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AL Smith and the teaching of History in Oxford

A great deal of the Papers of A.L. Smith consists of his academic teaching notes, and work done by undergraduates at the time, making this a valuable collection for the study of the History School. The Modern History course in Smith's day was very different to today - students were taught continuous English constitutional and political history and Political Thought, and they chose a period of European history - the "General History" paper - and a "Special Subject" for more detailed study. The course was very much based on the knowledge the students received from the tutors. Several sets of notes Smith prepared for his students - survive in this collection. The course was based around major historians such as Stubbs, and there was little use of original documents.

The exact nature of the Oxford course has proved controversial. Just how much the course was didactic, relying on a set of accepted truths aimed at producing graduates suitable for government and Imperial administration posts, as opposed to how much it encouraged research and questioning, has been the subject of lively debate.

It is very hard to reconstruct precisely the nature of history teaching. Because the teaching for English and often General History was continuous, and the students chose from it, what the tutors specialised in often differs slightly from what was laid down by the Examination Decrees. Also Smith was a great reviser and re-user of material - as he was a lecturer and tutor from 1879 to 1924, it is very hard to pin down his views to any one time. Definitely identifying and dating much of Smith's material is very difficult. For example, Smith lectured in Political Thought - the Carpentier Lectures (1909-1910) and his work for the Cambridge Modern History, on which he was working as early as 1906, all draw on similar material, and he re-used the same drafts and notes again and again. Similarly, he drew on his General History teaching on the Holy Roman Empire for his planned book on Frederick II, and for a workers' summer school run by the Extension Delegacy in 1909. To add further confusion to the Smith Collection, Smith regularly gave a series of lectures entitled "Political and Social Questions." These were not strictly part of the history syllabus - they drew a little on "Political Thought" material, but reflected more Smith's extra-mural national interests. Quite aside from such problems, much of Smith's academic material is in a chaotic state, particularly the large bundles of AMS notes. Despite all this, the Smith Collections are a valuable source for the study of the Oxford History School as a whole as well as for Smith himself.


- Tim Procter, Modern Manuscripts Assistant, 1993

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