Thursday, April 20, 2006

Don't Know Much About History...

Kathryn Hughes, a British writer and journalist, made a sharp observation in
The Guardian yesterday about the comprehension of history among the general public:
These days there is no excuse for not understanding science. Every university with its eye on the zeitgeist, not to mention public funding, has a kindly professor whose job it is to help those of us who left school with a single O-level in biology to get to grips with the exciting world of genomes and string theory. Richard Dawkins holds just such a chair at Oxford, while at Bristol the telegenic Kathy Sykes does the same sort of thing, only with more screen time. Professors Lewis Wolpert, David Phillips and Susan Greenfield, meanwhile, head up committees and win honours that have "public understanding of science" somewhere in their unwieldy rubric....
What a shame that we don't have professors for the public understanding of other subjects. I'm thinking of history.

But... surely there are Professors for the Public Understanding of History? They're called TV professors, and in the UK we not only have a surfeit of them (Simon Schama and Bettany Hughes being the best-known right now), we even export them to the US. Yet Kathryn Hughes is right that there is something of a problem of popular understanding of history.

We are surrounded by books, television programmes and heritage sites peddling their version of the past, yet we have no way of knowing which of these productions matter and which are dreamscapes dressed up in crinoline. We are left to muddle through, hoping the version we're getting of Anglo-Saxon England, the slave trade or the Victorian music hall is more or less kosher, in a manner that would seem casual if applied to a television programme about global warming or a book on Parkinson's disease.
The reason for this unwillingness to ask an expert must be that, while few of us would fancy ourselves as scientists, most of us are happy to think of ourselves as soi-disant historians.... This is not to suggest that history should be professionalised (which means academised), so that only people with a lot of letters after their name are allowed to do it.... None the less, if we are to avoid using the past as a kind of personal playpen, then we need someone on hand to act as an astringent warning voice. For the past really is another country, and we need guidebooks, translators and mountain guides to ensure it doesn't trip us up.

The responses in today's letters page have however pointed out that the failings are not to be blamed exclusively on the credulous public, but also point to a failing of academics to engage with populist hokum:
Kathryn Hughes is right about the lack of quality control in popular history (This historical swaggering, April 17). I find the proliferation of shoddy scholarship and crackpot theories being peddled as "history" in the bestseller market very disturbing: look in any bookshop for works on such subjects as ancient Egypt, the Albigensian Crusade or the Templars and you will find pseudo-mystical, pseudo-histories side-by-side with works of reputable scholarship, and nothing to help the novice know what to choose.
There are also the "popular" histories which aim to make areas of the past more "accessible", yet are riddled with factual errors and discredited interpretations. I should like to see more professional historians entering the fray and demolishing the amateurs and cranks with reasoned argument and primary sources. We need to get involved, not just turn a blind eye as if it were beneath our dignity.
Dr MM Gilchrist

Paul Anderton's letter drew an even more explicit implication from Hughes' article:
Kathryn Hughes is right to reject a professionalised authority for history, but wrong in equating professional with academic. On her own analogy with science it is clear that it is not professionalism (ie earning a living by) which gives the Dawkins of this world their status, it is their method of acquiring knowledge - scientific method. So the historian is one who is academic - scholarly transparent in showing how all the available evidence leads to justified conclusions. This is why we need to stop calling the likes of David Irving "historians" just because they write about the past.

Indeed. Yet the problem won't go away, especially with anything related to the Third Reich, the Second World War or the Holocaust. TV history has been well-served by the work of the BBC Timewatch team led by Laurence Rees and Tillman Remme, whose various series 'The Nazis - A Warning From History', 'War of the Century' and 'Auschwitz' have drawn on research expertise of Ian Kershaw, Andrej Angrick, Christian Gerlach and many another 'name' academic. But these are jewels in the mire, whereas the majority of programs screened on the Hitler Channel are dross. Not only that, but in Britain, much of Channel Five, part of Channel 4 and several other cable channels seem to be turned over to similarly bad documentaries, so much so that the late comedian Linda Smith said there was going to be only one channel left within a few years, UK TV History Nazi Gold.

Nor does the matter rest there. Academics might be comfortably familiar with the subject matter, but it takes, it would seem, years for the fruits of the cutting edge research to filter down into popular understanding. In part, this is a product of the lamentable offerings of the publishing industry, who seem more content to offer endless reprints of Guderian's and Hoess's memoirs than to commission new books, but also because academics have become too esoteric for their own good. Increasingly, too, the products of postgraduate research are too far removed from the needs of even university undergraduates to be of much use in teaching.

Which brings me to the vexed subject of the internet, these days one of the prime sources of information on matters historical available to the general public, and increasingly also one used and abused by university students. With a very few exceptions, such as the University of the West of England's Web Genocide Documentation Centre, universities have scarcely scratched the surface of the possibilities now available for outreach and the dissemination of ideas because of the net.

And this is where the remarks of the two letter-writers come back in. Academic historians might well sneer at the conspiracy-theory output of cranks, lunatics and Holocaust Deniers, but they reckon without the pervasiveness of this stuff. As Dr Gilchrist so rightly pointed out, 'We need to get involved, not just turn a blind eye as if it were beneath our dignity.'


Roman Werpachowski said...

These days there is no excuse for not understanding science.

This is funny, since among the physicist a totally reverse sentiment is common.

Scott Smith said...

I definitely don't think that academics necessarily write the best History, let alone that they should write the only History.

But I agree that there is a certain dumbing-down with Pop-History, not unlike with the sciences. Our intellectuals don't get paid for doing those things. Those rewards are given instead to those who go into business or accounting, stock speculation, or real estate tax litigation--certainly not Science and History.

In the U.S., aside from the unprofitable academic presses of course, it is difficult to sell books with extensive footnotes and bibliographies at all. Often popular presses will print and sell scholarly works, but only as sort of vulgate versions marketed to American audiences, and without anything more than condensed academic notation. Usually what we get are proprietary histories designed to bring in audiences like a Spielberg movie, and appealing to the least common denominator. And that doesn't even count the fiction.

History on the auction block is not necessarily the best sketch.

Roman Werpachowski said...

This is assuming that scientists are motivated by money only, which is not the case.

The problem is, among scientific circles, doing serious popularization of science is often ridiculed or just works to the detriment of the popularizator: in the time devoted to "spreading the light of knowledge to the masses" he/she could do some more research and get one more paper published.

Scott Smith said...

Maybe not, but most students probably are motivated by money unless they come from well-heeled backgrounds already, which automatically gets them into Havard or Yale. And those who get C's in Business are going to be making a lot more of it with only a Bachelors degree before scientists or historians are even out of graduate school. The fact is that not many people pursue higher education except for money, and without it they are usually in trouble.