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Why history matters: Joan Bakewell’s tribute to Eric Hobsbawm at Hay Festival

Baroness Joan Bakewell praised her predecessor as President of Birkbeck at the first Eric Hobsbawm lecture

Baroness Joan Bakewell praised Professor Eric Hobsbawm’s inspirational teaching and championed his broad and evidence-based approach towards history at the Hay Festival.

The President of Birkbeck also criticised the narrowing of the school history curriculum and the privatisation of higher education during the inaugural Eric Hobsbawm lecture on 25 May.

The full text of the lecture is available online.

Baroness Bakewell spoke warmly about Hobsbawm – one of history’s greatest intellectuals, who died aged 95 in 2012. Hobsbawm, who became a lecturer at Birkbeck in 1947 and served as its President for 10 years before his death, taught Baroness Bakewell economic history at the University of Cambridge in the 1950s.

In her personal, powerful and wide-ranging address, Baroness Bakewell said: “Eric was an excellent teacher… He also taught by questioning. What are we to make of…? How do you think that…? He insisted on making it a conversation.”

Baroness Bakewell lamented the government’s decision to withdraw the block grant make to universities and to replace this with higher tuition fees in 2012-13. She also said the new system of student loans is beginning to unravel as write-off costs have reached 45%.

Changing times

She added: “We live in times when the tectonic plates of education are shifting in ways that are transforming university life for ever. The reforms are well underway and the assumptions on which they are based risk becoming the received wisdom of a latest generation of university chancellors, governing bodies, and increasingly university-owning companies. University education is being privatised…Universities are no better off, students are worse off and the government will end up having to pay even more to fund higher education than they did under the old system.”

Evidence-based analysis

Referring to recent objections about the narrowing of the curriculum from students studying economics at institutions in 19 countries, Baroness Bakewell referred again to the evidence-based analysis beloved by Hobsbawm.

She said: “The spirit of enquiring, of evidence-based analysis is demanding to be heard.  The future of university study may not be so easily corralled into the prevailing economic model, one that so obviously betrays the original and inspiring purpose of university study. I welcome the move. Eric Hobsbawm would be delighted.”

The full text of Baroness Bakewell’s lecture is available online.

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