I have, now and again, made the jokey claim that if only I were pursuing my research project into the modern influence of Thucydides in the US rather than in Bristol, I would be deluged with offers from well-funded think-tanks and the like, and would have no problem at all in demonstrating Impact. It’s certainly the case that, for any number of different reasons, Thucydides is far more widely cited in public life over there, and there is an obvious precedent for a Thucydides-focused academic getting involved in policy debates in the case of Donald Kagan, whereas here in the UK I’ve been confronted by complete indifference (and a lot of unanswered letters and emails) in attempting to interest anyone in my project to use annotated extracts from Thucydides as a basis for debating key issues about citizenship in schools. The project pre-dates the Impact Agenda, so I was never required to produce an Impact Plan or build any outreach activities into the design; the Thinking Through Thucydides idea was a late and spontaneous development, and I don’t know whether it might have got off the ground if I’d been working at it from the beginning, or whether the lack of interest in Thucydides in the public sphere in the UK would have been grounds for rejecting the whole project. The application I’m developing for Phase II (strictly speaking, Phase III) of the whole enterprise has the TTT project fully integrated into the plan, so perhaps this is the opportunity to test that counterfactual.
On the whole, I have to admit, I loathe the whole Impact thing; mostly, my brain simply slides off the subject, whenever I try to imagine ways in which my research might help build a better vacuum cleaner. This isn’t, as such an attitude is commonly portrayed outside the academy, a demand to be given lots of public money without any accountability so that I can carry on writing books and articles of no interest or relevance to the world outside; my research is, admittedly within my rather limited capabilities in this regard, fully engaged with the world outside, seeking to get involved with debates about such vital themes as economic development, urbanisation, the meaning of the past for the present and the whole contradictory concept of modernity, not to mention the Thucydides thing – it’s just not engaged with the world outside in the ways apparently envisaged by the designers of Impact, and unlikely ever to yield evidence of the right sort of impact. The fact that the project plan didn’t have to include Impact doesn’t get me off the hook; it’s abundantly clear, from the way that departments across the land have had to write case studies of the Impact of other research that never took Impact into account either, that there will be no escape. At the moment, I can wriggle out of this obligation on the grounds that the project is too new to have yielded substantial Impact; next time around (assuming that the REF continues in a more or less similar form, which seems likely, and that I haven’t opted out to start a sausage-making and smoking business, which is more open) I am going to have to demonstrate the Impact of Thucydides, and it would be so much easier if anyone in British schools or public life was at all interested in being impacted upon. And it’s not only a sense of duty to the department and of inevitable doom: I do genuinely believe in the idea that reading Thucydides’ text, with suitable support to make it accessible and to highlight key issues, can help develop critical sensibility and improve the quality of political thought in the young, and so am genuinely frustrated that no one else seems to be open even to the possibility of being persuaded.
This weekend, evidence emerged that a senior policy adviser in the field of education is completely committed to the importance of Thucydides as a means of developing understanding and critical acumen. “I loved studying classics, and do not think there is a better book to study than Thucydides as training for politics…”; “We need leaders with an understanding of Thucydides and statistical modelling…”; “Such an education and training might develop synthesisers who have… a cool Thucydidean courage to face reality including their own errors and motives…” Thucydides and Pericles are cited regularly in the course of a text that focuses almost entirely on the development of scientific understanding; Thucydides is named in the document as one of the central works for teaching children about politics and war, exactly as I have been trying to argue. The bad news? The writer in question is Dominic Cummings, who has built up quite a reputation as one of Michael Gove’s closest advisers and many of whose ideas on education I find utterly unsympathetic, and the text, apparently a draft of an essay rather than a polished publication, has been subjected to extensive ridicule from commentators on the left, above all because of its claims about the genetic basis of social differentiation.
This has brought me up against two problems, albeit both somewhat abstract. The first is the fear of taint; with friends like these (and you could put the US Neocons in the same category), Thucydides doesn’t really need enemies. What are the chances of my being able to sell engagement with Thucydides as a potentially democratic, liberating experience – something that’s quite separate from the fact that his own sympathies, insofar as we can discern them. are not especially democratic – if the default identity of those who most celebrate Thucydides is male, right-wing and militaristic (to be fair, I’m not sure where Cummings stands on militarism, but he is equally keen on Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz)? At least in the US there is a range of voices across the political spectrum referencing Thucydides; here, the risk is that the idea of Thucydides as key thinker becomes irrevocably attached to Cummings and his project, and hence automatically dismissed as elitist and pernicious by his opponents. Various friends have already been having fun with the idea that I must be signed up to the Free School agenda, the promotion of elitism and so forth because I work on Thucydides. The idea that Thucydides can’t be held responsible for Cummings’ views on education any more than scientific work on genetics can be seems unlikely to gain much traction, given that an interest in Thucydides and classics comes with an automatic air of elitism and class privilege. The fact that Cummings’ passing references to Thucydides and Pericles are, as far as I can see, perfectly sensible and largely non-ideological doesn’t help, because I’m unable to write a blog post ferociously denouncing his misreadings in order to reaffirm my political credentials.
The other problem – or perhaps it’s just a different facet of the same problem – links back to the Impact Agenda stuff; given that I ought, for the sake of the department, to be seizing every opportunity to give my research some purchase on the wider world, should I in fact be trying to take advantage of the fact that an influential government adviser (albeit one who’s leaving his post shortly) believes in the importance of Thucydides as an educational text? My argument is that reading Thucydides can help develop critical skills and political awareness, not that it can or should turn everyone into Marxists; TTT is a political project in the broad sense, not the ideological sense, and wouldn’t stand any chance at all unless it could claim to be relevant and useful to people of all political persuasions. Is there a case, then, for making common cause with someone of radically different political views, in the interests of promoting Thucydides? Would taking advantage of Cummings’ interests for the sake of promoting Thucydides thereby taint the project irrevocably, not just in the eyes of my leftist friends? Should I in fact be more worried about the fact that I like Thucydides, given that this is apparently a standard right-wing trait? Is even writing this blog post both irrevocably tainting my reputation and simultaneously ruining any chance of using this opportunity to get the Thucydides project off the ground? I imagine that researchers in other fields, especially the sciences, must face these kinds of dilemmas all the time, since their work is so much more likely to have the right sort of real-world consequences and hence to attract the kinds of interest and potential funding that raises such problems; it’s a new experience for me.