Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"Why History Doesn't Matter"

This will apparently be the title of Professor Grumpy's new book.  His recent post at Historian on the Edge explores the difference between a trained historian and someone with basic literacy skills who writes and tells stories about the past.  Here is a taste of a post he calls "The Siege":

... [W]hile the discipline has been bogged down in post-empiricist soul-searching, history itself has been, to a considerable degree, taken over by non-specialists.  It is a platitude that ‘the past’ has become public and that academic historians do not have sole access to or control over it.  Most of the volumes shelved in the history sections of bookshops are not written by what I consider to be historians.  The history that appears on television is similarly dominated by non-specialists.  Usually styling themselves ‘writer and historian’, ‘journalist and historian’, ‘broadcaster and historian’ or whatever … ‘and historian’, they are in most cases, in fact, writers, journalists, broadcasters or whatever who have written books about history.  Having written a book about history does not make you a historian.  This does not mean that these books and broadcasts represent ‘bad history’ (though frequently they do), that they do not present factually accurate accounts, that they do not contain valid and valuable ideas and interpretations or – most importantly of all – that they do not play a huge part in getting people interested in the past.  The problem for history is in important regards the opposite.  What they do, they do very well.  That leaves the academic discipline of history in a very difficult position.  What exactly do proper, qualified, university historians have to offer?  In the current political climate the surfeit, ubiquity and (by its own lights) quality of popular history places the discipline very much under siege.

The implication of the situation just described is that anyone with basic literacy can write history and call themselves a historian.  When you think about it, there are not many intellectual disciplines where anything like this is the case.  I cannot, for instance, buy a chemistry set and a subscription to New Scientist, come up with some cranky idea about ‘bad egg gas’, and go on television as ‘Hubert Grumpy, writer and chemist’.  If I didn’t have a degree in the subject, I could not dig up my back garden and appear on documentaries as ‘Hubert Grumpy, writer and archaeologist’.  At the very least, the word ‘amateur’ would have to be appended.  The purveyors of television and ‘bookshop history’ do not (with notable but fairly rare exceptions) carry out actual historical research but are still called historians; they are not academically qualified beyond, on occasion, a first degree and have no university post but are nevertheless referred to as ‘media dons’.  They work from the published research of academic historians.  Sometimes (especially in the case of the presenters of television history) they don’t even do that; they have researchers to do it for them.  Parasitically, they make money from other people’s labours.  Any university historian who works on any subject even remotely interesting to the wider public will be able to tell you how she has been contacted by a TV or radio researcher expecting them to spend a large amount of time on the phone conveying (free of charge) the results of her work so that a broadcaster can make money out of it through a television or radio broadcast and spin-off volume.  I am surely not the only one who, in refusing to do someone else’s job for free, has been accused of ‘not being interested in communicating’.  It is difficult to imagine many other academic disciplines where this problem is anything like as significant.  If we take the most successful purveyors of popular science, almost all are academically qualified (well beyond first degree level) in the subject about which they talk.

Read the rest here.

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