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Writing and teaching the history of modern Britain

Published: February 23, 2018

James_Vernon_Textbook.png These are interesting times to be teaching and writing the history of modern Britain.  Britons remain often unable to acknowledge, and yet haunted by, their imperial and European histories.  The debates around Brexit and the legacies of slavery and colonialism frequently occasion an effort to restage a national past where Britons were always great, white and well-intentioned (most recently with Historians for Britain and the Ethics and Empire Project at Oxford).  That national past is endlessly recuperated in the nasty nativism on display in British television and film from Downton Abbey, The Crown, Dunkirk to whatever the latest movie is about Queen Victoria or Winston Churchill.  Not surprisingly, it is this screen history of Britain that is most familiar to students in the United States, but more worryingly it largely remains the one taught in British schools even at A-levels.  The conceit of this nationalist history is always that Britons - usually privileged, white, male ones - went out in to the world and made it in their image (and the world really should be pretty grateful).   

Now, of course, most of us who teach and write British history know how absurd this nativist history is. Wherever we work we have all had to grapple with postcolonial theory, women’s and gender history, new imperial history, indigenous history, transnational and global history.  We understand that British history, the histories of its four nations, and this very staging of white, male supremacy were products of slavery and imperialism. As universities in Australia, the United States and England increasingly advertise posts for historians of the ‘Britain and the World’, we are beginning to acknowledge that the world may have made Britain, that its history was partly shaped by transnational or global processes over which it had no control (see the forthcoming forum of ‘Britain and the World’ in Journal of British Studies, 57, 4 (2018)). Some even suggest that national histories themselves are in crisis

We should be deeply troubled by this disconnect between the work of professional historians and the resurgence of nativist histories (and not just those in post-Brexit Britain). Whatever else we may need to do to reconnect with the public the work we do as teachers seems critical to me.  Our classrooms are our first public: they are the ground zero of ‘impact’, ‘outreach’ and ‘public history’.  And while fewer students are majoring in History within the United States, Peter Mandler has suggested that the number of History degrees in Britain have been holding more or less firm.   

I have not done the math(s) but I imagine fewer people have read my work than those I have taught over the last thirty years.  And in the classroom and lecture hall we are forced outside of our academic bubble where we sometimes too comfortably assume that everyone possesses similar terms of reference and modes of thought.  Nothing was more exciting to me to move to California from Britain and discover that my students had never heard of Coventry let alone Gladstone.  They compelled me to reframe the way I taught British history by returning to classic questions about change over time – of the state, economies, environment, understandings of gender and race - that they could connect to other national and imperial histories.  I often find the critical feedback I receive from students no less helpful in making me think harder and more clearly than processes of peer review.  

It is a shame then that so much of our professional life systematically devalues teaching (except, of course, when we go on strike).  At many institutions, it is research and publishing, not teaching, that propels careers.   Even at the public university where I work writing a textbook is not considered as a publication when it comes to promotions.   And yet I have no doubt that Modern Britain 1750 to the Present, the fourth and last volume in the new Cambridge History of Britain textbook series, will be the most important book I ever publish.  It was an amazing opportunity to help inform how the next generation of undergraduates are taught the history of modern Britain.  And given that those undergraduates - in Britain as across much of the former British world – occupy a world shaped by the nativist histories endlessly repeated by politicians and dramatized on screens, it seemed a particularly timely task. 

The experience of writing this textbook was certainly humbling for it quickly exposed how little I knew about so much!  The challenge was to write a global history of Britain that reflected how the world made Britain rather more than Britain made the modern world.  I wanted to show how global processes shaped what I call the rise, fall and reinvention of liberal ideas of how markets and governments should work in the British world, as well how central violence and dispossession, at home and abroad, was to that story.  Above all it was my aim not just to castigate the past but to remake the present by reminding students that the world does change and it has been changed by those who have had the courage to challenge inequity and subjugation.

I am not sure how successful I was in worlding the history of Britain but I am a little more confident that the book should be good to teach with.   Each chapter is set up to answer a particular question about change over time and whatever you think of the explanations and arguments that follow they are designed to be accessible to students – with timelines, lots of maps and images, textboxes that zoom in on particular people, places or types of sources, guides to further secondary reading, and a glossary of key-terms.    There is also a supporting website that provides links to primary source readings, chapter summaries and study questions to help guide reading and thinking.  If any of you have used the book in a classroom I would l love to hear what works and what does not, there is lots to improve for the next edition! Please do get in touch.

I am not naïve enough to believe that we can only teach our way out of our neoliberal, nativist, present but I do think in these despairing times it is not a bad place to start.  Right, now back to the lesson plan for tomorrow.  Unless you are on strike. 

James Vernon
University of California, Berkeley



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