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Sounding off like David Brent just hurts QUB vice-chancellor's office

By Tom Holland

Published 01/06/2016

QUB’s vice-chancellor Patrick Johnston
QUB’s vice-chancellor Patrick Johnston

History - what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, if the vice-chancellor of Queen's University Belfast is to be believed. "Society doesn't need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian," Professor Patrick Johnston told the Belfast Telegraph. What it needs, instead, he opined, is "someone who has the potential to help society drive forward".

Quite what someone charged with the defence of university education thinks he is up to sounding off like David Brent at his most philistine, I am at a loss to imagine.

That the writing of history is incompatible with helping society to "drive forward" would certainly have come as news to Julius Caesar or Winston Churchill, celebrated historians both.

What makes Johnston's comments truly shocking, though, is the area of study that he chose as the particular object of his disdain.

There should be no more precious period, for anyone charged with fighting the cause of Irish universities, than the 6th century AD.

Never before had scholarship in Ireland blazed to such potent or epochal effect. Despite never having been a part of the Roman Empire, the island lit a fire of learning which served to illumine the entire Western world.

St Columbanus, travelling from Meath to Italy, established habits of study that would endure in the Frankish world for centuries; St Columba, travelling to Scotland, played a key role in bringing the heritage of classical civilisation back to Britain.

Bede, writing in a Northumbrian monastery the first ever history of the English, was as much in the debt of Irish scholars as all subsequent English scholars would be in his.

"It has ever been my delight," Bede wrote, "to learn or to teach or to write." A reminder from the so-called Dark Ages of what university teaching should properly be about.

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Historian Tom Holland presents Making History on BBC Radio 4
Historian Tom Holland presents Making History on BBC Radio 4

'More than a third of students leave Northern Ireland at 18; we cannot afford to lose such talent - but they'll only return if there are opportunities'  

Queen's University vice-chancellor Patrick Johnston: Can we put my history blunder in the past?

A history lesson for QUB vice-chancellor Patrick Johnston  

The 6th century AD, far from being a period of mockable obscurity, is one that anyone concerned to understand today's world can profit from studying.

Haunted as it was by the question of what new order would emerge to replace the collapsed Roman Empire, it is certainly not without relevance to anyone wondering what will happen should the European Union implode.

Throw in the fact that the 6th century was also the period that incubated Islam, and that climate change gripped it to catastrophic and measurable effect, and its fascination comes to seem self-evident.

Any university vice-chancellor looking "to help society drive forward" should be supporting the teachers and students of the period to the very best of his ability - not stabbing them in the back.

  • Tom Holland is the author of the best-selling Rubicon: The Triumph And Tragedy Of The Roman Republic; Persian Fire: The First World Empire, Battle For The West; and Millennium: The End Of The World And The Forging Of Christendom. He also presents Making History on BBC Radio 4

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