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Asa Briggs – a champion of history and education

Gary McCulloch

The first issue of the journal History of Education, published in 1972, was notable for the contributions of distinguished figures in the history of education itself and of social history more broadly.  One was Simon Schama, a star of the future.  Another was Asa Briggs (1921-2016), by then already the vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, and well established as one of the leading historians of his generation. 

Re-reading Briggs’ article today, after his passing, as Lord Briggs of Lewes, at the age of 94, several features stand out. First is the location of the talk on which the article was based:  the Institute of Education in London.  Second is the society that hosted his talk:  the History of Education Society, established only five years before. Third is its stirring opening sentence, often quoted as the basic maxim for modern studies of the history of education, inspiring a new generation of scholars:  ‘The study of the history of education is best considered as part of the wider study of the history of society, social history broadly interpreted with the politics, the economics and, it is necessary to add, the religion put in.’  He went on to present several key areas in which the new history of education should find fresh approaches for examination:  local, comparative, quantitative, political, intellectual and cultural history, and history from below.

his view that education should be part and parcel of history rather than distinct or separate

What is so striking about these features in Briggs’ article is the equal balance between education and history, his clear respect for both, his view that education should be part and parcel of history rather than distinct or separate.  For Briggs was a great champion of both history and education, he was content and comfortable in both domains, and he fought great battles throughout his long lifetime on behalf of each.

In relation to history, the evidence is there in the work that he leaves behind. His writings on Victorian England, such as The Age of Improvement (1959), are among his most widely known.  These works spoke unhesitatingly of social progress, but also suggested new approaches in areas such as urban history and labour history.  The three volumes of his published collected essays attest to his eclectic range of interests – class, place, politics, reform, health, welfare, policy – yet each with a bearing in a common outlook on history

And then there is education, which is an enduring theme throughout his historical work. The third volume of his collected essays, indeed, is subtitled most aptly, ‘Serious pursuits:  Communications and education’.  This was not a narrow vision of education, although it certainly included schools and schooling such as the fight for the Education Act of 1870. It was a broad prospectus of education writ large, throughout life and society. It included communications in all its many means and guises, from the telephone to the media to the BBC and broadcasting in general.  It embraced higher education, and he wrote many excellent articles and chapters on the history of universities.  Some of his most impressive later works explored these areas in great depth and length – a mammoth history of British broadcasting, a history of the BBC, and a panoramic Social History of the Media, covering five centuries from Gutenberg to the Internet, with the cultural historian Peter Burke.

Education was also at the heart of his professional life, from his time redrawing the map of knowledge at the new University of Sussex in the 1960s, to his passionate support for the new Open University of which he became chancellor in 1978, to his role on many bodies such as the University Grants Committee and his presidency of the Workers’ Educational Association, and as provost of Worcester College Oxford until his retirement in 1991.

In an age of increasing specialisation, he found both depth and breadth; he loathed academic barriers almost as much as social inequality

In sum, Asa Briggs was both disciplinary and interdisciplinary in his outlook:  committed to the discipline of history while at the same time a determined supporter of education in all its parts.  In an age of increasing specialisation, he found both depth and breadth; he loathed academic barriers almost as much as social inequality.  In his championing of both history and education, as in his political leanings, he bears comparison with the economic historian R.H. Tawney.  And we can find clues to his deepest beliefs in the final sentence of the third volume of his collected essays:  the final quote – ‘Our educational period is the shortest amongst the advanced nations’ – and the final verdict:  ‘The answers to questions still start there.’

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