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The Legacy of Asa Briggs

by Dr. Thomas Milton Kemnitz, founder and president of Royal Fireworks Press

May 7th, 2021, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the man whose educational vision plays an enormous part in the shape and diversity of Royal Fireworks Press and our Online Learning Community. He is Asa Briggs, who became Baron Briggs of Lewes.

Asa Briggs was my doctoral supervisor, and that was not by accident. When I was an undergraduate, I came across his writing and found him to be the most innovative and interesting historian I have ever encountered. I applied to do my graduate work under him, and I refused places at both Oxford and Cambridge to go to the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, to study under him. I believed then—as I know now—that excellence does not just happen; it is the product of a great deal of thought, planning, and effort. I wanted to be excellent, and I knew that began with great reading and great instruction.

What I came to grasp as my years studying under Asa Briggs went by was how much more than excellence in the writing of history he had to impart. Asa was the intellectual force behind the organization of the new University of Sussex, and he set up the university on an interdisciplinary basis. Instruction was arranged in schools that encompassed a wide range of disciplines and interests, and students were expected to develop in a diverse range of related areas. The result was a broadening of horizons and an unfettering of intellectual vision. Much of that thinking is reflected in the books that Royal Fireworks produces—books that expect students to expand their horizons and to encounter Plato’s thought as they work through poetics texts, or classical Greek history and art as they work through a vocabulary text, or the Roman world as they learn the stems that make up academic English. It also informs the organization and range of subjects we offer in our courses in the Online Learning Community, including my own on the history, culture, and literature of Greece in the Classical Age.

Another important lesson came from Asa’s respect for the contributions of twice-exceptional individuals and his care for them as individuals in the university community. He suggested later in life that what was informative for him was his experience as a code breaker during World War II at Bletchley Park, an institution he said the Nazis never could duplicate because they would have sent many of its inhabitants to concentration camps. I am now certain that great organizations must depend upon the abilities of the twice-exceptional gifted, and it is crucial to embrace, nurture, and empower them. This, in part, is behind our publishing for people with visual processing issues and the themes of many of the novels we have published through the years. In our Online Learning Community, we are careful to accommodate twice-exceptional children.

For these and so much else, I owe Asa Briggs a boundless debt for all he taught me in the five years I studied under him and for the fifty years after that he was a mentor and a friend. Royal Fireworks Press and the Online Learning Community are among his many legacies.

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