Champion: What are historians for?

What are historians for?

‘History that is not useful, that has not some lay appeal, is mere antiquarianism; history that is not controversial is dead history’ claimed Hugh Trevor Roper in 1957.

When I canvassed opinions about the title for my recent inaugural (‘What are historians for?’) I received some very odd responses: – ‘not a lot’ being the most common – a distinguished scholar nearby insisted ‘aesthetic appeal’ was the great achievement of historians – pushed harder he admitted he was talking about the value of the slightly unwashed tweedy look rather than any literary achievements. Another, from my alma mater  insisted ‘that they were a good-for-nothing species whose principal purpose (when they could be bothered) was to mislead the young, by distracting them from useful, practical studies’. At the other extreme – the children of St Mary’s Roman Catholic High School Herefordshire had a much more engaging response – perhaps the most profound being ‘they grow goaty beards’. Historians however, I believe, have an increasingly important public role to play.

As a profession in the UK, historians have rather avoided engaging with the general public. Anxieties about the epistemological foundations of the discipline – or in more public language – worries about whether it’s possible to tell the objective truth about the past – have inspired a retreat into the increasingly dark corners of the academic community, publishing research in exclusive, recondite and expensive journals and monographs. As David Starkey in typically waspish mode asserted, History today is ‘a private conversation amongst dons in academic cloisters’.

Historians since the times of Herodotus have been caught on the horns of the dilemma between writing history that is amusing and writing history that is didactic. While the Greeks may have argued that the ‘truth’ lay in the value of moral instruction rather than any claims of objective representation of ‘what really happened’, and so were skilful at deploying all of the tropes of rhetorical color and literary eloquence to produce a persuasive, entertaining and plausible history, modern historians have been guided by the imperatives of telling it like it was. Despite the inroads of fashionable post-modern epistemologies, most practising historians still uphold the virtues of avoiding anachronism, counter-factuals and downright fabrication. Turning history into the more modern media – radio and television – raises some of the same issues of the relationship between form of communication and the purpose of communication once again. Or put it another way – if the medium is the message, what is history on the television for?

History needs to engage with a broader audience whether by writing books adjusted to popular tastes, or in other types of media – TV and radio being the most obvious. These are valuable projects – although arguably at the moment they are driven by commercial interests, exploiting market demand for the entertainment value of such history. Success too, has often bred envy: it’s a commonplace mutter that such work is incompatible with the serious business of proper history. This core assumption should be vigorously challenged: entertainment and good history are not antithetical enterprises. For history to work in the broader community it must engage, entice, entrance, intrigue and fire the imagination. A book unread is not only mute, but dead.

Historians are essentially story tellers – we may have created more reliable, more robust ‘methods’ for doing it – for discovering, collecting, examining and interpreting the traces of all types of pasts – but at the core of effective and instructive history, is its ability to connect with an audience – it should be imaginative, lucid, vivid and readable. Historians have an intellectual responsibility to make every effort to connect the past to the public: history is ultimately a cultural form of public property.

The conundrum that history in the UK is everywhere, but no one’s quite sure what it’s for is though? It provides material for TV, Radio even Hollywood Films, as well as shaping some of the most successful novels, so it certainly fulfils its function as ‘Entertainment’. What is less clear is the purchase of its instructive role. For example, the little public debate that exists related to the future of the monarchy in this country is not framed with an historical perspective, but rather in terms of the heritage industry: compare the cultural and political significance that national celebrations of Bastille Day in France assumes, with the almost entire forgetting of the republican tradition in the UK – where the revolutionary values of liberté, egalité and fraternité born in 1789 to some extent lie at the core of contemporary French culture, one would struggle hard to find equivalents drawn from the turbulent years of 1649, or even perhaps 1689. There is then a peculiar, and perhaps deliberate, lack of reflection on the nature of Public history in the UK, despite a sophisticated and passionate debate about the nature of the Heritage industry and National Trust.

This is not the same in all contemporary cultures. Elsewhere in the world – in particular in South Africa, America, Australia, France and Spain: there is an urgent and powerful engagement with the public value of historical discourse (whether disseminated in books, journals, exhibitions, museums, TV or film). In Australia the so-called History Wars have seen a conflict between ‘black arm band history’ and those who claim that the ‘killing of history’ is the consequence of political correctness. Driven in particular by the question of the genocidal impact of imperial settlement on the aboriginal peoples, and the consequential issues for questions of national identity, debates about immigration, the commemoration of Gallipoli, the content and presentation of exhibitions in state museums have all prompted heated public controversy – historians argue with politicians, journalists, museum Trustees and the broader public.  The public debates on these issues are informed by the exchange of historical opinion: such contestation about the relevant historical perspectives at times is manifest even in the form of dispute over the wording on exhibition labels.

The traffic between the past and present is two way: all history is contemporary history – it’s written by men and women, now, to communicate ideas and understanding – to make honest judgements about events, people, and societies that have some purchase on the conduct of life for modern audiences. This is not to argue that historians have either a prophetic role predicting the future, or that they are simply ideologues. Historians’ methods may not be ‘scientific’, but they certainly aim to manifest a brand of intellectual integrity, to make their history with a scrupulous use of the evidence – to exercise a honed critical approach to any set of claims and narratives, and to communicate those judgements with clarity.

Justin Champion

For a version of this in aural form which addresses the relationship between the academic world and public history see the link at the Institute of Historical Research website:  Why History Matters

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