Thursday, June 25, 2009

The benefits of an historical education?

Paul Lay, the editor of Britain's History Today magazine, ponders the fact that Gordon Brown has a Ph.D in history.
It is alleged that former Prime Minister Anthony ‘Tony’ Blair voiced to his mentor Roy Jenkins the regret that he had not studied history. He thought a greater engagement with the past might have made him a better politician. It is a claim made repeatedly by historians, most recently and most eloquently by John Tosh in his Why History Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). It is mirrored in another appeal of historians, that the study of their subject produces a more critical and engaged electorate. It’s a view I generally endorse.

But what to make of Gordon Brown? He graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a first class degree in history yet he has become, by some stretch, the worst prime minister in living memory.
Counter-examples? By all accounts Lester Pearson was a lousy and uninterested history prof before he switched to diplomacy.Like Fidel, he was a decent baseball player -- maybe that's a stronger qualification.

A while ago the lively American history blog Edge of the American West (scroll way down) trashed the doctorate of historio-politican Newt Gingrich:
Once I actually looked up the story of Newt Gingrich’s scholarship. It's pretty hilarious. He was at Tulane, finished the Masters, had no idea of a PhD subject. A professor he liked told him to do the educational system in the Belgian Congo, even though Gingrich didn’t speak or read Flemish, Dutch or French and had never visited Africa. He barely finished the 160-pager (without actually visiting the Congo), then barely got the Community College job through contacts, then barely got renewed at the CC and was given a strong warning that his prospects for tenure were miniscule; it appears his teaching was not particularly distinguished either. He was spending all his time on politics and cheating on his first wife….
Oooh, do we dish! But I was forgetting Janice Potter McKinnon, erstwhile historian of the Ontario loyalists turned very successful Finance Minister in Saskatchewan.
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