An example of “the Canon” in action can be found on the website of the Scottish Qualifications Agency. This includes a list of approved thesis titles (http://www.sqa.org.uk/sqa/controller?p_service=Content.show&p_applic=CCC&pContentID=6197) and
Among the possible threats to history that we discussed in Vilnius was an intriguing item classed as “the Canon”. The discussion centred around the fact that we tend to see history as a series of events or developments that together make us/our history what it is.
But the discussion we had made it clear that we found The Canon to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, an agreed Canon of History makes the teaching of history much easier and simpler. If The Canon is agreed we, the teachers of history, do not have to argue our case for the importance of the individual parts of our curriculum; but on the other hand, we also run the risk of having a far to prescriptive “set of knowledges” or a sort of checklist of historical knowledge that our masters can point to and say whether our “product” is good enough.
The idea of a Canon was very much part of the American literary scene when I studied in North America in the later eighties: two books in particular (Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, 1986 (dare I refer you to the Wikipedia-article about the book) ? and Harold The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, 1994 argued for a return to a traditional Canon of western literature of the kind that had been criticized as being composed mainly of the works “Dead White Males”.
I promised at our last meeting that I would start this blog with a discussion of the “Threat of Demographic Change”. The percieved problem that we face in Britain can be explained fairly simply. We are told that in five to ten years time the population cohort that goes to university will be much smaller than it is now. This will of course mean fewer students at university level and hence lower incomes across that part of the university sector which relies on student numbers to bring in money, i.e. mainly the non-technical subjects, such as History.
We are consequently now being told to prepare ourselves for stronger competition and to think up ways to secure our income. At my university this means attracting new population groups such as secondary school teachers to our subject. This may be a good idea since teachers are highly skilled as students and can be relied on to be a responsive set of students who can enhance the learning experience of the younger and less experienced (school-leaver) student who have not had the opportunity to gain the skills of rapid learning or the analytical skills to their older counterparts. But I must also admint to reservations about this solution: although there is little doubt that school teachers could raise the level of discussion in the class- (or should that be seminar-?) room, we may find that it becomes increasingly difficult to teach groups of students that contain very disparate skill levels. On the other hand, this may be a concern that is unique to those of us who are lecturing to classes in a highly structured systems such as English or Scottish higher education which is concerned with year-on-year progression. At my university, for example, students do not participate in seminars until their third year (of four). In less formal progressions this may be less of a problem.
This perceived problem of Demographic change brings along the associated problem of how a government makes its predictions and the value it attaches to individual subjects: some two decades ago when I lived in Denmark the great discussion point was the need for society to have enough Computer scientists and engineers. The Government’s solution was to encourage computer science as an academic subject and to make it easier for students to be accepted into, engeneering courses. My understanding is that this has now created such a glut of computer scientists in Denmark that currently this group sees the highest unemployment among academics: some 25 percent! Surprisingly, the traditional academic subjects, such as history, now face much lower unemployment.
Against the trend of down-grading the study of history is the fact that the study of history is remarkably boyant and seems to be on the increase: e.g. there is a level of interest in history programmes on TV. In the English speaking world the subject is extremely popular. According to a survey done by the BBC in 2000 History was the fastest growing non-fiction book category with some 12 million books sold in 1998, the History Channel attracted some 4 million viewers a week, British museums notched up 11.3 million (adult) visits and 9.5 millioin (adults) visited stately homes. This “market” showed a marked difference in composition from the student population in general: 42-44 per cent was composed of the age group 35-54 and was generally already well educated. This constutuency could perhaps be one that could be targeted in order to keep the number of students of history buoyant.
So all in all, perhaps it is true that we face a changing demographic. But on the other hand at least in Briatin we also appear to have the possiblity of encouraging new demographic groups to take up the study of history?
This of course is the perspective from Britain. What is the situation in other parts of Europe?
The purpose of this blog is to gather information and to discuss “threats to history” mainly in the university sector across Europe. The initiative to this work comes from the organisation “CLIOHnet2“, an EU-funded body with representatives from some 100 universities in Europe. The organisation includes representatives both from EU universities and from members of the EEA and from parts of Europe that wish to join the EU. The topics we have chosen to discuss come from our discussions at two meetings over the last year and these have been chosen to make it posssible to edit this blog to create a final report on the challenges and threats that teachers of history in European universities face in 2007-2008. The final editing will be done in June 2008. Participation in the Blog is not limited to representative of Cliohnet2: Anyone is welcome to contribute and I hope you will feel inspired to do so.