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Interview with Professor Lawrence Goldman

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LG-cropped-resizedThis post was originally published on the School of Advanced Study Talking Humanities Blog.

We talk to the director of the Institute of Historical Research about the history of history and the rise of statistical thinking in the Victorian period.

Professor Goldman has nearly three decades of experience teaching modern British and American history. From 2004 to 2014, he was editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the record, in more than 65 million words, of the most notable figures in British history, and took up the directorship of the IHR in 2014. He is currently at work on a study of the development of social statistics and their impact on culture, politics and social thought in Britain under the title ‘Victorians and Numbers’.

What does a typical day involve as director of the Institute of Historical Research?
No day is the same, which is the joy of the job. The day might start in a meeting with key staff to review our academic programme, budget, staffing or fundraising. Coffee is often taken with one of my students, or a visiting fellow at the institute. Lunch often involves business: meeting one of the members of the ‘Friends of the IHR’, or a potential donor, or an academic colleague with whom we’re planning an event. Afternoons are for committees – departmental, publications, examinations and so forth. At 5pm, if I’m lucky, I may be able to attend one of our research seminars and hear a paper from a leading historian: the IHR hosts more than 60 different seminars throughout the academic year. There are also evening events – a major lecture, a reception, an IHR film-evening which we do three to four times a year – which usually end in dinner in a nearby restaurant.

You joined SAS from the University of Oxford; how does the life of an academic there compare to SAS?
In Oxford, you teach. The life of a college tutor is focused on undergraduate teaching, mainly by means of one-to-one tutorials and small-group teaching. Often I would spend 6–7 hours a day in formal teaching sessions, with postgraduate supervision on top. It is a much harder job than people think: the depiction of dons swanning around (and murdering each other) in Morse or Lewis is entirely false. But the close communication with students is intensely interesting and rewarding, and the breadth of the curriculum that has to be delivered makes one a better historian. At SAS I do less teaching and my role is more entrepreneurial: an institute director is an initiator, organiser, fundraiser, administrator, ambassador. There is still teaching to be done, but less of it, and it is more specialised. I was ready for the change and to make the swap.

Are there any particular initiatives or projects you are keen to push forward?
The IHR has an enviable reputation as a centre for academic historical studies of all types, covering all regions. I want it to maintain this same breadth but face outwards, drawing more of the general public into our work. Our commitment to serve the historical profession is undiminished, but that profession is now broader than it was, including archivists, librarians, heritage professionals and so forth. Meanwhile popular interest in history, whether on television, radio or in the media in general, is one of the most heartening developments in recent years and I want that interest to be focused on the IHR. Our centenary will be celebrated in 2021 and we will start building towards this in the coming period: I want it to be an opportunity for historians to reflect on the development of our subject, and for the IHR to reach new audiences.

What was your own experience of being a student like?
Academically wonderful; socially dismal! I was an undergraduate in Cambridge in the 1970s. My supervisors were among the leading historians of that generation and merely to recite the list of my teachers encourages sighs of wonder and envy. But life in an all-male college in the days of Brown Windsor Soup and roast mutton was not to my liking. I moved out after one year and never went back. Two things have improved student life beyond recognition in the past generation: the mobile phone, which has allowed students to plan a social life, and the better balance between male and female students which has civilized many institutions. To my chagrin my Cambridge college went mixed the year I left. On graduation I had a scholarship to Yale for a year, where I studied American history in the graduate school, and made some lifelong friends. I then returned to Cambridge for my doctoral work. I can still recall the isolation and loneliness of the first few months of that: universities have worked hard to improve the experience of postgraduates since then.

What’s the focus of your current research?
I work in the 19th century and I am currently editing a book of essays on social policy in that period. I’m also thinking through a difficult argument about the origins of anti-slavery in the Atlantic world after 1780; if I can get it straight I hope to work it into a major article in the coming year. I’m also focused on historiography – the history of history. I want to write something on the intellectual history of the IHR for our centenary; I’ve also been asked to write a section on the ‘historians of Trinity College, Cambridge’ (which is where I was a Junior Research Fellow) for the official history of the college. When all that is finally out of the way, my real ambition is to return to some work on the rise of statistical thinking in the Victorian period in a book to be entitled ‘Victorians and Numbers’. The development of a numerical approach to social life in the 19th century was, I shall argue, one of the great intellectual transformations of the modern era.

Why do you think historical studies remain relevant today?
I don’t think there’s been a better time to be a historian in Britain. We might like more money for our subject, but we bathe in media interest and public regard. Historians are everywhere – from the Prince of Wales and the Chancellor of the Exchequer down – and history is still valued as a degree subject at university. At one level this is because history is recognised as a genuine intellectual challenge: to do it well requires ability, application, fluency and skill. At another level, it is the result of a broad popular fascination with the past, be it via military history, genealogy, metal detecting, going on an archaeological dig, or visiting a National Trust house. One very notable historian, A. J. P. Taylor, who gave seminars at the IHR, once said that ‘the only lesson of history is that there are no lessons’. But most people evidently disagree and they consider the past a highly relevant guide to the present and future. Almost all the great questions of the moment in Britain – our membership of the EU, Scottish nationalism, immigration, Northern Ireland, the reform of parliament – depend on historical understanding. People recognise this and they are interested in learning more. It is very heartening and positive.

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