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