Whither history?

Very few high school students say they want to grow up to be historians. As a profession, we ignore history.

Still, a few do. More seriously, what happens in the high school class depends a lot on what is being done by professional historians. What is that?

Historian Keith Thomas wrote a long piece about where history is headed for The Times of London, in October 2006. It even has hints about it of how to make history more intrigueing in high school. Go see.

History revisited

In 1966, the TLS devoted three issues to “New Ways in History”. They were orchestrated by the restless medievalist Geoffrey Barraclough, who had turned from the Middle Ages to contemporary history in the belief that recent world events had made irrelevant the austerely remote tradition of scholarship in which he had been raised. Many of the contributors must have been chosen in the hope that they would adopt an aggressively forward-looking tone; and they did not disappoint. M. I. Finley, one of the few classical historians in those days whom modern historians would have recognized as deserving the name, deplored his colleagues’ intellectual isolation, their ignorance of sociology and their failure to confront “central human problems”. E. P. Thompson, whose book The Making of the English Working Class had appeared in 1963, attacked “the established constitutional and parliamentary-political Thing”, in the name of history from below. The anonymous author of the leading article (Barraclough himself) asserted that historians should align themselves with the social sciences by tackling the questions “which ordinary people wanted answering”. Sir Isaiah Berlin, he added unkindly, was wrong to dismiss “scientific” history as a “chimera”; a younger generation of historians had passed him by.

The opening article was even more confrontational. It asserted that the first half of the twentieth century was “a time when most historians temporarily lost their bearings”, and declared that “academic history, for all its scholarly rigour, had succeeded in explaining remarkably little about the workings of human society or the fluctuations in human affairs”. The remedy, it suggested, was not to “grub away in the old empirical tradition” but to forge a closer relationship with the social sciences, especially social anthropology, sociology and social psychology, to develop a more sophisticated conceptual vocabulary and to employ statistical techniques. The future lay with the computer, which would replace the “stout boots” worn by the advanced historians of the previous generation. In the United States the new econometric history was already “sweeping all before it”.

Forty years later, the author of these brash words still bears the scars inflicted in the resulting furore. Not only did Isaiah Berlin take some convincing that I was not the anonymous leader-writer, but, by an unfortunate piece of timing, I had invited that outstanding grubber in the empirical tradition, G. R. Elton, to an Oxford college dinner in the week after my article appeared. It was a chilly evening. My guest went back to Cambridge to write The Practice of History (1967), a robust rejection of all new ways in history in general and of my views in particular. It was a faint consolation to find, in the “index of historians” appended to that work, the name Thomas making an incongruous appearance between those of Tacitus and Thucydides.

How do the confident predictions and prescriptions of 1966 look now? Some were patently off target. Econometric history has not swept all before it; on the contrary, its intimidating formulae and rebarbative style have been partly responsible for the regrettable lack of interest shown by many of today’s historians in economic history of any kind. Social history has not become a central subject around which other branches of history are organized, but has in its turn been overtaken by the newer genre of cultural history. There is more cooperative scholarship and organized research than there used to be, but the “individualist, prima donna tradition”, against which the polemicists of 1966 inveighed, is, in the age of stars like Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson, more alive than ever.

On the other hand, the computer has out-performed all expectations. Who in 1966 would have guessed that today’s historians would order their library books online, take their laptops to the archives, scroll through searchable databases and become highly dependent upon on such electronic aids as Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth Century-Collections Online (ECCO)?

Quantitative history has some spectacular achievements to its credit, like the anthropo-metric studies of changes over time in human height and weight, or the reconstruction of British population history in the pre-census era by the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. William St Clair’s work The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004) shows that counting can illuminate the history of culture no less than that of the economy. Nevertheless, it is obvious that only limited aspects of the past can be understood in this way, and the precision offered by figures is often spurious. The thrust of most modern historical writing is qualitative rather than quantitative. The dream of historians in white coats who would bring scientific certainty to the study of the past now seems just another delusion of the 1960s, that optimistic decade, when Harold Wilson invoked the “white heat” of technology.

Yet though history has not become a social science, it is much closer to adjacent disciplines than it used to be. Roderick Floud and Pat Thane recently lamented that “there is little sign of the partnership between history and sociology which seemed in prospect forty years ago”. But even if sociologists remain resolutely unhistorical, many historians are firmly sociological. In his Classes and Cultures: England 1918–1951 (1998), for example, Ross McKibbin draws on the work of almost every prominent British sociologist from Ralf Dahrendorf and J. H. Goldthorpe to A. H. Halsey and W. G. Runciman.

Social and cultural anthropology are now accepted as part of the everyday equipment for investigating the history of such subjects as religion, kinship, ritual, or gift exchange. There is a greater sense of the otherness of the past; and many historians conceive of their subject as a kind of retrospective ethnography. Who would have guessed, in 1966, that the history of witchcraft would become a staple topic on the undergraduate curriculum? The influence of social anthropology is equally evident in the widespread preoccupation with “the native point of view”. Instead of trying to classify and order human experience from the outside, as if historical actors were butterflies, and historians entomologists, much imaginative effort has gone into the re-creation of the way things appeared to people at the time. This shift from the etic to the emic, as the linguists would call it, involves an enhanced concern with the meaning of events for those who participated in them, and a new respect for what people in the past thought and felt. Back in the 1950s, it was common to disparage ideas as mere rationalizations of self-interest. Today, even the hardest-nosed historians seek to recapture the vocabulary, categories and subjective experience of the historical actors, rather than anachronistically viewing their behaviour through modern spectacles.

This approach has been reinforced by the declining appeal of Marxism, with its tendency to dismiss conscious thought as mere “super-structure”, and by a revived interest in the philosophy of R. G. Collingwood, who saw history as the re-enactment of past experience. It is as evident in the enterprising attempts of social historians to reconstruct the values of the semi-literate as it is in the historical study of political thought by Quentin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock and the high intellectual history of scholarship practised by polymaths like Anthony Grafton, Ian Maclean and Noel Malcolm.

During the past forty years, historians have learned from many other disciplines. Geographers have taught them to study the physical environment and to map patterns of human settlement. Archaeologists have stimulated students of all periods into looking beyond written sources to the physical remains of the past, whether artefacts, buildings, or landscape. Art historians who have moved from high art to the study of visual culture have fostered a much greater sensitivity to history’s visual dimension than was evident forty years ago, when it was highly unusual for a serious history book to carry any illustrations at all, leave alone the coloured ones we expect nowadays. Literary scholars have accustomed historians to the notion that plays, poems and novels, sensitively employed, can yield insights just as rewarding as those derived from state papers or pipe rolls.

The plea made in 1966 for greater use of theory has also been abundantly answered. Much of the historiography of the late twentieth century can be explained in terms of the delayed impact of Malthus, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Keynes, Freud, Collingwood, Evans-Pritchard, J. L. Austin, Lévi-Strauss, Bakhtin, Elias, Geertz, Kuhn, Foucault, Habermas, Bourdieu, Benedict Anderson and others. This is unsurprising, for what happens in one generation in economics, psychology, sociology, philosophy, or anthropology will usually be reflected in the history-writing of the next, even if its authors have never read a word by the theorists concerned. The great change during the past forty years is that historians have become much more self-conscious about their borrowings. It is difficult to open a work of academic history these days without encountering a reference to “discourse” or “thick description” or “paradigms” or “bricolage” or “the public sphere” or “path dependency” or “the civilizing process” or “imagined communities”, none of them terms which would have meant very much in 1966. Nowadays, when young practitioners review the works of their elders, their most frequent criticism is that they are “under-theorized”, a charge which would once have evoked mere puzzlement.

No one in 1966 foresaw the impact of the various linguistic and literary theories known as “post-structuralism” and “postmodernism”. Their adherents caused some perturbation in the 1980s, when it seemed that these modern sceptics were denying the possibility of achieving any certain knowledge of the past. But that nihilistic doctrine has been tacitly rejected. Most practising historians today take a commonsensical view. They are critical of their sources and do not need to be told that they are not a mirror of reality. They know that the categories they use, and the periods into which they divide up history, are expository devices, not intrinsic features of the past. They are aware that many so-called “facts” are contestable, and that events look different to different observers. But they also know that things really did happen in the past and that historians can often find out what they were. The outcome can be seen in acute methodological self-consciousness of the kind displayed by C. J. Wickham in his prize-winning Framing the Middle Ages (2005). Every term employed is carefully defined; the first person singular is frequently used, by way of disclaiming any pretence to oracular authority; and the very title indicates that the book records a continuing process of “construction”.

British historians have been less afflicted than some of their North American colleagues by epistemological uncertainties about the difference between fact and fiction. But the so-called “linguistic turn” has made them more sensitive to the rhetorical conventions and ideological presuppositions which shape the books they write and the documents they study. The boom in studies of past historiography has alerted them to the way in which self-interested groups construct versions of the past to serve partisan objectives. The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (1983), and Les Lieux de mémoire by Pierre Nora (1984–92) are the two great landmarks here.

Many historians now believe, perhaps rather perversely, that what happened in the past is less important than what people thought had happened. This conviction helps to account for the decline of “hard” economic history. It is also the reason that social history, once envisaged as the detached study of supposedly objective groupings like families, households, communities and classes, has, since the 1980s, been mutating into cultural history, seen as an account of the mental assumptions and linguistic practices of the people involved. The change, lucidly chronicled by Cambridge’s first Professor of Cultural History, Peter Burke, is admirably exemplified in Stuart Clark’s meticulous study of a totally vanished system of thought, Thinking with Demons (1997).

All this helps to explain the reluctance of most present-day historians to embark on large-scale narratives mapping the course of historical change over long periods. Despite the efforts of today’s television historians, the genre has been discredited by the teleological triumphalism and ideological intent with which such narratives are usually infused. An even greater discouragement is an enhanced sense of the sheer complexity of the past and the impossibility of embodying in a single, selective account the infinitely numerous points of view from which it can be legitimately surveyed. Few manage to achieve the magisterial objectivity of J. H. Elliott’s recent Empires of the Atlantic Worlds, a comparative history of the British and Spanish Empires over more than three centuries. Hence the recourse to microhistory, the attempt to see the world in a grain of sand, by the intensive study of small communities, single events or even individuals, on the model of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou (1975) or The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton (1984).

The greatest triumph for the polemicists of 1966 has been the way in which the subject matter of history has broadened beyond recognition, so that it now embraces all those topics of human concern about whose neglect they had complained. In the early 1960s, history still meant politics, the constitution, war and diplomacy, with economic history a poor relation, often in a separate department. (When I examined in the Oxford History School in 1961, one of my co-examiners, Dame Lucy Sutherland, set a paper on modern British history which was almost entirely political. I pointed out that there was nothing on the Industrial Revolution. “No,” she said, “that came up last year.”) Today, political history has survived, but only by broadening its focus to include the study of political culture and extending its range to include the politics of smaller units, like the factory or the family. Military and naval history are exceptionally vigorous, with a huge lay following for accounts of battles and campaigns, not all of them intellectually demanding. But every aspect of human experience now has its historians, from childhood to old age, from dress to table manners, from smells to laughter, from sport to shopping, from barbed wire to masturbation.

Where, then, do we look for today’s New Ways in History? There can be no single answer, for history has become a crowded and heterogeneous field, characterized by an astonishing diversity of approach. There is no agreement about what is central and what is peripheral, and little sense of participation in a common intellectual enterprise. The historical profession is enormous: each year, some 10,000 people publish books or articles on British and Irish history alone. The Stakhanovite ethos prevailing in research-driven universities has resulted in a torrent of publication that threatens to overwhelm anyone who attempts to study more than the tiniest area of the past. Writing serious history is a much more difficult undertaking than it was in the 1960s, when there were so many unexplored areas, and when gifted writers like Hobsbawm or Lawrence Stone could sketch out bold, synoptic articles in Past and Present. Today, the crippling accumulation of specialized knowledge means that one has to work very much harder to say anything new.

If past experience is any guide, future innovations will come from one of two sources: first, new theories about human nature and human behaviour, most of them developed in adjacent disciplines; secondly, the impact of contemporary events. The former are hard to predict, but the latter can be seen all around us. Until 1950 or so, academic history was written within the conceptual framework created by the nineteenth century’s great invention, the nation state. But as the world has changed, so have historical perspectives. In the United Kingdom, the end of Empire and the growth of Asian and Caribbean immigration have engendered the “post-colonial” outlook. Less attention is now given to proconsuls and generals and more to those on the receiving end of Empire: slaves, convicts, indigenous peoples and poor whites. The agonies of Northern Ireland and the granting of devolution to Scotland and Wales have made British historians less Anglocentric. The old “English” history courses are now labelled “British” history, and the English Civil War has turned into the War of the Three Kingdoms. National identity and “Englishness” have become central issues in historical debate.

The formation of the European Union has stimulated some slightly strained attempts at writing histories of the Continent, which transcend national frontiers. But the shift of political and economic power to the US and the Far East has encouraged historians everywhere to be less Eurocentric. In the US, the belief that American liberties stemmed from Magna Carta and the House of Commons once gave English History a central place in the curriculum. Today, the diminished international importance of the UK, and the changing ethnic composition of the American population, have made British history an increasingly unsuccessful competitor with the history of Latin America, China, Japan and the Middle East. It retains a place only because of its Imperial dimension. Meanwhile, the history of anything to do with Islam has, for obvious reasons, become the dernier cri; and is likely to remain so for some time.

Despite the professional drift to intense specialization, modern realities encourage the study of ever larger units; hence the vogue for Mediterranean history, Atlantic history and Pacific history. Yet even they now seem parochial, as the globalization of economies and communications inexorably generates the conviction that the only true history has to be a history of the world. That is the animating doctrine behind the LSE’s new Journal of Global History; and it is admirably exemplified in The Birth of the Modern World by C. A. Bayly (2004), a genuinely global history of the nineteenth century. It seems certain that, for the next generation of historians, the relationships between the world’s different cultures will be a central concern.

Just as contemporary developments alter our geographical horizons, so they point us to previously neglected aspects of the past. Some of the reasons for the widening of history’s subject matter in the past forty years have been adventitious, like the munificence of the Wellcome Trust, which has elevated the history of medicine from a harmless hobby for retired physicians into a dynamic and creative field. Credit must also be given to purely internal campaigns, like Lucien Febvre’s strenuous advocacy in Annales of a broader historical coverage. But the decisive cause has been the impact of present-day concerns.

In the US, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s focused attention on the history of African Americans. In Britain, the democratization of the historical profession, the founding of new universities, and the influence of the Left, all helped to shift interest away from cabinets and chanceries to the experience of ordinary people, the main concern of the History Workshop movement led by Raphael Samuel.

Above all, it has become mandatory for all historians to consider the gender aspect of their topic, whatever it may be, with the strong implication that not to do so is as much a moral failure as an intellectual one. When, in 1957, I gave a course of lectures at Oxford on the relations between the sexes in England from the Reformation to the First World War, the general reaction was of bewildered amusement. No one had anything to say about the history of women in the TLS of 1966. It was the feminism of the 1970s that brought about a fundamental reassessment of how history should be written. More recently, the claims of gays and lesbians to social and legal recognition look like making the histories of masculinity and female friendship as central to the undergraduate syllabus as was Stubbs’s Charters in my day.

Nearly all the fashionable historical topics of the present time owe their vogue to essentially non-academic preoccupations. The countless studies of memory and forgetting are in part a legacy of the Holocaust. The passion for environmental history stems from anxiety about global warming and the depletion of natural resources. The renewed concern with Empire is closely related to US foreign policy. The obsessive interest in the history of the body has been fuelled by the AIDS epidemic; it also reflects the concerns of a secular and hedonistic age, preoccupied with physical health and instinctual gratification. Similar concerns underlie the current popularity of such topics as the history of consumer goods, the study of the emotions, personal identity and the emergence of the “self”. History has always embodied the hopes and fears of those who write it. Its future character depends on what those hopes and fears will prove to be.

2 Responses to Whither history?

  1. Ed says:

    I would argue (have argued for years) that the work of professional historians has primarily a very negative impact on what happens in the high school. The historians in the academy have very little to no interest in what their students ought be learning, and those college students go on to be teachers, parents, administrators…all similarly confused about the making of a good basic education.

    Contrary to Thomas’ assertion, military history has all but disappeared from the campus. The study of great leaders and great events is rare in a liberal arts education; we study only isms, eras, grand themes. While I loved and still appreciate my Freshman year introduction to Out of This Furnace and the life of immigrant steel laborers, the accompanying text on Immigration remains the but of all jokes textbook for four years and more. More to the point, such classes hang there in a complete lack of context for all but the most privileged of high school grads.

    How ironic, too, that few students choose “historian” as profession! When standard after standard demands that the students learn not history itself, but the outlook and professionalism of the historian! Its as if the teaching profession said, “Hey, History wasn’t boring enough when we studied in school. Lets make it even more dull for our students by giving them grad-school focus before they learn primary school stories!”

    Too bad, too, that Thomas does not take to task the extraordinary political bias of the present day academy. Its harder for a Republican to join the History Department at State U. than it is for a NOW member to join Augusta National. That hardly makes for balanced perspective and rigorous discussion.

    Thomas perhaps rightfully celebrates the vast breadth subsumed by History as a professional research specialty. Alas, he fails to recognize the limits of that unbounded set of studies as material worthy of introducing to the young, the neophyte still learning nearly everything about himself and present human nature, and looking to History for a few simple lessons to help make sense of his or her more limited reality.

    Untamed breadth is anarchy, and that’s about what’s going on in college humanities these days.


  2. flatlander100 says:

    Thanks for the link on the Keith Thomas piece. Am forwarding to colleagues in the talking-about-dead-people game.


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