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Friday, 8 November 2013

Why history *doesn't* matter: a new intro

[The piece linked to in the previous post inspired me to go back and rework the draft chapter 1 of Why History Doesn't Matter.  Here is the new opening.]

“We do not need ‘experts’ to tell us what to think any more”
- Conservative [Now UKIP] MP Douglas Carswell[1]

We don’t need no education
- Roger Waters[2]

In June 2009 the Observer ran a piece entitled ‘They’re too cool for school: meet the new history boys and girls.’[3]  Faintly ridiculously, it continued ‘[t]heory is a thing of the past for these hip [sic] young historians’.  So, it turned out in several cases, was any actual training in the discipline.  Two had left university after their first degree (which was not specified as having been in history); another was a geographer.  Four of the six were, at the time, under thirty but that had not stopped at least one from having turned out three books by then.[4]  As training for the role of historian, one had been features editor at Men’s Health magazine; another had been an actress.  One at least had been a ‘researcher’ on a television programme presented by right-wing controversialist and former-historian David Starkey.  None of this lack of training or qualification, however, got in the way of the presentation of this group as ‘historians’, who were ‘leading the fight-back’ against history’s decline in popularity. 

A year or so later, the then twenty-seven-year-old William Hastings Burke published a book about Albert Goering.  Like some of the glittering young things in the Observer article, Burke had no historical education at all.  This nevertheless did not prevent his publisher (presumably with his approval) writing his profile thus:  ‘Fed up with the stuffy academic approach to history, he is part of a new generation bringing history up to speed.’[5]  Who needs any training in the historical discipline?  Evidently, to ‘bring it up to speed’ history needs people who, in almost any other academic subject, would be regarded as ‘not knowing what they were talking about’.

In November 2013, the Daily Mail printed a piece entitled ‘The history girls: meet the women building a bright future from the past’.[6]  This piece shows an interestingly gendered variation on the theme.  For here, five of the seven women featured actually did have a higher degree in history and indeed three had proper University posts.  Self-confidently riding to the rescue of an apparently failing discipline, unencumbered by any actual training or qualification, turns out unsurprisingly to be a mainly male (and – even less surprisingly – a male Oxbridge) thing.  Also unlike the earlier Observer article, this piece was written by one of the ‘historians’ featured – if they want coverage, do women have to do it themselves?  The piece also had a number of less positive features.  There was objectification, a concentration on glamour, posed photos in nice outfits and – unlike any of the male historians – mention of their marital status and the number of their children.  Dwelling on an essentialist ‘women’s history’ the piece entirely avoided the feared word ‘gender’.  This was the Daily Mail after all.  Once again, two of the rising stars, who had ‘rescued studying the past from the clutches of fusty academia and changed our view of yesteryear for ever’, had no immediately evident historical qualification.

Let us look a little closer at the types of history being written by these rising stars.  Overwhelmingly it is descriptive narrative or, above all, biography, especially of high-status women: Emma Hamilton, young Queen Victoria, Mary Tudor, queens and consorts, the Wyndham sisters, or Henry VIII, Lord Castlereagh, the Plantagenets.  Otherwise it is the salacious (Victorian prostitutes, royal concubines, lonely hearts adverts) or the gimmicky (the private lives of saints [see also the salacious]; a visitor’s guide to Tudor England).  If this represents the way history is going it is time for us all to catch a bus in the opposite direction as soon as possible.  With the exception of a couple of the more academically-qualified female scholars, their comments on historical method are, as one might expect, at best naive.  “I think writing your books with specific political aims in mind is an old-fashioned approach”, opines Claudia Renton (with no qualification higher than a BA). “It's not particularly helpful. I think if you produce a good narrative history, which convincingly creates the world you're writing about, then people will read it and draw their own conclusions.”  Kate Williams appears to have been stuck in a time-warp since about 1970 (ironically given the article’s repeated allusion to time machines and time capsules): “Women’s stories have been neglected for so long – unless they were queens. Exploring the history of women is a way of redressing that imbalance.”  Sometimes the comments are simply bizarre: “Being male or female is important to us now but we shouldn’t assume it was important to people in the past.”   On occasion, however, they are more representative, if no more sophisticated.  Susannah Lipscomb (with, unlike most of the others – especially the men – a PhD and a prize-winning journal article to her name), declares that “History tells us the story of who we are and where we’ve come from; it reassures us that we aren’t the first to walk these paths.”  It is this distressingly widely-held point of view that the present book seeks to demolish.  This is precisely why history doesn’t matter.

[4] Five of the six were educated at Cambridge, the other at Oxford, illustrating neatly how class and cultural capital continue to function ahead of actual merit and experience in ensuring access to patronage, opportunity and resources.