain academic disciplines or projects.

I confess that I don’t find this useful. For me, ‘knowledge for its own sake’ is a curiously empty formula, suggesting a metaphysical approach to knowledge that accords it importance without apparently knowing why. I believe strongly in the acquisition, discovery and dissemination of knowledge, but not for its own sake (which to me means nothing), but because knowledge empowers, civilises and innovates. The value of knowledge is in no way mysterious, it is compelling and clear. The case for learning is a much stronger one if its use can be explained clearly. ‘Knowledge for its own sake’ is no better as a pedagogical statement than ‘spinach for its own sake’ would be as a nutritional one.

What some who support a traditional outlook on higher education may not appreciate is that a formula such as this may have been persuasive when education and knowledge were largely the property of a social elite who had no need to justify what they were doing. Today’s society needs something more, and there is plenty to give. High value knowledge is at the root of social progress, inclusiveness, economic growth, better health, a higher quality of life. Universities need to be willing to associate themselves with such objectives and ideals, rather than arguing a much more opaque case based on a hoped for but not specifically targeted benefit flowing from detached learning and scholarship.

It may be time not just to modernise our higher education system, but also our understanding of why we do it.

Mrs Thatcher and me

April 9, 2013

Not unexpectedly, the online world has been all about Margaret Thatcher over the past 24 hours. It is what you would expect because whatever else anyone might want to say about her, she was a force to be reckoned with, and she changed things in the world.

Few would deny that, and certainly I don’t see anyone arguing the case for her irrelevance, but some of the online contributions right now are pretty extreme in their attacks on Mrs Thatcher. Maybe to my surprise – given that when she was Prime Minister of the UK I was pretty strong in my opposition to what she was doing – I am not inclined at all to share in the vitriol of many of those whose opinions I might otherwise respect.

I was only eligible to vote in one of the UK general elections in which she was a candidate: though that election was the one that brought her to power, in May 1979. I was doing research for a PhD in Cambridge at the time, and in fact had gone to an election rally addressed by her (as well as another addressed by Denis Healey of Labour). After that, I watched from the sidelines in Ireland. Those in UK universities with whom I worked closely had, mostly, the same opinion, which was that she was destroying British industry and subverting British society (an entity she famously claimed not to recognise). My then field of industrial relations was particularly affected. By 1981 the collective bargaining-based, non-law regulated system of workplace relations had been torn apart, and as we know, by the mid-1980s the power of the major trade unions had been largely broken. I wrote stuff about this.

But now, in 2013, would I go back to the practices and assumptions of 1979? Would I vote for a restoration of the old state-run industries and their form of industrial management? No, I don’t think so.

It is notoriously difficult to engage in a dispassionate assessment of a controversial figure at the point of their death. The passage of time is still needed to make sense of what happened. Margaret Thatcher’s memory will, I imagine, always have some degree of controversy associated with it. I still doubt I would vote for her. But I can admire her courage and tenacity, her sense of purpose, her unwillingness to be bullied by the political establishment.

And whatever the merits may have been of her views and policies, she presided over an era in which big questions were asked and significant debates conducted. It was a time in which the currents of history could be felt. We are much more impoverished now.