Category Archives: Global History

Week 9 Seminar: Tehila Sasson (Emory), ‘We are the World: Ordinary Lives & the Moral Economy of Global Humanitarianism’

This week the research seminar is a joint session with MBS and will be given by

Dr. Tehila Sasson (Emory).

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Week 7 Seminar: Simon M. Stevens (Cambridge), ‘The United Nations and Sanctions against South Africa, 1946-1965’

Our research seminar speaker next week is Dr. Simon M. Stevens. All are welcome and the talk is held in cooperation with the wonderful DASA.

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M&C Annual Lecture 2016: Prof. Alison Bashford, ‘Malthus & China’

Bashford.M&C Annual Lecture.Poster copy

Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798/1803) is in the process of being thoroughly re-thought. The famous book was a universal history, a world history which sought to demonstrate the principle at work in all places and all times. In this lecture, Malthus’s work on China is analysed: the claims he made, the Jesuit sources he used, and the significance of China’s great population for his principle. China was the counter example to America, I argue. Malthus’s views on China are significant in two current contexts: first, the enduring and difficult relationship between Malthusian ideas and Chinese policy on population; and second, the historiographical conversation on an English-Chinese ‘great divergence’. Assessing China circa 1800, Malthus sat, unwittingly, at the temporal and geographical point of divergence.

 

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Alison Bashford is Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Jesus College. She is author most recently of Global Population: History, Geopolitics and Life on Earth (Columbia, 2014) and The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Re-reading the Principle of Population (Princeton, 2016), co-authored with Joyce E. Chaplin. She is also series editor of Cambridge Oceanic Histories, with David Armitage and Sujit Sivasundaram.

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Roundtable: Disentangling the World: The Politics of Autarky after the First World War

Autarky Roundtable Poster Final JPG

Programme

 

Session 1: 12:30-14:30h

  • Jamie Martin (Harvard), “The Internationalization of Colonial Economic Administration: Strategizing Postwar Stabilization and Financial Reconstruction at the League of Nations, 1920-1923”.
  • Gabriela Frei (Oxford), “International Law and the World Economy after 1918: A Jurist’s Perspective”.
  • Discussant: Simon Jackson

Coffee

Session 2: 15-17h

  • Patricia Chiantera-Stutte (Università degli Studi di Bari), “Lebensraum and Autarky in German Geopolitical Discourse at the Beginning of the 20th Century”.
  • Klaus Richter (Birmingham), “Self-Sufficiency and the Assessment of Emerging States: East Central Europe in the Postwar Order, 1916-1923”.
  • Discussant: Corey Ross

 

Participants

 

Patricia Chiantera-Stutte is Associate Professor at the University of Bari. Her main research field is the history of right-wing political thought in Italy and Germany. Among other topics, she has published on German geopolitical concepts, on biopolitics and on Italian fascism.

 

Gabriela Frei is British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and Junior Research Fellow in History at Oxford University. Her postdoctoral research project examines how the understanding of a legal international order changed as a result of the First World War, and how a new international economic order emerged during the interwar period.

 

Simon Jackson is Lecturer in Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Birmingham. He is completing a book on the global politics of economic development in Syria and Lebanon after World War One.

 

Jamie Martin is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Harvard University. His dissertation looks at the origins of the earliest plans to govern the world economy in twentieth-century Europe and the United States.

 

Klaus Richter is a Birmingham Fellow and Lecturer in Eastern European History at the University of Birmingham. He is currently working on a history of Poland and the Baltics during the First World War and the interwar period, which focuses on the specifics of statehood in the region.

 

Corey Ross is Professor of Modern History at the University of Birmingham. He is currently working on an environmental history of the heyday of European imperialism, from roughly 1880 to 1960.

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Workshop Announcement: “(Auto)-Mobility in the Global Middle East: Defining the Field.”

Automobility Workshop Poster JPEGThe Centre for Modern & Contemporary History is hosting a research workshop on Friday 6 November, on the theme “(Auto)-Mobility in the Global Middle East: Defining the Field.”

Programme

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This one day workshop, held in the “motor city” of Birmingham, UK, a centre of car production and of expertise about (auto)-mobility, brings into conversation historians and social scientists who investigate the histories, politics, and social, visual and aesthetic meanings of (auto)-mobility, primarily across the Middle East but also in global and comparative perspective in the twentieth and twenty first centuries.

A transformative phenomenon of the twentieth century, (auto)-mobility in its various incarnations globalized unevenly after World War One, altering a variety of social practices and inflecting the wider dynamics of production and consumption. From new roads, production lines and showrooms, to traffic jams, garages, advertisements, car accidents, joy riders and (counter-) insurgency techniques, to name just a few salient aspects, motorized vehicles and the conditions they provoked altered conceptions of time, senses of place or authenticity, and the production of space.

Our title makes use of parenthesis advisedly, since regardless of whether people took the wheel, loitered at the curb, hitched a lift or crossed the road, (auto)-mobility transformed practices of gender, class, and domesticity, most notably, though not exclusively, in urban and suburban contexts. (Auto)-mobility also refigured international and regional dynamics in contexts such as pilgrimage, even as national road networks worked to produce national space, and urban roads re-segregated newly ‘historic’ inner cities and downtowns from suburbs that became both gated communities and laboratories for religious and political organization.

Via a case study or a historiographical intervention, participants will present their evaluations of the state of this burgeoning field as part of wider (auto)-mobility studies, and will engage in debate on its potential and future direction, whether as scholars of the Middle East or of other sites and networks of (auto)-mobility around the world.

The workshop will operate as a prologue and agenda-setting session for a larger conference, gathering original research, to be held at the University of Birmingham in June 2016. Please contact Simon Jackson with any questions: S.Jackson.1@bham.ac.uk

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9h: Coffee and Registration

09:30-10h: Welcome and Introductory Comments

Simon Jackson and Lucie Ryzova (University of Birmingham, History)

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10-12:30h: Panel 1: Regional Cases & Comparisons

Chair: Lucie Ryzova (University of Birmingham, History)

  • Pascal Ménoret (Brandeis, Anthropology): “Learning from Riyadh: Joyriding, Infrastructure, and Politics”
  • Frédéric Abécassis (ENS, Lyon, History): “The Creation of the Moroccan Road Network: A History”
  • David Sims (Cairo, Urban Planning/Economics): “The Private Car in Greater Cairo”

Discussants: Shane Hamilton (University of Georgia, History) & Simon Jackson (Birmingham, History)

12:30-13:30h: Lunch

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13:30-15:30h: Panel 2: Urban (Auto)-mobility between History and Social Science.

Chair: Samuel Dolbee (NYU, History/Middle East Studies)

  • Kristin Monroe (University of Kentucky, USA, Anthropology): “Driving Then and Now: The History and Anthropology of Automobility in Beirut”
  • Andrew Arsan (Cambridge, History): “On Driving – and Not Driving – in Contemporary Lebanon: Mobility, Stasis, and the Decay of the Commons”

Discussant: Sara Fregonese (Birmingham, Geography)

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15:30-16h: Coffee

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16-17:30h: Panel 3: Comparative and Global Approaches

Chair: Nathan Cardon (Birmingham, History)

  • Simon Gunn (Leicester, History): “‘The Car and the City: New Approaches to Automobility in Britain and the West”
  • Gijs Mom (Eindhoven, Industrial Engineering/History): “How to Approach Middle Eastern Mobility? Prolegomena for a Recipe”

Discussant: Frank Uekotter (Birmingham, History)

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17:30-18h: Concluding Discussion and Planning for 2016 Conference.

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19h: Drinks and Dinner

Please contact Simon Jackson with enquiries – S.Jackson.1@bham.ac.uk

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The Global Transformation of Time: 1870 – 1950

This week’s guest post comes from our Modern & Contemporary research seminar speaker, Vanessa Ogle (University of Pennsylvania), who will present her work at the Centre on Wednesday 21 October at 16:15h.

Cover of William Willett’s pamphlet “The Waste of Daylight” 1914. Courtesy, Vanessa Ogle.

Cover of William Willett’s pamphlet “The Waste of Daylight” 1914. Courtesy, Vanessa Ogle.

As new networks of railways, steamships, and telegraph communications brought distant places into unprecedented proximity, previously minor discrepancies in local time-telling became a global problem. In my forthcoming book, The Global Transformation of Time, I chronicle of the struggle to standardize clock times, calendars, and social time from 1870 to 1950 and highlight the many hurdles that proponents of uniformity faced in establishing international standards.

Yet clock times and calendars were not only concepts that were standardized and internationalized during the nineteenth century, like so many other subject matters and movements during the same years. Time also had a more foundational role to play in nineteenth-century globalization. A globalizing world led contemporaries to reflect on the annihilation of space and distance and to develop a global consciousness.

In his famous Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argued that print products and newspapers in particular, made it possible for dispersed audiences to conceive of themselves as belonging to the imagined community of a nation. Yet what Anderson did not see was that new means of communication and transportation encouraged contemporaries to imagine their nations and societies in the world, and to view them as members of a global community of nations and societies.

Time – historical, evolutionary, religious, social, or legal – served as the backdrop against which to imagine this global community, by comparing nations and societies and situating them in universal time. Time established the hierarchies that separated ‘advanced’ from ‘backward’ peoples in an age when such distinctions underwrote European imperialism.

Time thus became a universal language in which to make sense of an interconnected but heterogeneous world during the age of empire. Time’s role as such a universal metric meant that a surprisingly wide array of observers commented on varieties of time. Around 1900, the result was a striking simultaneity of ‘time talk’ around the globe. Involving German and French government officials, British social reformers, colonial administrators in Africa and Asia, Indian nationalists, Arab reformers, Muslim scholars, and League of Nation bureaucrats, such exchanges about time often heightened national and regional disparity.

For several decades, countrywide mean times were introduced first and foremost with national and regional concerns in mind. Germany introduced GMT+1 as “Central European Time” – Mitteleuropäische Zeit. “Mitteleuropa” was a designation drawn from the emerging discipline of geopolitics and denoted Germany’s ‘middling’ position on the continent as covering, at least in aspiration, much of the space between France in the West and Russia in the East.

In the colonial world, mean times were applied late and often designed for regional purposes. Half-, quarter, and even twenty-minute differences rather than even hours were therefore the norm rather than the exception. The standardization of clock times hence remained incomplete as late as the 1940s, about sixty years later than normally assumed. The much sought-after unification of calendars, entirely overlooked by existing research, never came to pass.

The Global Transformation of Time reveals how globalization was less a relentlessly homogenizing force than a slow and uneven process of adoption and adaptation that often accentuated national differences.

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Autumn 2015 Week 4 Seminar: Vanessa Ogle (Penn): ‘The Global Transformation of Time 1870–1950’

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The Week 4 Modern and Contemporary History Research Seminar is on Wednesday 21 October 2015, at 16:15h in Arts Lecture Room 4 (LR4).

We are delighted that it is organized in conjunction with BOMGS and will be delivered by:

Vanessa Ogle.

All are welcome and there will be drinks afterwards.

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Cairo, Vienna, Athens: Empire and Class on Planet Bailout.

Aufruf (Anleihe), Vˆlkerbundanleihe, 1923.06.01
Aufruf (Anleihe), Völkerbundanleihe, 1923.06.01. (League of Nations Loan, Austrian tranche issue date: 1 June) Bildarchiv Austria, PLA16304352.

Nathan Marcus

@namarcus

HSE, St. Petersburg

The debates surrounding the Greek bailout have prompted a look at historical examples of foreign financial assistance. Writing on colonial bailouts and the Austrian financial reconstruction of the 1920s, Jamie Martin discerns continuities that boil down to curtailing a state’s sovereignty in order to ensure the servicing of foreign debt. Installing foreign commissions of control that curtailed fiscal policy and public spending, from the Ottoman Public Debt Administration or the bailout of Egypt’s Khedive to the League of Nations’ schemes during the interwar period, prevented default or allowed for the provision of new foreign loans.[1]

Martin concludes by criticizing the League’s interwar interventions for introducing semi-colonial methods to Europe, noting the dangers such a precedent created for the future sovereignty of European states. Of course sovereign states are never completely free to do as they please. Nor does it seem unreasonable that creditors of bankrupt states link the supply of new capital, or the partial forgiveness of existing debt, to certain conditions. This is particularly true in cases where public funds or state guarantees are involved because private institutions refuse to lend money at reasonable interest rates. What is reminiscent of colonialism then, is not the partial curtailing of sovereignty itself, but rather the kind and the extent of conditions that are imposed and they way they get realized, sometimes against the explicit will of voters.

Key to Martin’s argument is that the League’s financial assistance programmes, foremost the Austrian reconstruction scheme of the 1920s, were extensive creditor-imposed infringements of sovereignty not unlike their colonial precedents in Egypt and elsewhere, and that they went on to inspire IMF Structural Adjustment Programs in the post-WWII era. The Austrian intervention is, on this account, an important pivot from disciplining the Khedive to disciplining Alexis Tsipras. And while it is indeed helpful to look at these programmes through the wide-angled lens of financial imperialism across the twentieth century, we must not neglect the transnational and domestic class relations and specific social histories that underpinned such interventions. The League assistance provided to Austria did provoke loud outcries about the alleged “Ottomanization” of the country, both from the Socialist left and the Pan-German right, but it was also welcomed by Austria’s industrial and administrative elites. Upon League General Commissioner Alfred Zimmerman’s arrival in Vienna, the liberal Neue Freie Presse hailed him as a “friend of Austria” and wrote:

The General Commissioner will not act like a Tyrant, he will only strengthen the government’s backbone, he will give it the moral authority to do what it itself desires to do and what it must do in order to live up to its commitments and prevent a relapse into the economics of stagnation and bankruptcy.[2]

Installing a form of foreign control in Austria was thus not a measure all its citizens were equally opposed to. There is every reason to believe that the conservative Chancellor and former Prelate Ignaz Seipel himself pushed for the idea, which was coupled to a so-called Empowerment-law that would allow him to rule by decree and outflank the strong socialist opposition. But local elites welcomed the League and its measures not just as a bastion against socialism, but also as a guarantor for what they considered sound economic policy, budgetary transparency and important socioeconomic change. At the core of Austria’s predicament were its enormous budget deficit and the destructive hyperinflation it entailed, both of which required heavy and unpopular cut-backs in fiscal spending. The League’s involvement provided the government with a tool to overcome a disastrous political and budgetary stalemate and, more importantly, with a scapegoat to blame for unpopular measures and thereby safeguard political peace in the country.[3]

The truth is that Mr Zimmerman hardly played any meaningful role beyond that of a useful scapegoat. Even before the League loan for Austria had been floated on foreign capital markets, Austrian Chancellor Seipel and his government mocked Zimmerman, ignored his inquires and circumvented his control whenever possible. Zimmerman himself became increasingly frustrated and disillusioned (he blamed the fact that the empowerment law had not been implemented as agreed), but the League of Nations was too invested (perhaps much like the European leaders in Greece today) to announce the project a failure – and so it kept up public impression that it was coming along as planned. The reconstruction scheme still proved an initial success, with foreign confidence in Austria rebounding and foreign capital flowing into the country, contributing to a boom on the Vienna stock-exchange, the flow of foreign loans to its banks and industries and short-term financing of its foreign trade.

The main reason for the temporary success of the League ‘s intervention lay not in foreign control of Austria’s budget, the pledging of revenues to foreign creditors and an infringement of Austrian sovereignty. Much like Greece today, the country’s economy was in dire need of hugely unpopular reforms, but the country’s political parties were too divided or lacked the necessary trust to find common ground and agree on changes. While politicians believed cutbacks were necessary, they were unwilling to take the blame and pay the political cost of implementing them. Meanwhile industrialists and bankers knew that only foreign loans could help rebuild the Austrian economy.[4] The most important contribution of the League was hence to give the government and the opposition the necessary moral and political cover to implement unpopular, but necessary changes, while blaming the cost in unemployment on Zimmerman, foreign financial interests, the League of Nations in Geneva, or even the Bank of England. The result was a balanced budget, a stable currency and economic recovery.

As charges of financial imperialism continue to be raised, its relationship to domestic class conflict should not be overlooked, even if the specifics of the latter are harder to grasp from case to case. Debt restructuring or financial reconstruction like in 1920s Austria inevitably required the balancing of public accounts through the curtailment of government expenditures and an increase in taxation. Given the existing balance of power between capitalists, industrialists, and the army on one hand and workers and unions on the other, supporting local elites’ self-allocated “right” to determine the nature of “their country’s” economic policies might have been the easiest way to lower borrowing costs. Where European intervention in nineteenth century Egypt, the League in 1920s Austria and the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs after WWII invariably failed was to protect those weakest in society from the costs of economic reform. Serving as a scapegoat, such interventions helped and sometimes encouraged entrenched national elites to impose measures in ways that disproportionately hurt the economically weak or politically powerless. It is this seeming disregard for the plain human suffering incurred by foreign bailouts that continues to evoke connotations of colonialism.

Importantly, after the League left Austria in 1926, the political polarization and blame-game returned and very quickly made Austria ungovernable. Political and economic elites squandered the opportunities League control had provided them with and instead led the country from one financial crisis to another. The fact that in Greece it is the left-wing Syriza that has negotiated reforms to supposedly heal the country’s economy might therefore present an important break in the continuity of economic government. If Syriza indeed gets re-elected and manages to form a coalition it will be a left-wing led government that will be forced to implement creditor demands in Greece, a fact that might or might not bode well for the future political stability of the country. Either way, observers of the situation will be well advised to pay close attention not just to creditor colonialism but also to internal Greek politics and class relations, which will significantly determine how it ends up exiting the current imbroglio.

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[1] Mauro Megliani, Sovereign Debt: Genesis- Restructuring-Litigation (Springer, 2015), pp. 68-71.

[2] “Ankunft des Generalkomissärs in Wien“ in Neue Freie Presse, 15 Dec. 1922, p. 1. The original text reads as follows: „Der Generakomissär wird nicht den Tyrannen spielen, er wird nur der Regierung das Rückgrat stärken, er wird ihr die moralische Autorität geben das zu tun, was sie selber tun will und was sie tun muss, um ihren Pflichten zu genügen und den Rückfall in die Versumpfung und Bankerottiererwirtschaft zu verhindern.“ True to its political orientation, the socialist Arbeiterzeitung ignored Zimmerman’s arrival and the following day chose to mock the Neue Freie Presse’s adulations, commenting that with the General Commissioner’s appearance, Austria had ceased to be a “free and independent state.” “Die Ankunft” in Arbeiterzeitung, 16 Dec. 1922, p. 3.

[3] Tony Judt has argued similarly that it were domestic goals of change and reform that motivated most European statesmen to embrace the rhetoric of a united continent after 1945. See, Tony Judt, A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe (New York: NYU Press, 2011), p. 4.

[4] “Es ist ja auch Ihnen, hochverehrter Herr Minister bekannt, dass die wirtschaftliche Lage unseres Landes es unbedingt erforderlich erscheinen lässt, unseren heimischen Unternehmungen fremdes, wenn möglich westländisches Kapital zuzuführen. Nur mit Hilfe der billiger verzinslichen ausländischen Gelder wird es möglich sein, durch Investitionen die Productionsfähigkeit unserer Industrie auf eine konkurrenzfähige Höhe zu bringen.“ Vienna Chamber of Commerce to Minister Franckenstein, 26 Jun. 1924. Archiv der Republik, 01/9, Box 102.

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What Should Universities Be?

What are universities becoming? A plea from the future

By John-Erik Hansson, European University Institute; Nguyen Vu Thuc Linh, European University Institute, and Ola Innset, European University Institute

The role of the university as a place of education and research, as an employer, and as an important part of the social landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade.

As PhD students from various European and North American academic backgrounds, we are keenly aware of these developments and have been involved within or against them – often both at the same time. One of the most pressing issues from our perspective is that of the workforce in universities, especially the collapse of working conditions for many academic and non-academic staff.

Professors, who once enjoyed excellent working conditions in Europe and North America, are now being subjected to stricter, stranger, and more noxious standards. They are pressured into constant external grant applications, and are threatened with severe sanctions if the administration considers the results of this search inadequate. The case of Stefan Grimm, a professor at Imperial College London who was found dead in September 2014 shortly after a distressing email exchange about funding, is one tragic example.

Professors are increasingly being judged according to various forms of ranking, both state sponsored (such as the Research Excellence Framework in the UK) and international ones such as the Shanghai ranking and the Times Higher Education ranking of global reputation. These rankings, as Cambridge historian Stefan Collini argues, do not actually reflect the excellence of the research, or the quality of the university. And yet, they matter tremendously to university administrators, students, and state officials.

Working conditions under strain

Of course, professors are not the only academic workers at a university. There are throngs of other individuals involved in the production of knowledge. These include temporary teaching staff, “research assistants”, or graduate students who often combine their own thesis-related work with teaching and with non-thesis related “research assistance”. It has been argued that some of these schemes provide valuable experience for graduate students, allowing them to be more competitive in the clogged-up academic labour market.

But this experience can come with unpleasant strings attached, such as less than adequate working conditions. Or teaching opportunities without pay, as recently proposed by our own institution, the European University Institute.

Temporary teaching staff are frequently employed in dire conditions, as in the United States, but also in the “social-democratic paradises” of Scandinavia. High competition, low pay, few to no benefits and very unstable contracts have become the rule, rather than the exception. In Norway, for example, as much as 20% of all university and college employees are hired on temporary contracts.

Such harsh conditions make it particularly difficult for members of historically disadvantaged groups, such as women, people from lower social classes, and those with a migrant background to succeed, as they are the ones most affected by the low pay and lack of benefits. The result is a less socially and intellectually diverse university.

Labour issues boil over

We should not forget that an often neglected but huge part of the university-employed labour force consists of non-academic staff. As an institution, the university does not simply produce knowledge – it also consumes a vast amount of services. These run from university administration to cleaning and catering.

The workers who perform these tasks are to a significant extent, the life-blood of the university. And yet their important contribution often remains unnoticed even when their working conditions, and therefore their livelihoods, are being attacked, as has happened in recent years. As with young academics, those who are overwhelmingly affected by these degrading labour conditions come from underprivileged backgrounds. They are often women, migrants or both and do not usually have ready access to the media to fight back.

Protests at McGill University, Montreal, in 2011.
shahk, CC BY-ND

In late 2011, in Montreal, members of the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association went on strike for almost four months. They did so in opposition to a new contract proposed by the administration. The university wanted wage cuts in real terms, and negative (or dangerous) changes to benefit schemes including pensions.

Across the Atlantic in 2013, students and staff at the University of Sussex, occupied a medical school lecture theatre, protesting against the university’s continued privatisation of services that threatened working conditions of staff including porters, caterers and security workers.

State-led privatisation

The responsibility of national governments for “marketisation” and the drive for privatisation in higher education is sometimes underestimated, both within and outside academia. Reforms aimed at privatisation are very often the result of government intervention in the management of universities, and have been imposed from the top down. This has been done by governments of both the centre-right and the centre-left.

Similarly, resistance to these trends comes from both a diverse alliance of the radical-left, who draw on theories of financialisation and neo-liberalism to explain our current economic situation, and from more conservative scholars who see themselves as the protectors of ancient academic tradition.

As young scholars, we are part of the university’s future. It seems evident to us that we should ask questions about what universities are for. But in so doing, we must not forget to ask another, bolder question: “what should universities be?”

There is no “going back” to any perceived golden age, but it is beyond doubt that there are aspects both of the academic tradition and of the post-war ideal of affordable or free higher education that are worth defending. As institutions charged with the important task of producing new knowledge, universities should not be desperately mimicking already outdated forms of corporate organisation, but rather be leading the way towards something better.

This article was written with the assistance of Tiago Matos, Kimon Markatos, Hannah Elsisi and Tommaso Giordani. It is part of a series on Universities at the crossroads.

The Conversation

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Harvard, Harvard, Harvard?

Why the US liberal arts tradition failed to take hold in Europe

By Andrea Mariuzzo, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa

Parasites, pedants and superfluous men and women. Those are some of the accusations that have been levelled against historians and humanities scholars, according to Anthony Grafton, former president of the American Historical Association. He argues in favour of a general education, rooted in the humanities, that can make students independent and analytic thinkers. This is something that, he says:

Matters more than ever in the current media world, in which lies about the past, like lies about the present, move faster than ever before.

Academics around the world widely share these views. Some European educators, such as the founder of the New College of the Humanities in London, A C Grayling, claim a broader agenda of learning through the reference to the value of the humanities in “rendering people fit to deal with unpredictable … challenges”.

Yet while the liberal arts tradition of “general education” remains embedded into American higher education, in Europe, it has been left aside.

The Harvard model

The US inherited the “liberal education” pattern from Britain, originally designed for the education of privileged youngsters. It was based on a complete and well-organised introduction to human knowledge in art, literature, science, and social life, through an overview of classical studies and the knowledge of western intellectual tradition.

In the 20th century, facing an increase in student numbers in secondary and tertiary education as populations expanded, several US reformers argued that the extension of access to a common body of information and ideas was more important than splitting curricula up into different vocations. It would be better for the democratisation of tertiary education rolled out to the masses, they argued.

Their most influential document was the report General Education in a Free Society, prepared between 1943-45 by a group of Harvard faculty members and inspired by their president James Bryant Conant, an advocate for equal opportunity and meritocracy in intellectual careers.

James Bryant Conant
Wikipedia

The committee’s objective was a reform of Harvard’s curricula, but its conclusions involved the American education system as a whole and have had a lasting impact. In the struggle of American civilisation against the totalitarian threat of World War II, they said that a general introduction to western cultural heritage would help foster the necessary qualities for free and responsible citizenship.

They argued that reflection and dialogue on great ideas of the past were the bases for critical thinking and for the identification with common values. A “well-rounded” general preparation was important to acquire the flexibility of mind, self-knowledge, and understanding of the world needed to choose a profession. And college programmes based on common subjects rather than on elective choices would facilitate the academic integration of gifted students, regardless of their background.

The committee’s proposals centred on the connection between comprehensive high schools, designed for universal attendance, and post-secondary curricula. They wanted to integrate vocational programmes within a set of courses devoted to a dynamic presentation of the realisations of human knowledge.

The ‘Sputnik shock’

President Harry S Truman (centre) with Conant in 1948
Wikipedia

The idea that general education was a tool for a truly democratic school system influenced post-war federal policy. A report called Higher Education in American Democracy, prepared in 1947 by a commission appointed by President Harry Truman, suggested all levels of education were aimed at “a fuller realisation of democracy”, “international understanding” and “the application of … trained intelligence to the solution of … problems”.

This was to be achieved through the administration of a broad and well-organised set of non-vocational subjects. After the 1957 “Sputnik shock” – major curricula reform sparked by the Russians being first to launch a satellite – funding programmes for the improvement of the US education system followed some of these guidelines.

Reformers across the Atlantic

In the same period, American public diplomats tried to influence education reforms in Western Europe, in view of the integration of North-Atlantic school systems and their cooperation in cold-war competition. Not by chance, in the 1950s Conant and his collaborators visited West Germany, Italy, Britain, and Switzerland as policy advisers.

They argued that European reformers needed to delay the choice between academic and vocational training – made when pupils were about 11. They also thought Europe’s education systems should reduce the strong distinction among traditionally academic and purely vocational secondary school curricula, still characterised by the presence of privileged subjects for admission to university and by the reference to the study of Latin and literature as an element of selection rather than inclusion.

Their advice to Europe was also to lessen the specialisation of university faculties, which were still designed for the advanced preparation of an elite group of professional intellectuals. Instead, higher education should be transformed into a moment to complete the cultural and personal development for a growing number of students.

Despite the extension of compulsory schooling, European education maintained a higher fragmentation of curricula. Reformers could not obtain the integration of all school cycles within a well-defined project of learning proposed by the US example. In fact, an agreement on further changes among political leaders proved to be hard to achieve. Reformers also faced the opposition of several conservative education professionals.

Today, two continents divided

These deep-rooted differences are still clear today. Even vocal critics of American universities say “liberal arts” programs “are still the best that higher education offers” and represent a wise investment, compared with “majors in fields like furniture design”.

As for Europe, some scholars now believe that the Bologna Process – an ongoing project to make higher education comparable across Europe – is inspired by a misconceived “American model”. They argue that it has been built around concepts of “employability” and the “student-as-customer”, and promotes further specialisation of training.

To counteract this, the education historian, Jesper Eckhardt Larsen, has argued that the American liberal arts tradition “facilitates a breadth of cultivation … [which] is relevant for life rather than just for work”. It may be a good starting point to re-orient European higher education policies.


This article is part of our series, Universities at the crossroads.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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