Narrowing Horizons: The Decision by Sussex University to Drop Research-Led Teaching and Implement a Post-1900 Curriculum Will Produce Scholars Lacking in Historical Perspective

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On his blog and within last month's editorial History Today's editor Paul Lay underlined the 'gloom that has descended upon history departments throughout Britain: It was a timely intervention, mirrored by letters and articles in the Daily Telegraph, that has rightly provoked an immediate debate on the History Today website because, from the vantage point of 2010, the state of the profession does not look good. All the talk is of cuts, redundancies and rationalisation. 'More for less' is the management buzz phrase.

Of course no one is saying that the world owes historians a living. We need to engage with the world around us, to communicate with as wide an audience as possible. Nor can we ignore the banking meltdown that has put so much pressure on public-sector budgets.

Yet before managers go down the path of slash and burn they need to think hard about questions of intellectual rigour. They need to look beyond a framework that only understands perceived demand, relevance and impact. They must ask themselves what sort of history graduates we wish to produce. After all they are the ones who will go on to teach in schools, further education colleges and universities. Do we want a profession dominated by 20th-century expertise?

In the case of the University of Sussex, where in the late 1980s I completed a PhD on the Algerian War of Independence, I was shocked to learn that research and research-led teaching is going to be dropped for the early modern period in favour of a post-1900 curriculum. Why? Because, writing as a contemporary historian, this will impair the students' capacity to analyse so much of the 20th century. How will they comprehend conflict in Occupied France without knowledge of the 1789 values that underpinned the Resistance? …


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