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October 25, 2005

What Drives History?: Jeremy Black argues that historiography is too obsessed with academic disputes and pays too little attention to public history

Posted by Jeremy Black

Historiography plays a much greater role in history degrees today than it ever did in the past. Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - argues that historiography in the west is too obsessed with academic disputes but pays too little attention to public history.

Golden days. One of the reasons I enjoyed history as an undergraduate was that there was no obsession with the theory of the subject. I recall, over three years at Cambridge, four classes about particular historians or groups of historians, and that was it. Now, of course, in order presumably to demonstrate the theoretical weight of the subject, and to introduce students to methodology in a conceptual way, university after university expects its first-year history students to take entire courses on the theory of history and historical method. Doubtless, an unfair observer might suggest, that is why there are now so many firsts.

Students generally loathe the courses, in large part because they anticipated a more direct engagement with the past, but also because the theoretical perspective is frequently opaque and some of those who teach these courses also dislike them. In terms of devising an introduction to "post-school" history, the courses are generally regarded, by staff and students, as less than satisfactory. That they often meet teaching quality indicators simply underlines the problems with the latter.

My complaint is slightly different. I feel that in teaching historiography, and I am certain there are parallels in other subjects, there is a focus on past practitioners, and a failure to engage sufficiently with wider currents that mould the nature of the subject. Indeed, a largely self-referential academic culture frequently has little to do with a popular interest in history that often ties into current preoccupations.

This gap also, of course, reflects a benign characteristic of the profession, specifically the contrast between the questioning ethos and method that are central to the modern notion of scholarship, and, on the other, a public use of history in which the emphasis is rather on answers, with public myths providing ways to make sense of the past, or, at least, to provide clear and/or exemplary narratives. This public use of history, history as answers and assertion, is generally ignored by historiography, in part because it does not match the humane skepticism that is seen as normative across much of the profession as goal and/or method, with a judicious definition of terms, and with answers arising after careful questioning.

The role of public history goes beyond individual interest and fulfilment, or the quest for knowledge. Instead, issues of national identity are centrally involved. Changes in the public usage of history are crucial to the general understanding of the past, and these developments stem largely from current political shifts and pressures, which put pressure on public myths. The understanding of this public usage of history in large part is a product of broader patterns of social experience, such as shifts in collective memory, and of social change, for example the rise of literacy.

Abrupt political changes have been particularly important. The rapid process of change in the Communist and Third Worlds that arose from the collapse of Communism and from decolonisation posed particular problems for public history. In Eastern Europe, explicit attacks on the historical role of Communist parties and the Soviet Union were now freely ventilated, and there was greater interest in episodes that had been previously neglected, such as the Hungarian rising of 1956.

Communist states, like other totalitarian regimes, worked in part by creating an all-pervasive sense of surveillance and fear, focused on a regime that was felt but could not be seen or located: prison camps existed, but few knew their location or extent. Terror indeed works on ignorance, on the ungraspable nature and undefined scope of the arbitrary power of the oppressor. The end of Communist rule transformed the situation, and the same was true of authoritarian right-wing regimes. In Spain, for example, political shifts led scholars to re-examine such questions as regional identity and national exceptionalism, while it became possible to address hitherto slighted issues such as Francoist atrocities.

Confronting the consequences of decolonization in the Third World led to an even more abrupt challenge to public history. For example, post-independence rethinking led to a greater emphasis on resistance to colonial rule, and on the historiography of resistance to colonial conquest and rule, although these tend to involve a misleading appropriation of resistance for the cause of subsequent nationalism. Public history in the Third World also focused on demands for apology and compensation, which met their counterpart in debate within former colonial powers over issues such as the slave trade and imperialism.

In former settlement colonies, such as Australia, there is also marked contention over the historical rights or, more commonly, wrongs, of the treatment of Native peoples. Public history in the West indeed offers many topics for discussion ranging, for example, in the USA from the National Standards controversy to the impact of Hollywood, or in France from the representation of the Revolution to that of Vichy.

Unfortunately, despite some excellent work on the presentation of these topics in public history by academics, such issues tend to receive less attention than academic debates. This is part of a more widespread problem of what is ranked as important in history. It is one that also places the focus on intellectual movements at the expense of other important factors in historiography, such as the formative role of the economics of publishing on what is published, the last a point of some importance to research assessment exercises.

In short, there is an idealist approach to historiography, and this is one that can regard consideration of philosophical issues focusing on the recovery of truth or the creation of "truths" as more significant than the hard work of actually considering what is taught in classrooms, published in popular works, or discussed on the Clapham omnibus.

Linked to this is a structuring of relations within the historical profession, with those who focus on historiography or other "thought" topics sometimes claiming what is akin to a higher purpose when compared to colleagues working on empirical topics.

There is also the question of how typical the relationship in the West - between academic and public histories - is, to that same relationship in the rest of the world. This leads on to the question of whether global criteria for historiography are possible. Scholars in the West divide over the possibility of objectivity, specifically of recovering the past (frequently debating the issue in a fashion that means little to the general public), they generally subscribe to a desire to avoid nationalistic partisanship. In many states across the world, however, this is not the case; there, instead, such partisanship is, often, but by no means always, seen as an aspect of a necessary and welcome commitment to national identity.

The role of the academic as the servant of the state is likely to become more important if the relative economic and political power of East and South Asia increases. How their dynamic societies come to grips with their recent and more distant past will probably be the most significant aspect of historiography over the next century. The recent textbook controversy affecting Japan and its neighbours is particularly instructive. The role of the academic as the servant of the public has different connotations in particular political cultures, with contrasting emphases on freedom of thought and the role of the state. It is not only that the use of history is contested, but also that the terms of the contest vary greatly.

It is in the developing world that the pressures to provide a public history will seem most acute. Indeed, the volatility of these societies - with the relatively large percentage of the population under 25, the impact of urbanization and industrialization, the breakdown of social patterns and patterns of deference, and the pressures on established networks, identities and systems of explanation - are such that there will appear to be particular need for the development and exposition of unifying national myths, a process in which the presentation of history plays a key role.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Using History (Hodder Arnold, 2005). The Social Affairs Unit will be publishing Jeremy Black's forthcoming The European Question and the National Interest.


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