Why do you think you were asked to speak for #QuestionsInTheAtrium?
Because I have the shtick…Many of our students come through the English system – you learn a lot about Henry VIII, or Hitler. The first time I taught Global History was in 1999; it was then that all the history I’d taken in started to make sense, because I started connecting it up. A lot of stories don’t make any sense until you’ve put them in a global context. And that doesn’t mean that you have to talk about international trade all the time – you can go down to very small things, such as villages, or very big things – but you should talk about the whole world. After I had started teaching global history I managed to compress the whole of world history into 50 minutes. Since then it’s become a bit of a party piece! The point isn’t to learn about everything, it’s to give you a way of thinking about how everything is connected. This seems to make sense to people, particularly young people. Many of our books still use language or a way of thinking that doesn’t correspond to the world we live in now. We should think about the whole of human history – where we are now and what kind of story we’ve seen. We need a story.
How would you say global history and the study of it is affecting the present day?
The problem is that we often have bad stories. Even if you’re not working in history, you’re telling yourself a story about how we got into this mess and how we’re going to fix it. And often for me that story is odd, wrong, or problematic, frequently because it’s framed in national terms – because that’s easy and how data is collected. I don’t think most of us live our lives as national people – we have very complicated identities. Because we live in the world we do, we’re plugged into much bigger things than the place we’re from. So, when Boris Johnson gets up and starts pretending to be Churchill, he’s telling bad stories, based on bad information, using idiotic frameworks. And the idea that our fate relies on people like that…we need better stories if we want to be in a better place.
If people were to take one lesson from the lecture, what would it be?
We need better stories about how we got to where we are; we need stories that don’t just work in one place for one group of people. To tell those stories we need to be prepared to look from lots of different perspectives, rather than to insist we are right.
What are your hopes for the future?
You guys…I’m quite optimistic. I think we’re going through a horrible moment, like many before it. But actually when I teach students, the younger the better, I do get very hopeful. People my age were trained to think in a particular way which worked well for the Cold War: ‘If we only get the numbers right, then eternal peace will break out’…But the world is changing very radically. You guys understand that you’re going to change career at least four times before you retire, if you ever retire – you don’t assume that there’s the safety blanket that we always assume there was. You don’t think that there’s just one way to fix things. I see an openness, a pragmatism, and underneath it all, a real commitment to stuff we talked about but didn’t actually do anything about – which was equity. SOAS is one of the places where we can. We’re at a tipping point. Inequality is on the agenda and it’s not going away. We don’t have the answers, but you guys might be in a better position to find them.