Every day when I look at the internet in general and at Twitter in particular I come across independent scholars writing about their own research and writing and the problems they face outside the academic environment in which they have been trained. Most of them are very well qualified with doctorates or other advanced degrees but have found themselves unable to gain jobs in universities or colleges. This is partly the result of universities awarding more advanced degrees and thus producing more candidates for a relatively restricted number of prospective posts. It also has the effect from the point of view of employers of gaining a wide degree of choice in appointments and of keeping salaries lower because of the competition for posts. Having experienced this situation in the past myself, I have every sympathy with the predicament of those with a vocation for academic work but who must endure the frustration of being unable to secure appropriate work.
For this reason, I was interested to see Dr S.J.Ainsworth’s suggestion on Twitter in the middle of April asking if anyone might be interested in forming a network of independent scholars. I have tried in the past to suggest a similar idea with the creation of a website offering items of news on early modern subjects, details of jobs that have become available, links to sites with academic articles (like CORE), to repositories for theses (like the DART-etheses portal), to databases (like the Internet Archive), and other facilities like discussion forums, audio and video recordings, reviews of books, early modern blogs, etc. Admittedly, such a project would need in my view at least half a dozen people to be committed to contributing and making it successful over a period of time. I have made an overture detailing these suggestions to Dr Ainsworth and shall be interested to get a response.
The news that Aston University and the South Bank University of London will both be abandoning the teaching of history courses in the autumn makes positive action to bridge the gaps between academics teaching the subject and those outside their ranks more urgent. One of my long-standing friends has, as I have mentioned before, expressed his apprehension that history may not survive as a discipline in higher education in the foreseeable future. I do understand why accountants, administrators and politicians find business course, science and technology courses so appealing: the demand for them is obvious in the interests of the development of modern economies. Politicians often view higher education as a primary instrument for feeding the growth of this and other countries’ economies. More growth means more resources in tax revenues which they can then use to re-allocate to objectives they approve of. The humanities, including history, serve no such obvious purpose. But history is the major discipline for explaining how we in this society have come to be where we are and the appetite for historical knowledge is immense. Phasing it out of higher education institutions would be self-defeating and highly damaging to a civilized society.
Joe Saunders’s account of the British Association of Local History’s discussion of the Civil War in the Localities held on 19th April makes this point very effectively since it attracted an audience of just over 180 people. Dr Charlotte Young and Tim Hasker made a presentation that clearly engaged the interest of those attending and stimulated some intriguing questions. The only puzzling feature was the local bibliography on county histories that cited works by R.C.Richardson, Alan Everitt, Ann Hughes, Anthony Fletcher, John Morrill, David Underdown and William Hunt, all of them by now somewhat long in the tooth. But county histories, pace the recent work by Richard Cust and Peter Lake on Cheshire, has been out of fashion for a considerable period of time.