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Wednesday, 30 January 2013

'The Siege'

[I have started writing my next book, provisionally entitled Why History Doesn't Matter.  Much of its subject matter will not be surprising to anyone who reads this blog.  Here, in any case, for your amusement is (in very rough, first draft form) an extract from Chapter 1, which deals with a subject I have long threatened to deal with here: what I call 'the siege' - the way in which academic history finds itself beset on all sides by unqualified or barely qualified dabblers in the study of the past and just how serious this situation is for the nature, and future, of the discipline.

Do not read this post unless you also read the second instalment of these thoughts here.  It clarifies the argument.]

... [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.

Now, one might reasonably wonder what is wrong about any of this.  In some ways there is nothing wrong with it at all.  As I will argue later in this book, no one owns the past or any segment of it; indeed, the dangers with which this volume is concerned chiefly involve over-identification with, a claimed ownership of, a particular vision of the past.  But there is something rather unnerving for the future of the discipline of history about the current situation.  Let us look briefly at how one gets to be an academic historian.  Especially in the current situation in universities in Great Britain and beyond, to acquire a university post is (even while acknowledging the nepotism, favouritism and wilful avoidance of actual merit that pervades the profession in different ways and to different degrees) to have passed through a series of tests of quality.  To receive funding to get onto a post-graduate course requires one to be among the best in an undergraduate cohort, usually with not merely a first class degree but with one of the best first-class degrees in the year.  When one considers the small fraction of the population to get a good university degree in a popular and thus competitive subject like history, we can see that, in intellectual terms, we are already in at most the top percentile or two of that section of the population which is seriously interested in history.  To move from an MA to a PhD requires a good performance (usually a distinction) at that level, and to find employment after a PhD, in a situation where permanent jobs are few really requires one (however rightly one may be sceptical of the process) to be at the forefront of a very small percentage of all those who took a history undergraduate degree.  It demands the successful completion of a thesis which convinces established historians of its quality and significance and, increasingly, demonstrated success in getting published (again convincing more established academics of the high standard of work) and indications of ability as an effective teacher and administrator.  It must be considered a serious situation for the profession when someone who has never subjected themselves to any of this qualitative scrutiny, but does have the ability to write a book and (and this is rarely related to any rigorous assessment of quality) find a publisher, is accepted as a historian to the same degree as the person who has passed all those tests.  Increasingly, the circle of ‘writers and historians’ has become something of a closed circuit.  Reviewing each other’s latest efforts, they hail their friends as ‘the most interesting/exciting ancient/medieval/modern/military historian writing in Britain today'.  At the same time, they use their greater access to the media to damn any attempt by actual historians to point out the short-comings and inaccuracies of their work and to sit in judgement as reviewers of any work of professional historians (as if they were their peers) that makes it sufficiently far into the public sphere as to be deemed worthy of review in the broadsheets or literary supplements.  Again, it is difficult to imagine many other disciplines where a comparable situation arises.

One reason for this, for sure, is that many, probably most, academic historians [though not me, obviously] do not feel especially comfortable standing on their academic dignity.  It looks faintly ridiculous to academic historians (though not, evidently, to specialists from other disciplines dabbling in history), to append their academic titles to their by-lines, especially in more popular writings.  Most university historians are well aware that one does not have to have had a historical training to produce at least certain sorts of good historical work, and most accept the view that many interpretations and accounts of past events are possible and valid (leaving aside the point that a great deal of popular bookshop history, especially around its fringes, concerns interpretations of the past that are neither possible nor valid).  They see the dangers of any restriction of access to the past to routes that go via the approved priests and priestesses of the discipline.  This is all correct and laudable, but the current laissez-faire attitude is equally dangerous to the discipline and indeed to history in general, if not more so, and, in my view, it cannot be left to continue unmodified.

The current state of affairs may also owe its rise to the end of Rankean positivist history.  This has removed what was surely one of their most powerful weapons from the arsenal of the professional historian, the claim that they were better able to tell it like it was than anyone else.  More to the point, what the consumer of popular history has come to expect from such work is indeed, generally, a story that tells it as it really was.  More complex and sophisticated histories, however accessibly related, are often kept off the shelves and screens by the gatekeepers of those outlets: the ‘trade’ publishers and marketers, the editors and producers.  The latter are, of course, often close associates of the authors and presenters of popular history. 

In one of my own areas of specialism, the so-called ‘barbarian migrations’, there has never been a TV documentary on the subject that has not retold the same old story of how the barbarians conquered the Roman Empire, in spite of attempts (including my own) to try and pitch an alternative and more accurate version.  I once acted as a consultant to an historical atlas produced by a major publisher of lavishly illustrated books and attempted to have the spread on the barbarian migrations designed in such a way as not to perpetuate the old myths through the repetition of the usual swirling arrows starting in central Europe and ending in Africa or Italy.  But my advice was entirely ignored.  What was published was yet another map with spaghetti-like arrows tipped all over it providing the same misleading idea to another generation of potentially interested readers.  Why?  I asked the editor and was told that that was what people wanted from a historical atlas.  Such publishers and TV editors, with no actual educational experience, apparently know what people can and cannot grasp.  It is an astonishingly elitist and patronising attitude.

This has a far more insidious effect upon the historical profession.  The last Labour government of the UK (yes, a Labour government) placed British universities under the control of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which is some ways says it all.  Part of that policy was to ensure that all university activity was ‘useful’ and the means of measuring such utility was to judge the ‘impact’ of research.  Leaving aside the more general questions about such a policy, what it means and how it is to be done is still somewhat mysterious but for a long time the advice generally bandied about was to get one’s work used in broadcasting of some sort.  In other words, the profession was being compelled to place itself at the service of the purveyors of popular history and their agents, editors and directors who set the rules for, and indeed control access to, the market in which academic historians were now being told they had to compete.   The further implication, of course, was to restrict the type of history being written.  The Royal Historical Society made no serious complaint against this development.  This should not surprise; a few years later, it made no protest at all at the revelation that government funding for research, via the Arts and Humanities Research Council, would be given to work that furthered the Conservative Party’s nebulous non-idea of The Big Society.

Related to this is perhaps most revealing indicator of the perilous state of play.  Recent debates upon the teaching of history in schools have largely been played out in the newspapers through the pens, not of professional historians, but the writers of populist books.  The qualified historian has even lost a place at the table where historical educational policy is made.  Advice has been publicly sought from the writers of pulp history rather than from more respected specialists or the learned society of the historical profession, which is left – typically enough – meekly bleating from the side-lines.

What does one do about this?  There are, to be sure, steps that could be taken by the profession.  Its learned society could issue a set of standard fees for advice and consultancy.  That none exists currently is absurd.  I have recently (how accurately or fairly is beside the point) been kindly described as ‘our leading authority on early medieval warfare’.  Television researchers regularly contact me expecting me to give out my time and expertise free of charge.  Yet, the same researchers would never approach ‘our leading authority’ on business law or pre-nuptial agreements without expecting to pay through the nose for their time.  That the situation is different for historians is entirely the profession’s own collective fault but, while steps could and should be taken to remedy it, that is not part of my argument.

What is part of my argument, in brief, is that what the peddlers of television and bookshop history typically produce is not what I consider to be proper history.  It will be the essential plank of my argument in this book that what history is, is not simply narratives about the past or descriptions of past events.  My argument will not just be that true history contains argument and explanation – hardly a revolutionary position – but also that it has, ineluctably, within its own methodology, an ethical and political programme.  I will argue that it is this which the profession must bring out to distance itself from the populists.