Caius historian elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 06 May 2015
Professor Peter Mandler, the Bailey College Lecturer in History at Caius, has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, joining a distinguished body of scholars, scientists, writers, artists and civic and business leaders.
The academy, founded in 1780, is one of the most prestigious honorary societies in the United States. Here, we talk to Professor Mandler about his career, his teaching at Caius and what election to the academy means to him.
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences prides itself on electing leading “thinkers and doers” from each generation, from George Washington and Benjamin Franklin onwards. What’s the significance of your election for you?
Professor Peter Mandler
The American Academy is a unique body with no precise British equivalent: it recognises achievements in the sciences and in the humanities, as the Royal Society and British Academy do, but also in the arts, business and government. For me, one of the things that matters most is that both my parents - George and Jean Mandler, both psychologists - are fellows of the Academy. There are lots of father and son combos but I think we must be unusual.
I’m the classic academic brat – my parents were both academics, my brother’s an academic and my son is just finishing his PhD. It’s the family business, really.
Your own academic work focuses on nineteenth and twentieth century British history and on the English national character, yet you’re American by birth. Where do you feel you belong?
I’ve had a mid-Atlantic life – I grew up in the US, but then came to Magdalen College, Oxford to study for my undergraduate degree. My father was a refugee, escaping from Vienna in October 1938 aged 14. He came to the UK for two years while he got his parents and sister out, and then the family was reunited in New York in 1940. I grew up in southern California with a European orientation, though fatally without the languages – we were Jewish with a funny name and eating funny food and at that time the aim was to integrate and not worry about keeping up German.
How did you come to settle in England?
My father suggested applying to Oxford, telling me it was highly unlikely I’d get in – which of course was absolutely the right thing to say to a bright, arrogant teenager. It was a bit of a culture shock – it felt very conservative and Magdalen was then an all-male college. As JCR convenor, I put forward a proposal to accept women, which was roundly defeated!
I became a British historian, married a British woman and stayed here. I spent ten years in London, becoming a professor at London Guildhall University, and came to Caius as a lecturer in 2001. That move took me from the bottom-ranking university in the country to the top.
What has been the focus of your work as a historian?
For a long time I worked on very English things: how English country houses became part of the national heritage, ideas about the English national character. More recently, I’ve explored the history of the social sciences and of education. I’ve written a book about the American anthropologist Margaret Mead, and anthropology’s shift to the study of complex, modern cultures.
I’ve also become president of the Royal Historical Society and am writing a book about Britain’s transition to a mass education system.
The notion of Britishness and English identity has become much more high profile recently. Give us a sense of your view of our national character.
It has emerged slowly – you couldn’t have an idea of national character until there was a sufficiently democratic ethos that you could imagine a duke and dustman being similar enough to share some characteristics. In the nineteenth century, the emerging image was of John Bull, of self-reliance, bluntness and candour. By the twentieth century, that’s been taken down a few notches to suit a much more inward-looking, domesticated, almost isolationist culture, focusing on home, family, getting along and being neighbourly.
By the late twentieth century, people get more ironic about it. Not many people really believe in it, but they still like to use the language so they talk about the English as “they”. They think of themselves as individuals, but still tend to focus on icons like tea, double decker buses and the queen.
The terrible mess we’ve got into now with regard to the state of the union reflects the fact that people - apart from the Scots temporarily – don’t feel very strongly personally implicated in the nation in the way they used to. Yet, importantly, they do care how they are governed.
Besides your research, you teach. What are the attractions of that part of your role?
Teaching undergraduates has always been really important to me. One of the things I like most about Cambridge is in some ways it’s very big but in others it’s very small. The relatively large number of graduate students and post-docs means you can get an audience for any subject and you get to know people individually as you wouldn’t in much smaller universities where teaching is on a more industrial scale.
I very much like the supervision system [the Cambridge system of teaching undergraduates in very small groups]. You pick the students, teach them and then remain part of their lives – you watch their careers develop. You can see how inspirational historical study at a very high level is to people all their lives in all sorts of ways. Also, we have very, very smart students who work really hard.
Why should students applying for history choose Caius?
At Caius we have a team of world-class historians at different stages of their career who like each other and really work closely together as a team. They all have high-flying research careers but see undergraduate teaching as a crucial part of their job and care deeply about their students. Everyone is surprised by how closely we follow the lives of our students and how much we involve ourselves in their intellectual development. There’s a very strong sense of community among Caius historians.
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