Lessons from history

The phrase “lessons from history” is guaranteed to make professional historians shift uneasily in their seats. Our training, and our teaching, emphasizes the need to understand the specific context of historical events and documents, and to avoid glib generalization. This inclination to pick out the particular and stress the singular has been hardened in the past quarter century, both by intellectual doubts about any ‘grand narrative’ and the practical imperative of producing specialist research to satisfy funding bodies. Yet as explicable as these trends may be, they carry with them the danger of the disconnection of the historical profession from wider society.

A quick glance at the history section of any bookstore or a brief acquaintance with history on television and the radio suggests that the general public wants two things from history: entertainment and insight. History as entertainment – ‘infotainment’ in the media neologism – can take many forms: from the puerile sketches of Horrible Histories to the prurient pleasures of Who do you think you are?, and the hammy histrionics of David Starkey. It is easy for the profession to sniffily dismiss this type of activity and take the view that one of the worst jobs in history must be working with Tony Robinson. But at their best such programmes, and their accompanying books, can spark an interest in the past that it is up to professional historians to build upon.

The problem of the disconnection is all the more pressing when it comes to providing historical insight in public discourse. There is undoubtedly an appetite for both historical surveys and historically informed reflections on contemporary politics and policy. Professional historians, however, too rarely feed it, and their neglect leaves the field open to others. This may not bother us, when we can complete yet another research management form, whilst listening to Jonathan Freedland’s The Long View on Radio 4; but we might be more disturbed by the use of Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain as a teaching tool in schools, and by the profusion of mistaken and misleading historical ‘information’ and ‘interpretation’ found across the internet.

No one would want to silence the white noise cacophony that constitutes the modern media, and return to a time when pronouncements on the past were the exclusive domain of a historical clerisy. (Even if that were possible, and even if that was not itself a constructed ‘golden age’ of the type we are congenitally compelled to debunk!) The point, rather, is that our profession needs to be more assertive, and more creative, in bringing historical insights to public discussions of politics and policy. Because when we don’t, others fill the lacuna.

The department at Reading has staff with specialisms that leave them well equipped to provide a historical perspective on a whole host of contemporary issues: from the size of the public sector deficit to Obama’s budget problems; from the proposed changes to the Act of Settlement to the choice of The Clash as London’s Olympic theme; from the aborted programme of woodland sales to the travails of the Eurozone; and any number of other topics. My hope is that one function of this blog is to provide a place where a historical perspective on such matters can be explored. Because while we may doubt that there are hard and fast “lessons” to be learnt from history, we probably all share the view that a historically informed debate is a much better one.

Dr David Stack

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5 Responses to Lessons from history

  1. Jeremy Burchardt says:

    I was involved recently in an entertaining instance of the way the past can come back to haunt the present. One of the subjects I’ve worked on is the history of allotments. These days allotment sites are often threatened by development and I’m sometimes asked to give historical advice on this. The case I’m thinking of is St Stephen’s Allotments in Bath. The developers in this case were the Diocese of Bath and Wells, who owned the land. They were rather embarrassed to be informed that an earlier Bishop of Bath and Wells, George Henry Lewis, had been known as ‘the father of the allotment movement’ and believed that allotments were a fundamental social good. While I don’t suppose this had much effect on the decision (which was to spare the allotments), it probably didn’t do any harm.

  2. James Cullis says:

    This is a very interesting blog and gives unique insight into the profession . if I may, I would like to make two comments about the points raised
    Firstly , I don’t think we can dismiss the term ‘lessons of history’, because whilst I agree that when the general public refer to the concept of it , they usually muddle up issues of historical fact with subjective viewpoints. But on the other hand, the term surely reflects the fact that as humans the only way we progress is by learning from past mistakes.
    Secondly on this notion a of history for the general public, I take a very sceptical view of whether if this is at all possible. Given that David highlights the problem of infotament and that the public’s knowledge of history is usually taken from the television, where, Starkey and Schama are household names , and thus the publics idea of what history is is completely distorted. Furthermore what is more worrying is the negative consequences of the idea of the ‘public intellectual‘, For example since last week Starkey will inevitably become this pin up guy for the populist right, which will use the fact that he is a ‘real historian’ to justify their own lousy illogical political beliefs. Anyway good luck with the blog.

    James Cullis

    • Only just seen this interesting post. Have to admit that the more populist history gets, the more distorted it usually becomes. So over-dramatized, simplistic accounts tend to be more ‘successful’. Another example of a historian who has achieved media prominence arguably at the expense of a more considered approach is Niall Ferguson, currently at the centre of a furious row in the London Review of Books about whether he should be regarded as an apologist for imperialism http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n21/pankaj-mishra/watch-this-man

  3. Emily West says:

    The problems created by a disjuncture between what ‘academic’ historians write and what people actually read remains. ‘The Help’ (2010) is a best-selling book (and now a film) based upon Kathryn Stockett’s memories of Mississippi in the 1960s. Stockett’s book has resonance for all the people who have bought it (and who have now seen the film) but it has angered the Association of Black Women’s Historians. Why is the popular ‘narrative’ of US Southern history (such as that depicted in ‘The Help’ with its ‘cozy and intimate’ relationships between black and white women) so at odds with what the black women, below, have written about the History of the Southern USA?
    I’m forwarding the open statement from the ABWH, below.
    Dr Emily West
    University of Reading

    —– Forwarded Message —–
    From: “Natanya Duncan”
    To: “H-SAWH@h-net.msu.edu”
    Sent: Monday, August 15, 2011 10:18:54 AM
    Subject: Fwd: An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help

    On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), this
    statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping
    presented in both the film and novel version of The Help. The book has
    sold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will
    ensure its success at the box office. Despite efforts to market the book
    and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The
    Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic
    workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black
    life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights

    During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and
    economic inequalities limited black women’s employment opportunities. Up
    to 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domestic
    servants in white homes. The Help’s representation of these women is a
    disappointing resurrection of Mammy-a mythical stereotype of black women
    who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white
    families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites,
    the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic
    racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where
    employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent
    iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the
    days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather
    than reside in it.

    Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and
    culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a
    child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect. In the film, for example,
    the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, “You
    is smat, you is kind, you is important.” In the book, black women refer to
    the Lord as the “Law,” an irreverent depiction of black vernacular. For
    centuries, black women and men have drawn strength from their community
    institutions. The black family, in particular provided support and the
    validation of personhood necessary to stand against adversity. We do not
    recognize the black community described in The Help where most of the
    black male characters are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent. Such
    distorted images are misleading and do not represent the historical
    realities of black masculinity and manhood.

    Furthermore, African American domestic workers often suffered sexual
    harassment as well as physical and verbal abuse in the homes of white
    employers. For example, a recently discovered letter written by Civil
    Rights activist Rosa Parks indicates that she, like many black domestic
    workers, lived under the threat and sometimes reality of sexual assault.
    The film, on the other hand, makes light of black women’s fears and
    vulnerabilities turning them into moments of comic relief.

    Similarly, the film is woefully silent on the rich and vibrant history of
    black Civil Rights activists in Mississippi. Granted, the assassination of
    Medgar Evers, the first Mississippi based field secretary of the NAACP,
    gets some attention. However, Evers’ assassination sends Jackson’s black
    community frantically scurrying into the streets in utter chaos and
    disorganized confusion-a far cry from the courage demonstrated by the
    black men and women who continued his fight. Portraying the most dangerous
    racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed,
    society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku
    Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to
    individual acts of meanness.

    We respect the stellar performances of the African American actresses in
    this film. Indeed, this statement is in no way a criticism of their
    talent. It is, however, an attempt to provide context for this popular
    rendition of black life in the Jim Crow South. In the end, The Help is not
    a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who
    labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather,
    it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about
    the lives of black women to make sense of her own. The Association of
    Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this
    film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of

    Ida E. Jones is National Director of ABWH and Assistant Curator at Howard
    University. Daina Ramey Berry, Tiffany M. Gill, and Kali Nicole Gross are
    Lifetime Members of ABWH and Associate Professors at the University of
    Texas at Austin. Janice Sumler-Edmond is a Lifetime Member of ABWH and is
    a Professor at Huston-Tillotson University.

    Suggested Reading:
    Like one of the Family: Conversations from A Domestic’s Life, Alice Childress
    The Book of the Night Women by Marlon James
    Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neeley
    The Street by Ann Petry
    A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight

    Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation
    Household by Thavolia Glymph
    To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors by Tera Hunter
    Labor of Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from
    Slavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones Living In, Living Out: African
    American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
    Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody

  4. Fascinating topic and one that goes to the heart of what the study of history is about. There are several ways of looking at this. The first thing to say, from my perspective, is that knowledge and understanding of the past – like any other form of knowledge – is valuable for its own sake. It’s not merely a means to some other end. Wanting to understand the world we inhabit, in all its aspects, is one of the most fundamental, powerful and persistent human traits – indeed civilisation rests on little else. The view that History, or Physics, or Philosophy etc matter because they contribute to economic growth seems to me a profoundly philistine one. Doubtless it’s good if they do but that is a spin-off benefit rather than the core reason for studying them. I’d go further and argue that seeking understanding (for example of history) is just as valid a primary goal as promoting happiness or whatever.

    But there doesn’t have to be only one reason for studying history. Indeed, although I’d always want to place understanding for its own sake first, I’m entirely in sympathy with David’s suggestion that professional historians need to engage with the wider public and that historians have a responsibility to ensure that current debates, issues and policies are historically informed. Many historians do try to do this – an excellent example is the journal History and Policy http://www.historyandpolicy.org which tries to open up a dialogue between historians and policy makers.

    Perhaps the crucial question is what happens if professional historians disdainfully refuse to ‘draw lessons’ from history. Will everyone else respectfully follow suit? Of course not – all that happens is that less informed commentators draw frequently misleading conclusions. And surely they are right to try to draw lessons from history. After all, there isn’t anything else we can draw lessons from. The question isn’t whether we draw lessons or not, but how well-informed, nuanced and sophisticated our conclusions are. Historians should never forget that no two historical situations are ever identical, so lessons from the past always have to be tentative and provisional. But it would be as strange and limiting for us as a society to refuse to learn from the past, as it would be for us as individuals to abjure learning from experience.

    Dr Jeremy Burchardt

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