Students in 20th Century Europe

A new history of students – a plea

Across the UK, and more widely throughout the West, students are a ubiquitous presence in all major cities. Students are everywhere. They support numerous local businesses, from bookstores and record shops to restaurants and nightclubs. Increasingly too, students are an important part of the part-time workforce of these same establishments.

Throughout the press and public discourse students are roundly vilified or ridiculed – they are depicted as lazy1, feckless, drunk.2 They are noisy, boisterous and faceless. They are all the same. But at the same time, students are also seen as society’s, and the economy’s, great hope. They are the political leaders, business people and skilled workers of the future. While they may be silly, juvenile or utopian now, they are the upstanding citizens of tomorrow.

These janus-faced depictions of students are not new. Students – both as individuals and as a group – frequently surface within the historical record. Students often figure in discussions of demonstrations3 (particularly in the 1960s) or the membership of ‘New Left’ organisations (for example, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), as well as in discussions of the problems of drinking, rowdyism and violence in city centres. However, there is, as yet, very little historical discussion of how people’s involvement in, and experience of, these events were shaped by their identity as students.

There are a number of reasons why this might be the case. Here are just 4:

First, the identity of being a student is a temporary and transitional one. In fact, there has been little research about this identity, how it is experienced and how it shapes attitudes and behaviours. Discussions of identities, particularly by historians, tends to focus on identities which are more ‘permanent’ - those of class, race or gender. Transitional, life-cycle identities such as being a student, have received much less attention, although there is certainly a growing field of research about children, childhood and youth.4

Secondly, there are very real limits to how far one can say that students are a unified group - either in the past or present. Particularly from the middle of the twentieth century (and accelerating throughout this period) students are a diverse bunch (although not always as diverse as one would hope or expect).5 Careful consideration is therefore needed about the extent to which the marker of being ‘a student’ has meaningful similarities across this diverse range of people. It is quite possible that the notion of being a student is insufficient to unit such a diverse group of people, but this is something that needs investigation rather than assumption.

Third, with virtually no exceptions, those who write histories in which students have figured (or been remarkable in their absence) have all been students. To them being a student is a ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ part of life rather than one in need of historicization. By the end of the twentieth century it was certainly becoming more normal to be a student as up to half of each age cohort was involved in higher education,6 but this was certainly not the case for most of the century. Of course, when looking at other identities encompassing half of the population (for example, women) this is reason for study rather than a reason to ignore this history.

Finally, there is the logistical issue of access to records that would reveal the history of students. Historians are all limited by the existence and accessibility of historical material and those about students have, in the main, been quite limited particularly in their accessibility. There is a substantial, and excellent, archive of the National Union of Students (NUS) at the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick.7 However, as excellent as this material is, it can only ever provide a partial look at students showing what particularly active student leaders said and did at a national level. Even going down to the local students union level poses a problem in terms of materials. While all students unions do, probably, have material about their own past events and activities, this material is often inadequately and haphazardly stored and done in a way which is entirely oblique. There is no way for historians, or other interested parties, to find out what sorts of material these unions hold and, often, the officers of unions themselves don’t know what they have. And, even if this local material was readily available, it would still only provide a partial picture. Once again, this material would tell us about highly active students. What about those who were not politically or socially active within their unions? How do we get at the history of apathetic or a-political students?

So, what do I propose?

I propose we take the history of students seriously. Think both about the history of students themselves - their experiences of higher and further education institutions, their interactions with the world beyond the institution, their reasons for becoming politically active, or not, during this time, etc. - and to recognise the impact that students have had on wider histories, groups, communities, places and ideas.

We need to think about how students have impacted on the cities and towns in which they lived. People who live in University towns are well aware of the changing character of their cities inside and outside of term time. How has this shaped the development of these cities and communities? What about student ‘ghettoes’?8 Are the cheaper parts of towns where students are more likely to live, also those places where immigrants or minorities are likely to live? What impact does this have? To what extent are student towns more likely to have left-wing or ‘bohemian’ elements? Can we meaningfully talk about ‘student towns’ as having a different character to towns that don’t have significant student populations?

We need to think about what impact the involvement of students in organisations, movements, demonstrations etc. has had. Have students contributed something unique to these groups and events due to their identity as students? If so, what? How can this be understood? How does this change the ways that we look at these organisations?

This is a plea for a history of students. For a history that includes students. For a history that thinks about students - and not just as ‘consumers’ but as real historical actors with agency.

Dr Jodi Burkett