Wednesday, May 27, 2009

History Masters

Yesterday’s posting of Lepanto made me realise how far I’ve traveled mentally since I did my university history degree. At that stage I would have regarded Lepanto as history and the rise of the Taliban as current events.

I did six papers for my History Masters. One was England from Elizabeth I to Cromwell - parliamentary conflicts mainly. I conceived an admiration for Elizabeth that I've retained ever since. Another was British constitutional history. My conviction that civics should be part of the school curriculum dates from this study. Issues of the rule of law, the supremacy of parliament, the bill of rights, trial by jury - these became entrenched in my consciousness. My childhood interest in politics as a clash of personalities was given a theoretical underpinning.

Bill Oliver took the New Zealand and Australia paper - the first time my studies took me outside the Eurocentric viewpoint. I found the story of our neighbours across the Tasman illuminating in its differences as well as it similarities. Debates about such topics as whether convict origins meant a greater radicalism and larrikinism proved stimulating.

The fourth paper was political theory in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I specialised on Calvin, Hooker and Hobbes, wrestling with the prose and intricate thoughts of these three thinkers. It must be recalled I was planning to be a Presbyterian minister.

These papers were all good training for an historian or administrator. Some of Prof Phillips' students went off to join the fast diminishing British Colonial Service or the rapidly increasing New Zealand Diplomatic Service. But they were not so hot for the ministry or secondary school history teaching.

They seem remote from a world dominated by Eisenhower, Eden, Stalin and Sid Holland and the vague but ever-present prospect of nuclear doom that accompanied the Cold War. I did not make the connection.

In fact, it was not till Watergate that I saw those old English politics in the perspective of the perpetual problems of power, and the paranoia that goes with it. Not understanding political opportunism I judged actions from an idealistic moral vantage. Further, I accepted the notion that good historical study discovered or disclosed meaning.

The contemporary notion that such study invented meaning would have been for me then an impossibly alien thought. A historian was a detective, not a myth-creator. Then, History was what had happened. It was about people who had once lived and breathed as I did now. But somehow I saw them not as passionate, muddled and complex as I did myself and my contemporaries. Somehow time had crystallised them, removing them to a different sphere.

The last two papers consisted of research on documents from the Colonial Office brought out by David Fieldhouse from London and the relevant papers held in New Zealand. Research appealed, although I am a lateral thinker rather than an analytical one. I liked the cross-connections, the moments of insight, the search for cause and consequence and the exploration of the flux and flow of past human events.

I am grateful for the emphasis my university teachers, especially Fieldhouse insisted I give to sources. But temperamentally then like now I want to bring the understandings I gain into larger frames.

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