Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

VL Q&A: Mary Beard

(Originally posted:  January 7, 2011)

In honour of Professor Mary Beard’s recent series, Meet the Romans, we’re republishing our 2011 Q&A in which the outspoken historian discusses popular history, blogging and the state of higher education.

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Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, Classics Editor of the Times Literary Supplement and the author of the blog A Don’s Life.  She has made numerous television appearances, most recently as the presenter of Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town for the BBC.  She kindly agreed to answer our questions, and of course the Bookfoxes were ready with a whole selection…

Ken Owen asks how academics can play a more prominent role in shaping public debate, or indeed whether this is something that academics should do? And also: how far would you defend the tutorial system, and do you think that social mobility would be helped if Oxbridge offered an education along the US liberal arts model rather than the tutorial system?

I think that we have to be careful about imagining that there is a single model here.  I don’t think that there are many academics who think that what they do is irrelevant to how the world works.  The idea of the entirely unworldly academic is a bit of a myth.  But sometimes academics could think more carefully about how their work could make a difference in the public sphere; how it could be expressed less technically, etc.  As for the tutorial system, I think it is an expensive but brilliant way of teaching students and, for me, it has been a real enlightenment…  When I myself was a student, I was a beneficiary of leading academics giving my juvenile efforts their undivided attention, and I try to replicate that now.  For me it was inspirational.

I think that the social mobility question is a different issue.  In my experience, Oxbridge academics go to enormous efforts to seek out the brightest and best from whatever background (the old story about Oxbridge dons just looking for privileged people like them is a myth… honest).  The trouble is that social mobility means thinking about the whole educational system, why people succeed at whatever level…  It is not best addressed by blaming Oxbridge academics!  Everyone in education, from kindergarten teachers to the Minister for Education, we all share some responsibility for the lack of social mobility in the British system.

Moira asks: What’s the reaction of your fellow academics to your less-than-po-faced approach to blogging – or indeed, to blogging, full stop?  And why do you blog: for your own enjoyment, to communicate your enthusiasm for the subject to others, to give academics a human face… or some other reason?

I think that some of them are a bit ‘surprised’ at some of the posts, but mostly they are very supportive.  In fact, they think that I am quite useful in putting over a realistic view of what academics do (not much port, no twelve-week holidays, etc.).  I am not quite sure why I do it.  I was rather reluctant to start with, but now I am very committed.  In fact, I can’t quite imagine life without a blog now.  I think it does more good than harm, and indeed it does give me a chance to stand up for what we do… and for why the ancient world is important and interesting.

Our resident ancient historian, Michael Ng, says: I’m sure there is no need to convince those of us in Classics and Ancient History of the relevance of our work but what do you feel is the place of classics and ancient history in a modern society which demands practicality and utility?

I think that some bits of the modern world need to rethink their ideas of what is practical and useful.  It is easy to think of utility in terms of science… but what is going to count as ‘useful’?  My hunch is that we have forgotten how useful the arts and humanities are.  Try thinking of what the world would be like if we had no knowledge of Homer or Vergil… What would be lost?  Would that be a world in which we would want to live?

We could choose to embrace the new Dark Ages if we wanted… but why?

I don’t think that many people would disagree.  We just need to put the case clearly and with passion.

Michael Carley wants to know if you think universities are in as much trouble as they seem to be.

I am not sure how much trouble they are in.  True, they are underfunded, and in the medium term that will kill them and their imagination and their excellence.  But I am pretty confident that my students in Cambridge get an excellent education, with tremendous personal input, and that the research that comes out of Cambridge is excellent.

We need to think how long this can go on (and whether it can be sustained without ridiculous overload on the part of the academic teachers), and whether the government quality assurance mechanisms (RAE/REF) do more harm than good.

And I would like to ask: How do you conceive of the relationship between popular and academic history (arbitrary as those terms are)? What is it like to be an academic historian who also writes for the general public? And what about the relationship between academia and political activism: can you tell us your views on the balancing act between personal conviction and academic rigour?

It is in one way a tricky balancing act, but it is less tricky than you might think.  I think it is crucial not to think that a ‘general audience’ is any less intelligent than a specialist one… They may not know some technical things, but they are smart.  So the key thing is not to talk down to the readers, but to be alert to the kind of background information they might not know.  On the other question(s)… I don’t see a real problem.  I speak about the ancient world from a broad political conviction of its importance, and from a broad conviction that the questions the ancient world raises are still important for us (which is a significantly different point from saying that it is ‘relevant’).

Many thanks, Professor Beard, for taking the time to talk with us!

Mary Beard’s books include Pompeii: the life of a Roman Town (London and Cambridge, MA., 2008), The Colosseum (with Keith Hopkins) (London and Cambridge, Ma., 2004), The Parthenon (London and Cambridge, Ma., 2002) and Classical Art: from Greece to Rome (with John Henderson) (Oxford, 2001).

2 comments on “VL Q&A: Mary Beard

  1. sshaver
    May 8, 2012

    As a writer whose work is based in the past, I can echo Professor Beard’s assertion that general readers are as intelligent as specialists. In some ways general readers are more “intelligent,” because they’re less likely to be restricted to the politically correct perceptions within a certain field.

  2. Hilary
    May 8, 2012

    What a great idea to let us read this excellent interview again – just as lively and challenging as I remembered it. I particularly appreciated her reply to Michael Ng’s question on the value f studying the humanities (which makes me think of RFK’s phrase that the GDP measures everything … except what makes life worth living) and I hope that Professor Beard’s eloquence and influence will inspire others to believe in that value.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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