Trinity College, Cambridge, circa 1975. (Photo by RDImages/Epics/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Ignorance on the Cam

The latest issue of University of Cambridge’s Alumni Magazine encourages ignorant rejection of Britain’s past

Issue 91 of CAM, the University of Cambridge’s Alumni Magazine carried an article by Niamh Gallgher, a Lecturer in Modern British and Irish History, which offered some stark phrases and was highlighted accordingly by the journal: “Britain needs to ‘wake up’ to the reality of its own history, which has always extended far beyond the island itself” appeared in both the text and in bold above the article, while larger type is also reserved for “Dr Niamh Gallagher says island mentalities can pervert our understanding of the past.” Thus, we have author, and editor, Mira Kattamna, combining to trash the pre-existing situation.

They of course misrepresent the past history of teaching in British universities, more especially history, but also a wealth of literature designed for the public. The Expansion of England (1883) by J. R. Seeley, after whom the History Building is named, is especially notable as he was Professor of Modern History at Cambridge from 1869 to 1895. The book had a great impact, including impressive sales. So also with other Cambridge scholars.

I assume the ‘wake up’ reference implies not an ignorance of the past but a rejection of it

When I was an undergraduate in 1975-8, G.V. Scammell, who taught from 1965 to 1992, was in full flow on British (and other) imperialism, notably the maritime dimension, while other scholars I heard included Jack Gallagher who from 1971 to 1980 was the Professor of Imperial and Naval History, having earlier been Beit Professor of Commonwealth History at Oxford from 1963 to 1970. Gallagher was succeeded by D. K. Fieldhouse, Chris Bayly, Alison Bashford and Samita Sen. And so elsewhere. The works of Halford Mackinder included for example Britain and the British Seas (1902).

I am surprised that Gallagher is unaware of this background, and I wonder how she would mark a student who suggested a comparable historiographical ignorance. I assume the “wake up” reference implies not an ignorance of the past but a rejection of it. Waking up is both a homely image, but, when combined with references to need and juxtaposed with supposedly perverting island mentalities is an injunction, indeed one of a somewhat millenarian character. Allegedly the past and present are dangerous and a new future has to be created in the present.

The piece in CAM is presented in a facile, if not juvenile, fashion. I note that the Vice-Chancellor, who, indeed appears in this issue, is currently urging respect between Cambridge academics, by which he appears to mean that free speech is a smorgasbord in which anything goes as long as it meets his guidelines. That may describe the current desideratum from the top, but it is unclear whether simple ignorance on the part of Cambridge academics and publicists deserves either tolerance or respect.

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