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From Merrie England To The Civilized World: History At Sheffield, 1963-1988, Part 2 – Brave New World

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The core of compulsory papers in English history in the Department was defended by the Professor of Modern History, Ken Haley, who retired in 1982, chiefly on the grounds that it gave the degree course a clear identity and the students a common culture and a framework for a coherent view of the past. Most of his colleagues agreed on those objectives, but they held that the traditional curriculum no longer served them, if it ever had.

Accordingly, the single honours syllabus which came into operation in 1985 was also based on three common elements: “World Civilizations, 600 – 1900”, taught throughout the second year, “Modern Historical Thought”, begun in the second year and completed in the third, and a dissertation in the third.

There was, of course, nothing new about the dissertation, advocated by syllabus reformers throughout the twentieth century, and famously the culmination and emblem of Tout’s Manchester School, but of 25 English and Welsh curricula surveyed in 1966 only Manchester and four others required one, while four more (nine by 1975) offered it as an alternative to an examination paper.

The common papers were wholly new, and nothing like either of them had been attempted anywhere else. Historians were still notoriously distrustful of all theorising about their subject, and confident that students exposed to it would, like them, be either baffled or bored, a view sustained by such courses as were occasionally offered (though never in Sheffield) on historiography understood as superseded accounts of this topic or that, or as a cloudy “philosophy of history” without visible connection to its actual practice. Neither had much in common with the serious attack on “hard questions about why historians write what they do and why past historians did it differently” that was devised and taught by Michael Bentley.[1]

In the first century of its existence academic history had concerned itself with the world beyond Europe only in the context of European imperialism (or, as it was more politely called, expansion). The regions in which it took place and their inhabitants were assumed to be, in the words of the anthropologist Eric Wolf’s devastating indictment of 1982, without History.[2] The histories of other literate civilizations were confined with their languages and literatures to area studies: Gordon Daniels of Sheffield’s Centre of Japanese Studies had offered History students an option on the recent Far East since 1963. “World History” occasionally appeared, as in Sheffield, only as in “European and World History”, usually since 1870.

In the 1960s and ‘70s this became increasingly difficult to accept, especially for a generation growing up in a world torn by conflict in Vietnam, turmoil in the Middle East and revolution in Iran. At the same time the idea that world history was something that might be undertaken by professional historians, as opposed to cranks, prophets and social theorists, was beginning to take shape, notably through the work of W. H. McNeill in the US and Geoffrey Barraclough and John Roberts in the UK. [3]

World History came to Sheffield early in 1978, in the form of an entirely unprovoked telephone call inviting me to edit a historical atlas for students to replace Ramsey Muir’s, which had been effectively alone in the field since 1911.[4] That two departmental colleagues, Mark Greengrass and Bernard Wasserstein, were willing to join me as editors made it possible to accept, and the finished product included ten contributors from six Sheffield departments.[5] Compiling the list of maps, since the publisher had stipulated only that we should begin at the beginning and continue to the present in 80 maps, forced us to form a view of world history as a whole, then a novel experience for most historians. It was the most exciting intellectual exercise I have ever engaged in (I still think it would make a wonderful first-year module), and permanently changed my historical outlook.

Though World Civilizations was the first undergraduate course in long-term world history to be offered in the UK (or as far as I know, and as distinct from “Western Civilization”, anywhere else), therefore, it was a product of its time, and of local experience. In being taught by a combination of lectures and seminars it also reflected the collective determination of the Department to strike a new path, by accepting the argument of David Luscombe, then its Head, that if something so novel were to have so central a role everyone should take some part in it. Everyone did, and for several years readiness to do so was among the advertised requirements of every appointment.

Enthusiasm for that arrangement naturally varied among the teachers, but the course was popular with students, and produced some of the best undergraduate work I ever saw. As a medievalist I was particularly struck not once to hear the drearily familiar complaint of “irrelevance” directed at its early beginning: the wide comparative context seemed to make the long chronological perspective come naturally. But, in retrospect, it was bound to be short-lived, at least in its original form. In 1985 the ordinary preconditions of teaching did not exist. There were no textbooks, and no field of established academic discourse that corresponded to either the scope or the concerns of the course, so finding suitable reading was an acute problem.

Like Henry Adams in an earlier pioneering age, we had no alternative but “frankly to act on the rule that a teacher who knew nothing of his subject should not pretend to teach his scholars what he did not know, but should join them in trying to find the best way of learning it.”[6] The course’s essentially transitional character is betrayed by its title: Eurocentrism was not easily escaped simply by the use of a plural. By the 1990s the academy was beginning to take world history seriously, and rapid advances both in published knowledge and sophistication of approaches underlined the uncomfortably Heath Robinsonish aspect of the course, while looming modularisation, managerialism and massive student numbers made reorganisation inevitable.

For the University the 1980s was a decade of austerity and reconstruction, which it entered among those most affected by the earliest cuts of the Thatcher era. It responded by accepting that it had too many small and weak departments, rejecting the easy solution of “equal misery” and building on such strengths as it had, while avoiding compulsory redundancy. In 1982 the Academic Development Committee based its recommendations to this end principally on the criteria of research income and the quality of undergraduate admissions. By these measures Medieval and Modern History came out well, unlike Ancient History and Economic History, and its position was further strengthened when – again, unlike them – it was one of Sheffield’s embarrassingly few departments to emerge with a high rating from the first Research Assessment Exercise in 1986. Hence the merging of the three departments in 1988, which, though not without its pains, created a Department of History beyond the dreams of George Richard Potter.

If you want to find out more, click here to go to Part 1.

R. I. Moore taught History at Sheffield from 1964-1993, and is now Professor Emeritus at Newcastle University. His recent publications include ‘L’hérésie dans le jeu des pouvoirs’, Cahiers de Fanjeaux 55 (2020), Le “catharisme” en questions, pp. 157-72, and ‘Treasures in Heaven: Defining the Eurasian Old Regime?’, Medieval Worlds, 6 (2017), pp. 7-19.


Cover image: University of Sheffield in April or May, 1972. Courtesy of David Dixon©, https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2891461 [Accessed 14 February 2021].

[1] Michael Bentley, ed., Companion to Historiography (Routledge, London, 1977), xi ff for the critique, and for the alternative ibid. 395 – 506, separately .as Modern Historiography (1999).

[2] Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley, 1982).

[3]The term “global history” came into use later, from the social sciences, and with specific reference to the processes which produced the present globalised world. For that reason I continue to prefer “world history” as more comprehensive and, implicitly, less prescriptive.

[4] J. Ramsey Muir, Atlas of Modern History, (London, 1911), and many subsequent editions. Neither the publisher nor I knew that the far larger and lavishly funded Times Historical Atlas, ed. Geoffrey Barraclough, was in preparation: when it appeared later in 1978 our scheme was complete and production well under way.

[5] R. I. Moore, ed., The Hamlyn Historical Atlas (London, 1981), various subsequent editions, most recently as Rand McNally Atlas of World History. Wasserstein left Sheffield for Brandeis in 1979.

[6]  Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, ch xx.

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you. I am not sure it is entirely accurate to say that “World History came to Sheffield early in 1978”.

    I graduated in 1972 and did a course of Modern World History which was 1 paper in my final exam. I wish I could remember the name of the lecturer but cannot. I only remember him as very pleasant and quite left wing. The course effectively only covered World History in the 20th Century. However, it did cover Palestine, Vietnam, Indian independence and the Cold War with particular emphasis on the role of British Empiralism.

    A separate course was on the History of the USA.

    It is true that a wide ranging World History course prior to 1900 was not available but I think it is too much of a generalisation to say that History before 1978 was only about the British Isles and Europe.

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