This 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 ofHistorical 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.
In the mid-nineteenth century a million British workers depended on the cotton textiles industry for their livelihoods. Most of the raw cotton they turned into cloth came from the southern states of America and was cultivated by slave labour. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 a ‘cotton famine’ ensued: the secession of the southern states not only disrupted the American Union but also disrupted the flow of cotton across the Atlantic. For more than two years the Lancashire mills stopped working and hundreds of thousands of workers relied on public relief – yet they largely accepted their lot in the noble cause of destroying slavery.
Coming to the IHR feels like coming home. I was once a postgraduate working on collections in London who needed a base in the city and a warming cup of coffee in the IHR Common Room. And on those forays for doctoral research I would occasionally attend a seminar in the Institute and marvel at the cosmopolitan nature of the audience, more varied by age and background than anything I was then used to. More to the point, I grew up in London and, as an undergraduate, would use the Senate House Library next door in university vacations. I have known these university buildings for as long as I’ve been a student and a historian.
At Cambridge as an undergraduate I was drawn to the nineteenth century (though, if I had my time again, it might be the seventeenth century). I thought I would be a straight Victorianist, and I have certainly published on Victorian political and intellectual history. But, in the best historical traditions, I had an epiphany while taking a term of American History – something I knew little about before then. The history of slavery and the Civil War grabbed me (I was hardly the first). Reading about the life of the slaves, the historical debates concerning their experience of slavery, and the relation of slavery to the origins of the Civil War made me want to learn more, and on graduating I was fortunate enough to spend a year in Yale as a Harkness Fellow taking courses with some of the leading American historians of that era: Ed Morgan, David Montgomery and David Brion Davis (who is still reviewing and publishing).
Cambridge reclaimed me, however, and to a project in intellectual history: the relationship in the mid-Victorian decades of social thought and social policy as evidenced in the work of a neglected Victorian organisation, the Social Science Association (1857-1886) which hoped to do for social science what the British Association, founded in the 1830s, had done for Victorian natural science – to popularise it, raise its profile, and bring its authority and expertise to bear on government. Occasionally patronised by some of the most notable Victorians – intellectuals including John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin and F. D. Maurice, and politicians including Brougham, Russell and Gladstone – the SSA gave plenty of scope for analysing the relations between intellectual and political life in this period. It led to a book, Science, Reform and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Britain. The Social Science Association (CUP 2002).
On the back of this work, and after a Junior Research Fellowship in Cambridge at Trinity College, I went to a first job in Oxford – an interesting and unconventional position as History and Politics tutor in Oxford’s Department of Continuing Education, teaching adult students. For five years I was an extra-mural tutor in the old manner, teaching classes, often co-organised with the Workers’ Educational Association, in Oxford but also going out to teach courses to groups all over the region in places like Maidenhead, Windsor and Great Missenden in the Chilterns. It was the greatest fun and I met some remarkable people who took a broad interest in History and current affairs. What I taught, and how I taught it, was often my choice or was negotiated with class members. I developed a deep interest in the life and work of the designer, poet, businessmen and socialist, William Morris, for example, finding him a fascinating subject in himself and a brilliant vehicle for the discussion of wider Victorian themes in politics, culture and the arts. These five years also led, later, to a book on the history of workers’ education – Dons and Workers. Oxford and Adult Education Since 1850 (OUP, 1995) – and to a biography of perhaps the most influential and charismatic tutor in this educational movement, the political thinker and historian, R. H. Tawney (Bloomsbury, 2013; paperback edn. 2014).
Moving after five years to a more conventional university lectureship and college fellowship at St. Peter’s College, Oxford, allowed me greater scope still to teach American History, in particular the popular undergraduate Special Subject at Oxford on ‘Slavery and the Crisis of the Union 1854-75’. Building American History from the bottom up – by generating student interest and demand for this and other courses on the United States – has been one of the most satisfying (if arduous) aspects of my career. I enjoyed the breadth of tutorial work as well: to teach British, American and sometimes even modern European History was a challenge few young historians now face. But it led to some enjoyable research and learned articles on comparative and transatlantic history, and I have continued to favour breadth in the undergraduate curriculum and also in the training of future academic historians. During this time I supervised a range of doctoral theses as well and in my case the range was indeed broad: from studies of Ruskin’s posthumous influence to British diplomacy in Texas between 1836 and 1845 (when Texas was a republic in its own right) and from American financial diplomacy during the Civil War to the ‘Southern Lumber Industry 1870-1920’, an early exercise in multi-disciplinary environmental history.
Ten years ago, on its publication in 2004, I became the editor (alongside the role of college tutor) of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. It had been designed by the late Colin Matthew, Gladstone’s biographer, brought to publication by Sir Brian Harrison, and it combined the work of more than ten thousand contributors in the longest single work ever published in English. The Oxford DNB is a compilation, online and in print, of more than fifty thousand biographical essays on more than sixty thousand people who have contributed to British history over two millennia. The scope of the work, and its variety, once more demanded breadth – but I needed help! Colleagues could tell me of medieval bishops, early modern poets, and twentieth century scientists: my three children were required to keep me up to scratch on figures from popular culture, for they are also included in the Oxford DNB. It was stimulating work in which I especially enjoyed ‘taking the Dictionary on the road’ and demonstrating its remarkable potential to unlock the past to local historical societies and civic groups.
After 29 years in Oxford the move to the IHR feels like a natural next step, combining breadth and depth, and giving me the opportunity to use the experience of teaching, supervising and writing academic History in encouraging and stimulating others. The IHR has more than 20 Junior Research Fellows at any one time; it is the home of many different historical projects covering all periods, medieval, early modern and modern; it hosts the most ambitious (and still very cosmopolitan) historical research seminars; and it puts on cutting-edge conferences. It is the natural focus for History and historians in London and has a national and international role to play in presenting British research to the world. There could be no better preparation for this than to have taught all those stimulating and demanding evening classes in the home counties before the most discerning (and best read) students I’ve ever encountered. As I have come to understand, if you can cut it in Great Missenden, you can cut it anywhere.