|The Scholar in their Study...|
St. Jerome, Antonello da Massina, National Gallery.
It transpires, then, that you can spend quite a lot of time teaching and writing about History, and it can still turn around and bite you on the nose. Politics (read: history) has swept into Oxford, into our cafes, venerable college halls, our committee meetings and strategic planning. As I explained to a visiting colleague from Prague, until six months ago, at Somerville College lunches or with one’s students at Fresher’s Dinner, one might well discuss UK Higher Education policy, or immigration policy as it affected universities…. but rarely actual party politics. Perhaps a traditional British reserve, politeness and sense of good taste prevented it being otherwise (I was once told: no religion, sex or politics at high table). That set of mores was swept away overnight with the June 23rd UK referendum on membership of the European Union, and again with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. After the first result, the atmosphere in college was one of palpable collective grief, and after the second a stunned, sheer funereal silence.
These events are rapidly redefining what it means, for an intellectual community, to be political. Before June 2016, a handful of historians in the university were openly active in party politics (addressing party meetings, leafleting for one party or another in city council elections). Yet with the sudden advent of xenophobic, anti-liberal democratic, anti-intellectual and populist politics, as if with the flick of a wand, the most basic things we do in this (or any) university have suddenly become highly political and partisan – catapulting us into the frontline of a culture war. When in tutorials we school young people in questioning and critical thought; when we lecture on how nationalism was constructed / invented in the 19th century; when we speak up for continued access to the EU’s mould-breaking research programmes; when we defend the legal rights of our non-British-passport-holding colleagues, all of them top international scholars – all this, improbably, has now become politics with a capital P, setting us sharply at odds with the UK Government and its rhetorics, and liable to bring a torrent of online insults down on any academic publicly defending these things.
The rules of engagement have shifted under our feet, with a bracing lurch. Academics are trained to deal in nuance, complexity, uncertainty, slow reflection and precision – skills which famously do not automatically translate into punchy public policy positions, or rhetorics. For academics – particularly those active in the publicly-visible world of social media – there are personal risks in speaking out on Brexit, xenophobia or Trump: of outright abusive messages online, or of being seen to use a university post to proclaim private political views. Yet not to speak out arguably carries a greater risk for us all, and what threatens the essential liberal values of universities is not a private matter for those employed to serve, staff and run these major national institutions. Earlier this year, Simon Schama spoke to a packed lecture theatre in Oxford’s Natural History Museum about ‘public history’: he urged Humanities scholars to be bold, and intervene in public debate to defend our values. Simon Schama gave that talk, prophetically, well before the June referendum.
The (hostile) politicisation of our university life by external forces is unfamiliar to this generation of UK academics, but none of it is new. Down the centuries, scholars and writers have found again and again that, against all their wishes and private inclinations, they get pulled personally into big and dangerous political struggles: one need only look at the life of Niccolo Machiavelli, or Erasmus of Rotterdam. Our sources have been telling us all along how painful, frightening, and disorientating this situation is. Perhaps we have not been listening to those early modern voices as well as we thought we were; perhaps we did not, after all, entirely hear or recognise until now what they were saying. That intellectual freedom, although practised from within the quiet space of the Academy, cannot be quietly defended.