With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Should Historians Have to Engage the Public?

Richard Overy, renowned UK historian of the Second World War, wrote in Times Higher Education about the division that he sees between popular history and academic history, the one being consumer-driven recycling of infotainment (I paraphrase) and the other, at its peak, "intentionally complex and linguistically sophisticated," with, "no less reason to be inaccessible than physics or biochemistry."  He says that no line can be drawn between the two, but it's fairly clear on which side of the line that he can't draw he sees himself.  He also expresses great misgivings about the use of history as a source of guidance for public policy, which makes for an interesting comparison with the other link I picked on, an article on the History & Policy forum website complaining about the then government of the UK consulting historians about what should happen if no clear victor emerged in the then upcoming British general election.  These two make interesting comparisons.

Richard Overy was perhaps the first academic historian your humble writer, who has an amateur enthusiasm for World War II history years deep, ever encountered.  I did about half of my History A-Level (the top-level school qualification in the UK, on a par with an International Baccalaureate) on the Third Reich; indeed this was so widespread at the time that most of the candidates for university places I met at open days could share a joke that our subject was "Hitler studies."  As part of this, however, my school took the students on that option to see a public lecture by Overy.  I don't remember what he talked about, though I remember that he seemed very tired, but he must have impressed me as authoritative because I subsequently obtained his book, The Air War in Europe 1939-1945, which remains on my shelf even now, the first real academic book I ever bought.  It wasn't perhaps easy going for an eighteen-year-old but I've met many worse, and my main problem with it at the time was that its argument seemed to be entirely logistical and to leave no room for tactics or individual or even unit-level courage and daring, in which I was much more interested.

Nonetheless, Overy does not need to protect himself against a possible accusation of inaccessibility.  It's rather odd, therefore, to find him here arguing for essentially an immunity to accountability to the public, so "that experimental research can be undertaken without the close supervision of the current review apparatus."  I have always felt myself that a subject that one can't explain at least the basics of in a pub inside ten minutes (and ideally five) in such a way that an interested layman or laywoman understands why you would want to study it is, well, probably not really very interesting.  This doesn't, in my experience, mean restricting oneself to the well-known characters of school history syllabi and the History Channel, because history has been full of other characters to whom you can introduce the notional interlocutor.  I'm surprised Overy thinks differently, but as I say, his history has few individuals in it, and maybe that's why.

Nonetheless, Overy is doing something potentially valuable here, which is to argue for a citadel where a kind of really difficult history can be practised, by academics for academics.  It's something like an argument for blue-sky scientific research, though I don't know what the equivalent would be for history:  archive-dusty, perhaps.... This should be possible, though, I agree.  This kind of work may not inform the public but it informs the people who inform the public, and as long as it's not regarded as somehow better or more serious than work in which a wider audience is interested I would defend it, and I agree with him that the result of having it is not:

an invisible discipline but one that is constantly refreshing intellectual life in imaginative, intuitive but rigorous ways.

But in order to protect this sort of history, Overy is prepared to cut the lines joining it to the more popular fields of endeavour, most especially "the heritage industry" (where, I should disclose, I currently earn my crust).  His axe falls first and foremost, however, on history that wants to inform policy, and thus my indrawn breath of critique is briefly bated, because as you may remember I've worried about the History & Policy group before for the same reason that I was just about to use on Overy:  they have found what they hope is a way to save their part of the field and damn everyone else for not being as useful.  Their part of the field, however, is a lot less broad than Overy's blue-sky sector, it being roughly equivalent to twentieth century British political history, for all that they have ranged wider.  And, it is not without justice that Overy says:

This [market pressure] is a particular issue for public policy, with the idea that history must find ways of engaging more with those who produce policy to justify itself.  History is not a congenial tool for doing this.  It is in essence a critical discipline, characteristically ambiguous on many key issues, subversive of popular myth and prejudice, and unlikely to supply any advice that is not hostage to paradox and uncertainty.  It is hard to imagine the government asking a panel of historians to explain the pros and cons of military engagement in Afghanistan, useful though that might have been.  It is the historian's job to ask awkward questions, not to validate current assumptions.

This gives a particular irony to the content of the History & Policy forum article I mentioned, which is a post by Andrew Blick expressing very similar worries, for all that it is hosted on the website of an advocacy group exactly for the consultation of historians about public policy.  Witness:

As argued in a recent Democratic Audit paper, the study of precedents is exceptionally subjective.  For every precedent pointing one way, it is often possible to find another contradicting it.  And the same precedent can be interpreted in different ways.  History cannot provide the constitutional exactitude which the Cabinet Office seems to claim for it.

The odd thing is, however, that the Cabinet Office had done exactly what Overy found "hard to imagine," albeit not about Afghanistan (my feeling is that the Cabinet probably know the arguments from history about Afghanistan already and were hoping to be able to ignore them), as Blick describes:

In his session with the Justice Committee, [Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus] O'Donnell said, "we have looked back to history," and mentioned professors "Bogdanor, Brazier, Hazell and Hennessy" among the constitutional experts who had assisted him.  But we are not told precisely what advice the professors gave, and the draft chapter of the Cabinet Manual largely lacks explanations as to how history supports its assertions about the UK constitution.  This approach is methodologically unsatisfactory, particularly when it involves claims that are contested.

It's hard not to read this as a whine that the Cabinet Office didn't consult the right historians, i.e. the History & Policy team, but the point is still there and it seems to undermine the whole History & Policy endeavour.  Why should the government pay for consultants who won't reach a verdict?  In the same time as they would take to read the inconclusive report, they could, you know, read a book.

So I'm not really much impressed by the History & Policy approach.  Obviously, as a medievalist, such an approach is hardly open to me—I've taught Magna carta but I don't want to work on it, and anyway, that only matters legally in the United States these days or so I've read—but even what they are doing, I don't think is saleable in the terms they want to sell it (which seems to be "please appoint us all to a quango for the rest of our intellectual lives").  Overy's position, on the other hand, is a lot more robust and indeed respectable.  It even comes close to being the holy grail, a sturdy defense for the humanities, which could be expressed as"having us around will make people think better," or as Overy puts it:

Historical writing at its best is critical, exciting, thought-provoking, frustratingly ambiguous and uncertain.  It is the reflective element of the collective mind.  If history becomes just heritage studies, the collective intelligence will be all the poorer.

Unfortunately, as you can see, not all the humanities would be allowed in Overy's arx.  This is a shame, as this argument could serve more widely, working in terms of self-knowledge, mutual understanding and some protection against being deceived easily; it could in fact be an argument based on humanity, as we Western liberals (well, I am) like to think of it.  Instead, although he says:

Historians have to accept collectively that the pressure of public fashion and political utility may well undermine the foundation of the discipline unless they are willing to stand up and defend the nature of what they do.  Finding their own ways to construct a more effective interface between their discipline and the public would help.

... it seems to me that what he is in fact preaching is demarcation, as, implicitly, are History & Policy.  In Overy's case, unlike H&P's, I might be able to talk my way into the citadel, but I think that to stay there would be to fundamentally miss our mission.  And what's more, he surely knows this, or he would never have been in that lecture, would he?