[This is the ninth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Samantha Shave is a research associate at the University of Cambridge, working on the project ‘Inheritance, Families and the Market in Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Britain’. She has recently published on paupers’ lives and poor law reform in the early nineteenth century.]
Historians of welfare and poverty have seemingly now found the sources which, in the words of Tim Hitchcock, provide a more ‘democratic’ history from below (Down and Out, p. 239). The voices of the poor are being found in court records, ballads, threatening letters and petitions for poor relief, to name just a few sources, and we are putting them at the centre of our analyses. The word ‘democratic’ here has always struck me though; it makes me wonder whether, whilst we have been busying ourselves with this task, history itself has – as a discipline – become less democratic? I asked the workshop at Birkbeck to think about whether there is a ‘history for below’. Indeed, the central contradiction here is that we produce histories of those who have either been silenced or marginalised or ignored, that we strive to re-create social worlds from, ‘enforced narratives’ (Carolyn Steedman, Feminism and Autobiography, p. 25), but those people in similar positions today are being increasingly denied the opportunity to study and write history at university.
We need to consider how people decide to study history, and how recent changes to the curriculum could leave a generation uninspired to take the subject further. Those who are not put off by ‘fact and date’ history may attempt to study the subject at university. That’s if they want to get into a phenomenal amount of debt. There are small reductions to fees for those with household incomes below £25,000 per annum, and a few charity-like pockets of money issued by universities, but the overall debt for any student who started university in 2012 from a working household will be huge. With fees at an average of £8,770 a year, the average student could graduate with over £50,000 of debt over the course of their degree. The immediate consequences of the fee rise can be seen in application figures. UK applicants to university were down 8.7% in 2012, and a further 6.5% for admission this year. Worryingly, last year applications from people aged over 19 years old declined by 11.8%.
It has been well reported that the number of applications in 2012 to the arts, humanities and social science subjects fell the most of any subject area (13.7%). Some argue that this drop in interest is a response to the economic climate and appeal of the more vocational qualifications, even though studies have shown that an arts and humanities degree gives students ample skills to use in the workplace. Yet others, including former ceramics student Johnny Vegas, have been direct – that higher fees disproportionately put off students from poorer social-economic groups from studying in this subject area at university. Fees have perpetuated the perception that the arts are an ‘‘unnecessary thing that belongs to rich people who have too much time on their hands’’. Of course, other forces have been doing their bit to shape our subjects into exclusive – even luxurious – products, such as the recent founding of businesses, such as the New College for the Humanities, whose fees are £18,000 per year.
Who can study history may depend largely on who can afford to. But those who seek a career writing history face further challenges. We should beware of the changing politics of securing PhD funding and the precarious post-doc stage in the historian’s early career, of short term, even six month contracts, in cities and towns far away from loved ones. Indeed, a report by the Institute for Historical Research’s History Lab Plus undertaken in 2011-2 showed that stress and depression, associated with financial insecurity and relationship meltdowns, were all part and parcel of the post-PhD, post-doc experience. We should also not forget about the long-standing issues of the poor treatment of women in academia and stigmatisation of first generation university attendees. Indeed, for decades we have acknowledged that academia reproduces certain class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and age ‘norms’ that manifest themselves in particular academic behaviours and customs, which frequently alienate and upset. In particular I thought about the resonance of Working-Class Women in the Academy, a collection of essays about the marginalisation of women in the US university system published two decades ago. It is hard to see progress when so many similar negative experiences repeat on us over and over again. I need not remind us of the views of one vice chancellor and the current Mayor of London, and of the contents of the online ‘lads mag’ Uni Lad, stuff that forms just the tip of the objectification-of-women-on-campus iceberg.
Whilst who can study and write history is concerning, I think we should also turn our attention to the lack of dialogue between university managers and academics, and how this impacts on what our universities are or will become. In the recent frenzy of money-saving, university services are being privatised and university resources are being abandoned. The long-term consequences of this on the future of a ‘history from below’ has not become clear yet, except in one obvious way: the removal of documents about working class culture and women from our campuses. The Mass Observation archive, for instance, is leaving the University of Sussex, where it has been since the 1970s, and soon will be housed with other collections including county records in a new purpose-built archive. There are other examples of this process available – there’s the sell-off and merge option and, worse still, the destruction option. The holding of these collections, separately and completely, on university campuses represented much more than just their contents – they symbolised the desire within the academy to research, to know, and to support the history of our everyday lives, experiences and struggles.
There are, of course, many avenues in which people could study and write history beyond university. These could be by visiting heritages sites, libraries and museums, researching local and family histories, or watching history documentaries such as Who Do You Think You Are? To conclude though, I believe we must critically reflect on the ways in which we as academics engage in the wider dissemination of the ‘history from below’ thesis. For several years I worked as a researcher on a project which involved the large-scale digitalisation and analysis of thousands of British family household budgets in the early twentieth century. It was only with this significant amount of funding that we were able to also engage with school teachers who are now developing lesson plans about poverty and everyday life in Britain, which all teachers, whether they attended our course or not, will soon be able to download and present. There are many other similar and successful projects. Going beyond the institution with our ‘history from below’ research may not only counteract the perception that history is an exclusive subject, but also reach audiences who hitherto did not know that there is a thriving history of everyday life. But what can we do, or do more of, as early career historians, without this significant amount of financial backing? We could collaborate individually and collectively with these other avenues of history, or we could join a history discussion group which is open to all. We could teach at institutions which support later-life learning, such as Birkbeck, the Worker’s Education Association and The Open University, to name just a few. Or lecture for free at one of the many free universities being established throughout cities in the UK and US at the moment (e.g. Free University Brighton).
To me, therefore, the future of a ‘history from below’ rests not only on our ability to craft our academic debate, but also on our ability to make history in and from the academy accessible. This is a call to trash the fee hikes, and to dismantle the myth that history is a luxury. I don’t want to teach just rich, young students, and those who have either been fortunate enough to have the social capital or nouse to see it is an essential subject. I want to teach everyone. As historians ‘of below’ we can and do much about this, by engaging with people and institutions outside of the academy. Many long-term inequalities, those which prevent people from writing history in the academy, are long overdue for some debate. I want to be assessed in the workplace by others according to my academic knowledge and skills alone, nothing else. And ultimately, I want to be a historian in an environment where the working-classes are not sold-off and shut out.