Flaws of supply with no demand

April 23, 1999

British historians are churning out books and articles 'with all the frenzied energy of battery chickens on overtime'. But no one is reading them. David Cannadine describes a profession driven to publish regardless of quality.

On November 12 1940, Winston Churchill paid his parliamentary tribute to Neville Chamberlain, the man whom he had succeeded as prime minister, and who had died earlier that month.

"History," Churchill observed, "with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passions of former days." And he went on to pose the question historians should ask themselves every day. "What," he inquired, "is the worth of all this?" How, to reformulate his inquiry in more immediate terms, does the profession and practice of history in Britain look to someone such as myself who has returned after ten years away?

The good news must be that in the late 1990s, history seems to matter a great deal. Take higher education. In January 1980, there were 1,999 historians in universities; in January this year there were 2,896. Of course, these figures are inflated by the enhancement in status of former polytechnics in the middle of this decade: but that is not a sufficient explanation for the 50 per cent increase. The Annual Bibliographies of British History reveal a similar upward trend: in 1989, 3,222 authors published 1,116 books and 2,561 articles; in 1997 the figures were, respectively, 6,064, 2,016 and 4,748.

And here is one final statistic: in the 1992 research assessment exercise, only five history departments out of 83 were awarded the highest ranking (at that time a five); but by 1996, out of 107 were rated five or five star.

The provisional conclusion to be drawn from these statistics might be that everything is fine. Since the end of the second world war returned scholars from fighting Germans to teaching Britons, two full generations of university-based historians have been unprecedentedly abundant in their numbers, unprecedentedly productive in their output, and unprecedentedly distinguished in their quality. And these encouraging trends have merely intensified in the 1990s: the best decade for history in Britain so far.

Under these circumstances, it is difficult not to smile at those early 1990s gloom-mongers who claimed that history was in terminal crisis: in part because postmodern critics doubted historians' capacities to tell the truth about anything; in part because it had became overspecialised to the point of incoherence; and in part because the triumph of liberal-democratic, free-market capitalism meant history itself had come to an end.

How wrong, in retrospect, these paranoiacs and pessimists were. Still less has history vanished from the broader public culture and public consciousness of which it has always been a part. Senior politicians write hugely popular histories and biographies. There are more knighted and ennobled historians today than ever before. The chancellor of the exchequer has a PhD in history. The former editor of History Today is an MP. In recent years there has been a clutch of bestselling history books.

Thus regarded, history is flourishing in Britain as never before, and so, too, are its principal justifications. For history is above all a humane subject, providing the quintessential "liberal education". History makes plain the complexity of human affairs and the range of human experience; it teaches proportion, perspective, reflectiveness, tolerance of differing opinions, and thus a greater sense of self-knowledge. By enabling us to know about other centuries and places, it provides, along with the collections housed in our great museums and galleries, the best antidote to the temporal parochialism that assumes that the only time is now, and to the geographical parochialism that the only place is here. There is not only here and now; there is there, and there is then. And the best guide to there and then, and thus the best guide to here and now, is history.

All this is right and true and good. But only as far as it goes. And it does not go very far: certainly not as far as it once did. It may be true that there are more historians in British universities than ever before, but this does not necessarily mean that all is well. Far from being (as some postmodernist critics claim) an entrenched and intolerant power elite, ruthlessly controlling knowledge and foisting a dominant bourgeois ideology on malleable students, teachers of history in British universities seem to be underpaid, overworked and suffering from extremely low morale. They discourage their brightest students from following in their footsteps on the (highly responsible) grounds that their prospects would be bleak.

When A. H. Halsey surveyed British academics in 1992, he found these characteristics to be widespread, and there seems no evidence that things have improved since. There is, then, something to be said for John Vincent's view that "historians today are not the holders of powerI They live among the foothills of society, where they engage anxiously in downward social mobility."

This may be an exaggeration - but not by much. Academics in general, and historians in particular, have in recent decades become proletarianised: losing income, status and security. Yet at the same time, this depressed professoriate has been producing a superabundance of material, with all the frenzied energy of battery chickens on overtime; 2,000 books and nearly 5,000 articles is a prodigious quantity of specialised information about the past to produce - and all this in only one year. Indeed, it is not only prodigious: it is, in a sense, preposterous. For who, apart from the history assessment panel of the RAE, is reading this stuff? Certainly not the general public or undergraduates: they confine themselves to lists of recommended reading and the few history books that get wide coverage in the broadsheets.

The result is that much of this vast published output is read by so small an audience that it is tempting to wonder what is the point in writing it in the first place: to which, in many cases, the only answer is the compelling need to meet the dictates of the RAE.

But this is not the only damaging effect the RAE is having on history. For in addition to inflating the quantity of output, it is deflating the quality. The imperatives for regular, rapid production are now so insistent that the overall standard of published output in history is thought to be declining. And it is easy to see why. What might, in an earlier era, have been one big, important, provocative, ground-breaking article is now salami-sliced into three, to give more impressive evidence of quantity of output. What might have been a lengthily researched and deeply pondered book instead becomes a prematurely published survey, with inadequate documentation and insufficiently thought-through argument. The obsession with performance requires visible products. But a culture of productivity is not only different from, it is inimical to, a culture of creativity.

These developments carry with them worrying public consequences. As historians are compelled to grind out their specified quota of esoteric articles and inaccessible monographs, this makes them less able to fulfil that public function that remains their real justification: furthering the comprehension of that broader audience memorably described by Hugh Trevor-Roper as "the laity". Yet in a world burdened by an infinite amount of information, instantly available, the need to provide a humane and historical perspective on people and events becomes more urgent, not less.

For it seems agreed that we live in a society that is increasingly amnesiac and ahistorical: where many politicians (and think-tanks) seem to believe the world began on May 1 1997; where historians of my generation wield far less cultural authority than those of an earlier era; where the media coverage of events is devoid of any temporal dimension; and where the millennium will be marked by a Dome from which history has been unconscionably excluded.

Some work is still being published by professional, university-based historians that is of a high quality or reaches a broad audience, or both. My concern is that there is a growing discrepancy between the figures, produced in the name of accountability, that suggest that everything is fine and getting better, and the reality, which is more complex and much more sombre. In producing more and more goods, on which a diminishing value is placed, while the customer looks elsewhere for novelty and excitement, late 20th-century historians are increasingly coming to resemble another sad, demoralised and proletarianised fraternity: the handloom weavers of the early 19th century. This is, no doubt, an over-theatrical comparison, but it is not wholly misleading.

David Cannadine is professor of history and director of the Institute of Historical Research, London. He previously spent ten years at Columbia University. This is an extract from his inaugural lecture, Making History Now.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs