A book focussing on a largely unknown group of historians, based in the exclusive academic enclave of Christ Church College, University of Oxford, whose hallowed portals of learning are open to so few, might seem a rather narrow basis for a book that purports to explore the teaching and importance of history and politics, and the weighty issues contained therein. 

In very recent times, Christ Church’s fame for being the home of Charles Dodgson of Alice in Wonderland, has been somewhat superseded by its apparent inability to get on well with its former dean, Martyn Percy. In actual fact, “The House”, as the college is commonly referred to, has a long and distinguished history, both inside the university itself and as a place where the cathedral for the Diocese of Oxford is housed. Originally established by Cardinal Wolsey and appropriated by King Henry VIII, Christ Church has enjoyed a significance and prominence in national affairs as a result of its enduring legacy of proximity to government.

History in the House is a remarkable book, charting the history of a succession of highly intelligent and independently-minded historians, all based at this one college. Davenport-Hines outlines the times in which they lived and worked, and the development of their thought and teaching. Along the way, we are reminded that no age is without its fashionable ideas, that yesterday’s commonly accepted creed all-too-often decays into tomorrow’s outrageously outdated and unacceptable opinion. 

Throughout the narrative, however, Davenport-Hines reminds us of the vital importance of the exchange of ideas – the need for people to be able to converse openly and debate different points of view, different opinions, different approaches – as a way of expanding understanding and knowledge. This is particularly important, as illustrated here in the teaching of history, as it applies to the development of political thought and approach.

Until relatively recently, The House and other comparable institutions were largely composed of old men from relatively similar social backgrounds, tied together by a shared intellectual bond and ability. It can easily be argued that such an environment can slide into thinking of itself as an irreplaceable elite, harbouring the arrogant conviction that its dilution by people of different genders and backgrounds has lowered the general level of academic robustness. 

While Davenport-Hines comes moderately close to suggesting this, he pulls back in the end. Instead, he makes the fundamentally important point that – in an age when everybody thinks their view is of equal importance, personal expression is all the vogue, and any sense of deference to greater learning or ability, let alone authority, is regarded as some absurd notion from a bygone age – we must not lose the ability to engage at the highest levels of learning and intellectual rigour in discussion, learning and debate. 

He quotes the Polish poet and Poet Laureate, Wisława Szymborska:

“Those who knew

What was going on here

Must make way

For those who know little.

And less than little.

And finally as little as nothing.”

Or, to put it another way, if in the end we lose that sense of historical learning and understanding that has so fundamentally informed our political debate throughout our history, then as a nation we are truly lost indeed. 

As Davenport-Hines ends this well-written and worthwhile book, one can only recall lines from Laurence Binyon’s poem, ‘The Burning of the Leaves’:

“Let them go to the fire, with never a look behind.

The world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.” 

My view is that our bit of the world that is Britain, is worth learning about, and worth fighting for.

History in the House: Some Remarkable Dons and the Teaching of Politics, Character and Statecraft by Richard Davenport-Hines is published by William Collins (£26)