Leader: Historical lessons are priceless

The heritage industry puts flesh on the past to flog it. History sits less easily on the impact agenda but is vital nonetheless

April 29, 2010

For a subject that's all about the past, history has been making a big noise recently. First there was Tudor historian David Starkey, honorary Fellow at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, again giving women history writers a dressing-down by dismissing his "usually quite pretty" female colleagues' books as "historical Mills & Boon". To be fair, though, Starkey does have to keep up his reputation as "the rudest man in Britain".

Then came the extraordinary news that Orlando Figes, professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, had been rubbishing fellow historians Robert Service's and Rachel Polonsky's books while praising his own anonymously in Amazon book reviews under the feeble disguise of "orlando-birkbeck" (apparently the time he spent in Soviet archives and talking to people affected by Stalin's Terror taught him little about espionage). When found out, he went to astounding lengths to hide it by threatening all and sundry with legal action.

Such a soap opera of intrigue and outrage would not be out of place in one of the popular histories that serve up colourful characters and titillating tales to satisfy a seemingly insatiable public appetite for yesteryear. In both fact and fiction, the past is now one big costume drama.

When it comes to public engagement, no other academic subject commands such a place in society's imagination as history. Books, especially those on Tudors, Nazis and the two world wars, are big sellers. A hunger to uncover more personal pasts has spawned websites and books on tracing roots, and an industry has grown up around heritage.

All this has boosted applications to study the subject at university, but there is a problem. Popular history may fuel the study of academic history, but they are very different beasts. One entertains, the other informs; one has an obvious social benefit, the other doesn't.

As Richard Overy, professor of history at the University of Exeter, points out in our cover story, academic history has a precarious existence. It has no easy utilitarian rationale and survives only because tens of thousands of students want to study it.

As with philosophy, it is hard to show history's value beyond an intellectual pursuit. Any moves to make it demonstrate "impact" risk pushing it down the heritage trail, where, in Professor Overy's words, it will "slowly mutate over the next generation into cultural and heritage studies, informing popular concerns with the past but not sustaining the intellectual and scholarly capacity to develop, elaborate and articulate complex ways of understanding and interpreting it".

It highlights the danger lurking within the impact agenda. No one denies the impact of popular history - the best-selling books, the big-grossing TV series and films, the forests of family trees. Academic history can demonstrate none of those things. But without scholarly history, there would be no popular history. And although impact has laudable aims - displaying the fruits of public investment - there is no doubt that in history at least it will drive changes in behaviour towards things that can be quantified rather than intellectually interpreted and understood.

That, however, is where mediocrity lies. It would be sad if in future we were to find ourselves judging the impact of academic history not by its presence but by its loss.


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