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A response to a different post

16 August, 2011

So my esteemed colleague Historian on the Edge has written a very interesting and thoughtful post on reactions to the London riots, and especially to the “official historian” responses. I don’t have a lot to say, because I mostly agree with him.

Except perhaps for one thing:

I don’t know that we can link the examples as clearly to the state of British academia as he does. This might in part be a case of correlation not being equal to causation. On the one hand, we have an older historian who is clearly out of his depth when speaking on current events. I don’t think this is down to his skills as an historian: lots of historians, and scholars in general, are not the most self-aware people. Moreover, I think that for some people, it doesn’t matter what the PhD is in — they consider the PhD a licence to be experts in everything when it’s convenient, an nothing but their specialties when not. Of course in my experience, convenience is generally dictated by audience and relative workload/benefits. Narrow expertise is a very useful thing to trot out when trying to avoid talks at the Rotary Club or independent studies. I also think that, for some people, celebrity helps to reinforce an idea of expertise that is always transferable.

On the other hand, we have a callow youth (relatively) who genuinely does seem to have learnt very little about the discipline of historical thinking whilst earning his degree. I do understand much better HotEdge’s complaints here. I know far too many very good young scholars in the UK whose work demonstrates analytical skills far superior to anything shown by young Dr Torygraph. And they are all woefully under- or unemployed. They are also, however, all medievalists. You know, the people who have to learn several languages, have a rudimentary understanding of archaeology, palaeography, literature, several types of narrative genres, possibly some diplomatic, and a thousand years of history in what is now the UK (and maybe some Irish stuff), France, Germany, Italy, Spain, North Africa, the Balkans, Turkey, and parts of Scandinavia. There is more than one reason that people choose to study modern and/or American history — it simply does not require the sort of groundwork that medievalists, classicists, Asianists, and others have to acquire. I honestly think that the time and effort it takes to learn those things, and the sort of personality that considers learning them worthwhile, is as responsible for what HotEdge sees going on as any particular state of academia on either side of the Atlantic.

There’s another thing, too. Some of us identify very closely with our academic historian selves in a way that people in other professions often don’t. That is, we are always academics. The skills and mindsets of our disciplines never leave us. We apply them to most aspects of our lives. We have, in some way, a moral investment that is offended when we see someone do and say things that we know are insupportable if we apply the skills and mindsets of our discipline. When historians opine on contemporary events, even though their expertise is something else, we feel betrayed. And we feel angry, because the pandering and wooly-headed thought, expressed in black and white, rather than in the nuanced greys we know are more truthful, but much more difficult, is often taken on by others as good history. And they get paid for it. They have an audience! It’s entirely depressing, but I’m not sure it has to do with the state of education per se. I think it has a hell of a lot more to do with the political climate in our countries, and the people doing the hiring.

It’s not that I don’t find this depressing as hell, but I also know that the people who want to present history, or historians who will legitimize a story they want told, don’t care about it being good history. They want it to be the right history. And earning a PhD in anything is not a sign of brilliance or morality. Sometimes it’s purely a sign of workmanlike competence and dogged determination. It might be good if only the brilliant theses passed, but I’m not sure that’s a good determination of anything: brilliance can fade quickly; apparent plodders can get better; mediocre scholars can produce good students. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to fix a lot about our respective higher education systems (and in the UK, one of the first changes I would make is that students would have to leave their BA institutions for at least the first part of their postgraduate work. There is way too much inbreeding and really weird patronage that happens as a result). And in the short term, I think we historians need to point out when historians in public positions misrepresent what it is that we are supposed to be doing, every time they offer an analysis or comment that is rooted in their personal opinion rather than in evidence. And we need to do this by critiquing the arguments, by having what the guy in my last post called “the what you did” argument, not the “who you are” argument.

The conclusion will eventually be the same — if you constantly do history badly, then you *are* a bad historian. The problem is getting people to understand that bad history isn’t something people should listen to or pay for.

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