Interesting article from Economist. Time for 'real' history rather than some right-on crap about empathising with some slave, kid up a chimney or soldier in a trench methinks?
Q). Write 500 words on how you would feel if you had been taken as a slave to the USA/worked 12 hours in a Victorian factory/were in a refugee camp/were being force fed as a sufferagette etc etc
A) Pretty pissed off but what the Hell has that got to do with history?
WHATEVER YOU think about recent events in Britain, you cannot deny that they qualify as historic. The country is trying to make a fundamental change in its relationship with the continent. The Conservative Party is in danger of splitting asunder and handing power to a far-left Labour Party. All this is taking place against the backdrop of a fracturing of the Western alliance and a resurgence of authoritarian populism.
Yet even as history’s chariot thunders at a furious pace, the study of history in British universities is in trouble. The subject used to hold a central position in national life. A scholarship to read history at one of the ancient universities was both a rite of passage for established members of the elite and a ticket into the elite for clever provincial boys, as Alan Bennett documented so touchingly in his play “The History Boys”. Prominent historians such as A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper were public figures who spoke to the nation about both historical and contemporary events. The Sunday Times had Trevor-Roper on retainer to write special reports on big news stories and Taylor’s televised lectures attracted millions of viewers.
This was as it should be. Britain is a small island with a gigantic history, and history connects it with the wisdom of the ages. But something has gone badly wrong of late. Even as history itself has become more dramatic, the study of history has shrivelled. The number reading it at university has declined by about a tenth in the past decade. The number studying languages, which often have a historical component, has fallen by a fifth—hardly an auspicious start for “global Britain”. Students have instead been stampeding into overtly practical subjects such as medicine, veterinary sciences and business studies.
At the same time, the historical profession has turned in on itself. Historians spend their lives learning more and more about less and less, producing narrow PhDs and turning them into monographs and academic articles, in the hamster-wheel pursuit of tenure and promotion. The need to fill endless forms to access government funding adds the nightmare of official bureaucracy to the nightmare of hyper-specialisation. And historians increasingly devote themselves to subjects other than great matters of state: the history of the marginal rather than the powerful, the poor rather than the rich, everyday life rather than Parliament. These fashions were a valuable corrective to an old-school history that focused almost exclusively on the deeds of white men, particularly politicians. But they have gone too far. Indeed, some historians almost seem to be engaged in a race to discover the most marginalised subject imaginable. What were once lively new ideas have degenerated into tired orthodoxies, while vital areas of the past, such as constitutional and military affairs, are all but ignored.
The people who pay the heaviest price for this are the students who choose to spend several years of their lives, and many thousands of pounds, studying history. Under the old dispensation, students at least acquired a general sense of the history of their own country. Today, they often study a mish-mash of special subjects that don’t have much to hold them together, let alone provide a sense of broad historical development. The general public is also short-changed. Senior historians used to think that their job included talking to the nation and setting current events in their historical context. For the most part today’s historians remain isolated in their professional cocoons, spending more time fiddling with their footnotes than bringing the past to light for a broader audience. Who outside academia has heard of Lyndal Roper, the current Regius professor of history at Oxford?
The obvious reason to worry about this is that there is more than a little truth in the old adage that those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it. The world seems to be determined to copy the mistakes of the 1930s and ’40s, with Donald Trump recycling the isolationist rhetoric of America Firsters and Jeremy Corbyn embracing a failed socialist ideology. History is a safeguard against this kind of Utopianism. One of the reasons the world is in such a mess is that neoliberals became carried away with their own ideology. They made all sorts of unrealistic promises, about abolishing the boom-bust cycle or bringing democracy to the Middle East, that a moment’s reflection on history would have exploded.
The study of history is also a safeguard against myopia. Modernity shrinks time as well as space; people live in an eternal present of short-term stimuli and instant gratification. History teaches them to broaden their horizons and shift their perspectives. On a more mundane level, history can be a safeguard against outright idiocy. The Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, might not have expressed surprise that Protestants and Catholics in the province vote along sectarian lines if she had spent, say, an hour studying the history of the province over which she presides.
What’s past is prologue
There are glimmers of hope. Britain still has historians with a genius for bringing their subject alive, such as Tom Holland, Sir Simon Schama and Dame Mary Beard. History festivals are booming. The decline in the number of students reading the subject has not been as precipitous as in America. But these are no more than glimmers. A striking number of Britain’s bestselling historians either don’t have academic jobs (like Mr Holland) or face brickbats and backbiting from their fellow professionals (as Dame Mary does). The public’s voracious appetite for military history, so clearly demonstrated during the D-day celebrations, is catered for almost entirely by non-academics such as Sir Max Hastings and Sir Antony Beevor. Historians need to escape from their intellectual caves and start paying more attention to big subjects such as the history of politics, power and nation-states. The extraordinary times that we are living through demand nothing less.
"You know, there really exist certain people to whom it is assigned, at their birth, to have all sorts of extraordinary things happen to them" Mikhail Lermontov
Thankfully the kind of history preferred by Anonymous of the Economist has a fading interest and popularity, kept alive mainly by MPs and their associates. Even Popper, no radical he, stuck the knife into political history's claim on 'history'. But the wider discipline, like any other, is subject to its own power tussles, and Anonymous is merely drawing on a few popular tropes (myopic academics, 'irrelevant' curricula etc.) to chuck in his tuppence worth. (I, though, would seriously question the judgment of anyone who holds Hugh 'those diaries are the real thing, I tell you' Trevor-Roper up as a model historian.) I can't say I give a Fukuyama either, but I've been known to give a Foucault.
'Pass the cow dung, my dropsy's killing me' - Heraclitus