Hello, my name is Heather and I’m a historian…
I have studied history for over ten years. I’ve written about history, researched history, taught history, attended many history conferences, had my work scrutinised and criticised by other historians. I am, by all definitions, a historian. But the reason this comes across as something of a confession is that lately I’ve felt that being a historian is decidedly uncool. As a PhD graduate looking for employment outside of academia, I admit I’ve tended to downplay my background in history and instead emphasised my interest in foreign policy and my ‘transferable skills’. I doubt there are many employers who are looking specifically for someone with an in-depth understanding of the Cabinet debates of 1919 on the recall of British troops from Persia. But somebody might be interested in the fact that I can write quite well and know a bit about project management…I’m hoping.
Don’t get me wrong – there is huge public interest in history, as the various events, literature and TV programmes surrounding the First World War centenary have shown. Social media has also made history more accessible to the public than it has ever been and has created a community feeling among #twitterstorians. However, while there is an apparently insatiable appetite for history, I don’t see a corresponding respect accorded trained historians. Maybe it’s just me; maybe I’m a bitter PhD graduate feeling unappreciated. I’d certainly like to know what other historians think. But there is, I feel, a subtle yet pervading attitude in our society towards the study of history that troubles me.
Importance Accorded Historians
One example is the attack Michael Gove made, not too long ago, on the historiography of the First World War. Gove may have been trying to make a point about the way the subject is taught in schools, but his actual argument, instead, came across as a criticism of the way historians have studied and written about the event – that (some) historians had misrepresented the war because of their own political beliefs. There is no right and wrong in history, the discipline is built on the basis of debate and argument. The BBC programmes on whether Britain should have entered the war was a fine example of eminent historians in debate. Michael Gove is not an historian nor is he an expert on the First World War – he therefore has zero right to criticise how historians do their job.
Related to this is the value that is accorded to the teaching of the subject of history generally. Every few months it seems somebody is questioning whether history should be absorbed into ‘citizenship’ classes, or scrapped entirely from the curriculum. How often are we being told that Britain needs more scientists, mathematicians and technologists? I saw a scheme recently that is trying to encourage PhD graduates to go into secondary school teaching – the salary for those who have done a science PhD is double that of the arts. And yes, this may be due to the fact that there is a lack of STEM teachers. But the overall message constantly being projected is one that says those who have training in the sciences are more valuable members of society than those who have trained in the arts. Not that this is an ‘us versus them’ situation. Indeed, I have no time for the arts versus science debate – both are equally valuable pursuits. And I in no way hold any ill will towards my STEM peers – my sister is, in fact, doing a PhD in Biology. But am I allowed to feel a little jealous when her lab had the funds to buy her a MacBook when I don’t know a single history PhD student who’s department could have done that for them?
This in turn is linked to a prevailing attitude that while you need to be trained to be a scientist/mathematician/engineer etc, anyone can be a historian. All you need is a library card. The concept of being trained in analysis of primary sources, construction of argument, critiquing of historiography, use of methodology, even citation systems, are all lost on most people. For instance, I always find it interesting that for some types of book (usually to do with psychology, healthcare, even economics), the author’s academic credentials are often very prominent. But you won’t find a history book on the shelves with ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ on its cover. I can only conclude that while the fact that the author holds a PhD or MD is important to readers who want advice on their diet, it’s not so important if they want to learn about the Suez Crisis. Yet, how does the average reader know that the author of a history book is properly trained, that they have looked at all of the sources and facts, that their argument and opinion is well informed and based on years of research and study? It’s notoriously hard for an early-career historian to get published, despite the fact that have gone through a gruelling process of writing a 100,000 word thesis (often together with articles, conference papers and book reviews) and had their work constantly scrutinised and criticised by their peers. Yet a certain well-known journalist who has no training whatsoever in history can easily publish history books and speak at high profile events on history matters.
The Value of History
One of the sad results of this lack of respect for historians is it has forced us to start having to justify what we do, using a framework that often is less about the value of historical knowledge and more about telling people what they want to hear. The Gove argument is again a good example of this – the reason we should be talking about the First World War is because it boosts national morale, or so the education secretary believes. Aside from the great danger that comes from having politicians involved in how history should and should not be studied, this sets a bad precedent for judging the inherent value of historical knowledge. No longer does the act of studying history have meaning in and of itself. Instead, something needs to be done with the product of our endeavours – we need to enhance our country’s reputation, we need to hold bad people and regimes to account, we need to learn the lessons so as not to repeat mistakes. History which aims to do any of these things is at best, bad history, at worst, dangerous propaganda.
‘Those who do not understand their past are doomed to repeat it’ – too often this phrase is taken to mean that by looking at history we can somehow stop future mistakes. I think most historians would agree that the ability to predict the future based on past events is limited. Instead, what I take to be the real meaning behind this saying is that understanding history gives you skills and abilities to hopefully reduce the chance of making the same mistakes in the future; that in training people to be analytical, critically thinking, engaged members of society, always looking to understand the other point of view and ready to question the status quo, certain aspects of our past would not be able to replicate themselves in the future.
Unfortunately, the ever increasing need to justify what we do causes some historians to try to shoe-horn this ‘lesson learnt’ aspect into their work. I’ve read work and listened to talks where very tenuous links have been made between the historical subject at hand and some current affair. Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine have brought forth a plethora of Cold War analogies; every conflict involving territorial competition between foreign powers is a ‘new Great Game’. I don’t really blames these people – when it’s hard to have your voice heard you have to give the people what they want. You also have to try to connect with what people already know. And I know some people will call me a hypocrite, being that I am a historian who writes about current foreign policy. However, I’m not saying you can’t talk about history and current affairs together, just that if this is a forced element of an article/book/lecture then it doesn’t work. Again this goes back to the issue of why we should study history. I believe that knowing the history between two countries (for example Britain and Russia) can help policy makers to have more sympathy for the other’s point of view. People are shaped by their past, and for me, good history can help inform the way we look at the world as it is today. To illustrate: understanding the previous wars which have occurred between Britain and Afghanistan in the 19th and 20th centuries can perhaps help western decision makers to better understand the attitudes that the Afghan people may have towards Britain today; it does not provide a template of what one should or shouldn’t do when going to war with Afghanistan today.
I know there are many people who will see what I’ve written as simply another ‘so-called expert’ whining about not being given the deference they feel they deserve. But I think it’s quite a natural human reaction that, when you have a passion for a subject and have dedicated significant time and effort to being trained as an expert in it, you then seek recognition of your abilities from others. So how can we change things? Well, for one thing, when you look to buy a history book, check to see if the author is a trained historian, rather than a journalist, politician or TV personality. If the public starts to demand their history writers are actually historians, we have a better chance of becoming published. That has a knock-on effect for the standing of historians. One small step but a big boost to us closet historians!