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British History, Once and Future

More than a quarter of a century of gnashing of teeth has accompanied the decline of British history in American higher education. Recurrent conference sessions and colloquia on "crisis and challenge" have addressed the shrinkage or elimination of British history courses in colleges and universities; the folding of British history courses into European history, western civilization, world history, or nothing; the elimination of positions as retirees are not replaced; and the dire career prospects for job-seekers. Practitioners lament the loss of funding and respect, and despair for the future of their field.

The particular – some might say insular – concerns of historians of the British Isles are part of the long-troubling crisis of the humanities, which has now grown acute. Political, financial and institutional support overwhelmingly favors so-called STEM subjects. Funders and administrators, as well as students and their families, see higher education primarily as a path to employment in currently profitable occupations. Morale is low, insecurity high, as the professoriate gives way to un-tenurable, part-time and short-term faculty.

Humanities scholars, exploring the limits of their subjects in critical, revisionist, and controversial enquiry, have unwittingly contributed to the problem by becoming isolated from the national cultural mainstream. Some would say that this is their job, and that the frontiers of a field are inherently contentious and hard to comprehend (radical work in physics, by contrast, gets a pass, no matter how abstruse, because work on neutrons, for example, is applauded for its potential commercial utility, whereas studies of early modern marginality, sexuality, patriarchy or race are met with a yawn or annoyance). It does not help the case of the Humanities that many of our disciplines are fragmented, recriminatory, and of questionable relevance. Outside the academy, and to some degree inside, proponents of identity and diversity scholarship in particular are perceived as an arrogant elite.

Facing alarms and discontents, as a member of an embattled profession, it is tempting to look back on a past where Humanities disciplines were strong and well-respected, where the liberal arts had status as the foundation of a rounded citizenship and a life well lived, and where History was a leading undergraduate subject, an entry to careers in law, media, politics, and teaching. (I imagine this past as a place as well as a time, with somewhat misty and mythic properties.)

A tract with a woodcut on the title-page, which represents four bishops, with a mitre, a crosier, a crook, two shoes, a bell, a book - one bishop holds a lighted candle, two hold rosaries - a cross, &c. falling from a mulberry-tree which grows from a ruined wall by a church.
Woodcut from “A Decade of Grievances, Presented and Approved to the ... High Court of Parliament Against the Hierarchy Or Government of the Lord Bishops; and Their Dependant Offices, by a Multitude of People, Etc. [An Extract from Alexander Leighton's Anonymous "Appeal to the Parliament, 1628."], published 1641.

British history, into the last third of the twentieth century, was second only to American history in its hold on the curriculum. It was strongly represented in libraries, publication, and in the mind and memory of cultural leaders. Most American colleges and universities had specialists in British history well towards the turn of the millennium.  In my own experience, the Claremont Colleges in the 1970s had two "Tudor/Stuart" historians (now none); California State University, Long Beach, had three British historians in the 1980s (now none); and the Ohio State University, with its newly endowed George III chair, was proud to be ‘three deep’ (now two) in British history.

Research and publication in British history has been of the highest order, made possible by superb graduate training, academic demand and investment, and by the accessibility of a unique body of primary source materials and scholarship. The catalogs, calendars and editions assembled and published since the nineteenth century (supplemented in the twentieth century by xerography and microfilm, and now online databases) were widely distributed in academic libraries, dwarfing the collections for any other country beside the United States. The resulting historiography facilitated advanced and demanding teaching that encouraged new entrants to the profession.

The quality, vitality, range, originality, and archival depth of research in British history remains high, but colleagues in other areas may not be aware of its sophistication. The subject has expanded to push the boundaries of work into social relationships, politics, power and resistance, religion, sexuality, race, gender, marginality, media, the environment, material culture, science, medicine, and interactions with the peoples and cultures of the world. (Against this, examples can be found of pomposity, dross, fixation on minutiae, and academic infighting, which sap both patience and collegiality.)

The privileged position of British history in the past rested on deep-seated claims about its importance and relevance, which are still contestable but now much eroded:

  • That the legal, political, and constitutional struggles of British history (especially the conflicts of Tudor, Stuart, and Hanoverian England) laid the foundations of the early American republic, and continued to shape American institutions.


  • That the intellectual and ideological developments that accompanied these struggles (from Francis Bacon to John Locke to Adam Smith) yielded wisdom of value in American public life.


  • That the principles and practices of American law and justice drew (and draw) on English traditions of Common Law, habeas corpus, rules of evidence, and ideas of "liberty."


  • That the vitality and diversity of American Protestant religion – Episcopalian, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Quaker, and Methodist – had strong ties to early modern England, where these faiths and churches originated.


  • That Britain was responsible (primarily or in part) for a scientific revolution (Boyle, Newton etc.), industrial revolution (coal-fired steam machinery), commercial revolution (Bank of England), and an empire that spread Britain’s power, institutions, language, values (and defects) over much of the world.


  • That Britain’s cultural heritage was America’s too, that the classical world and European Renaissance were approachable through British lenses, that Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Dickens spoke as much to an American present as to their English past.


  • That early American history, a largely celebratory story focused on the anglophone east coast, needed British history as a junior partner and ally.


  • That many Americans (WASPs and other anglophiles) felt an attachment to an English origin story (Jamestown, Pilgrim Fathers, Great Migration, Colonial Williamsburg); Britain is still the top overseas country for U.S. travelers; and the never-ending drama of Britain’s royal family and aristocracy, British popular culture, film, TV, and music, has an enduring pull.


Though many of these claims can still be made, they are difficult to sustain in a United States of accelerating cultural and demographic diversity, and social and political disunity. As American history becomes increasingly multicultural, multilingual, dislocated, identity-obsessed, and pessimistic it has less apparent use for British history. The irony, and perhaps our salvation, is that Britain too has become more multicultural, ethnically diverse, culturally fractured and socially polarized, as it adjusts to its post-imperial and post-industrial hangover, its self-inflicted exit from Europe, and its diminished status in the world.  It has been clear for half a century that Britannia no longer rules the waves, Westminster’s role as the mother of parliaments is tarnished, and Anglo-Saxon attitudes are no longer ascendant. This is a teachable story, alongside the still viable story of relevance and influence. Gifted instructors still make British history exciting, appealing, and useful.


How to act in the face of these developments remains perplexing. The viewpoints of an active, aspiring, or retired academic will likely differ. Neither an individual nor a scholarly society will have much sway against the current momentum of the market, though British studies may be smuggled into discussion of other areas, such as science, warfare, sexuality or migration. Neither illumination nor release may be expected from leaders who pander to "undereducated," nativist, and consumerist voters, and who deem expertise elitist and "old world" history "un-American." It could be argued that humanities education, with a leavening of British studies, is needed now more than ever, but that argument faces powerful headwinds. It still needs making, and shouting, against the grain. Historians, more than most, should have a sense of the origins, context and circumstance of their plight, and of the value of their contribution to the discussion.


David Cressy, author of a dozen books on early modern England, is George III Professor of British History emeritus at the Ohio State University, and Research Professor in Arts and Humanities at Claremont Graduate University.


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