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Teaching the History of the Big Society: Some Ideas from the Outset

Author: George Campbell Gosling

Type: Conference Presentation

History Passion Project

Whether we call it the 'big society', the voluntary sector or civil association, such community activity has long been recognised as an essential part of the fabric of a functioning democracy. However, it is only slowly gathering recognition as a key topic within the field of social history.

For the past two decades, the Voluntary Action History Society has worked to build networks of historians working in this area and to promote research and publication. The next challenge, perhaps, is to promote its teaching. Indeed, it often features as an aspect of modern and social history modules, but it is rarely given a module in its own right. It is, however, well suited to this in three important respects.

The first is sources. Teaching history undergraduates, especially for special subjects, requires documents for them to handle and use as a window into a different age. Philanthropists and campaigners have been prolific to say the least. Books such as Samuel Smiles' Self-Help or William Beveridge's Voluntary Action can offer overviews while campaign materials, both written and visual sources, whether from abolitionists or CND, can offer insight. Moreover, these can easily be compared to contemporary equivalents.

The second is theories. There are some core theories, and debates around them, which can be called upon in the teaching of the history of charity. The notion of 'social control' – whereby, for example, the moralistic interventions of the Charity Organisation Society have been interpreted within class relations – can be contrasted with Frank Prochaska's championing of altruistic 'Christian social service'. The 'moving frontier' between society and the state allows us to pit the importance of civil association recognised by Alexis de Tocqueville against TH Marshall's expanding rights of citizenship. Meanwhile, history teachers familiar with the social sciences will be aware of numerous other lines, for example around the accumulation of 'social capital’ that could be pursued.

The third is relevance – both to the wider study of history and beyond. For the former, this topic could be used as a way to introduce students to issue around the historical subjects of poverty and class relations, the position of women and the role of the state, imperial networks and Cold War diplomacy, to mention just a few. At the same time, this is a topic that relates to major issues in our own time. With the Prime Minister's re-branding of the 'third sector' as the 'first sector' and his promotion of the 'big society', they are live policy debates. And of course, the role of charities and campaign groups today are something of which many students will have first-hand experience.

To summarise, this paper will make the case for teaching the history of charity and civil society as a topic in its own right to history students.


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