The common touch

May 13, 2010

Richard Overy's article on the defence of history ("The historical present", 29 April) tries hard to be even-handed, but exposes a tension within the discipline over what "history" is. He seems confident about the distinction between its popular and academic forms, but his separation of the two requires a caricature of the former and suggests complacency about the latter. To assert that "there is no higher intellectual purpose to be served by popular narration other than to describe and entertain" only confirms a popular stereotype of professorial loftiness.

There is good and bad history, for sure, although a lot of the latter - narrowly focused, derivative, garbled - is written by academics. Part of the value of education is that it helps us to be discerning. The shelves groan with slight works on the Tudors and the Nazis - journalistic potboilers of no intellectual value. But are they really to be lumped together with, say, Diarmaid MacCulloch's profound and eminently readable A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years and the book's associated BBC television series? Is MacCulloch a "popular" historian? His ratings and Amazon rank suggest he is. The fact that he is also professor of the history of the Church at the University of Oxford is not paradoxical.

Overy is right to say that much of the impact agenda is crass and dangerous. Like all academics, historians must be allowed to pursue knowledge for its own sake. And yet for as much as the worlds of ideas and entertainment are separated by subject matter and methodology, they are united by the need for communication. Overy appreciates the influence that popular history has in drawing students to our universities, but there is a wider constituency that he fails to mention.

Anyone who has written serious, empirical history aimed at a wide market knows that there is a section of the public that craves knowledge, reads widely, understands debate and is grateful to academics willing to communicate their research: the real stuff, not just crumbs from the table. To allege that "the public's capacity to distinguish clearly between fact and fiction ... is not very sophisticated" is sweeping and insulting.

History involves not just a relationship between past and present, but also between professionals and people. Overy appears to value this, but by misrepresenting the public and what many people want from history, he simultaneously undermines it.

Malcolm Gaskill, Reader in early modern history, University of East Anglia

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