Past, presence and future

June 28, 2002

Academics can take advantage of the history boom without adding a sour note to the drum-and-trumpet variety parading on TV, argues Peter Mandler

Is history the new rock 'n' roll? Journalistic assurances to this effect are perhaps a bit too glib to be taken at face value; after all, only last week poetry was the new rock 'n' roll, the week before that, opera. Nevertheless, gradually over the past generation, and more obviously over the past decade, history seems to have infiltrated the contemporary consciousness at too many levels for it to be ignored.

Why? First the eventful early 20th century: as the contrasts deepen between the horrors witnessed by the older generation and the comparatively uneventful lives of the young, historians discover a new role - helping society to do its "memory work". The gravity of the horrors is thought to have made remembering the past a moral and practical imperative in ways it has not always been before.

Second, we also now, on an unprecedented scale, seek to reach out to our ancestors, near and far. The internet makes it easier to reunite families across generations. But even without the internet, the record offices have been filling up with genealogists and family historians. As physical traces of family are erased by social and geographical mobility, people seek to create a virtual family projected backwards in historical time - sometimes very far backwards if DNA testing is used. Perhaps even these very remote ancestors provide a more individualised form of identity, better suited to a highly individualised society than to the traditional markers of identity, class, religion or nation.

But then third, the contemporary lust for history is not only about remembering. History also offers the charm of the exotic - something almost completely out of reach. Simon Schama's celebrity, now firmly associated with a drum-and-trumpet version of Britain's national history, was in fact founded on plunges into the stranger soil of 17th-century Holland. While such popular histories gain in interest by playing on the tension between the familiarity of universal humanity and the oddity of lost worlds, they are not about "memory" or "identity" in any straightforward sense.

We need to sort out these multiple uses of history, to show when and why they have arisen separately, even as today they seem to flow together, and finally to suggest which uses of history the work of the professional historian can appropriately support. History is so ubiquitous and has so many different audiences and uses that attempts to articulate its purpose tend to lump together incompatible goals or collapse into incoherent generalities. And the purposes of history that lay people cite - to learn moral and practical lessons and to find out who we are - do not correspond very well to those articulated (on those rare occasions when they articulate them at all) by professional historians in universities.

While most historians, especially those who are educators, would want to argue that history teaches lessons, they would not reach for those very immediate and obvious lessons that lay people have in mind. You do not need history, surely, to argue for international dialogue, racial tolerance or nuclear arms control; and if you do, your broken moral compass is bound eventually to overrule any book learning. Furthermore, history is not a laboratory. The kinds of lessons history can teach are so abstract that we ought not to call them lessons at all; they lie among the kinds of human enrichment that we look to all the arts to provide, although history, because of its uniquely wide range of subject matter and approaches, has better claims as a provider of these riches than many other humanistic disciplines.

To an extent, historians have been complicit in the popular misperception of the educational value of history. It is very tempting to claim some higher consciousness of the underlying processes in the middle of, or immediately after, epochal events such as wars or revolutions, although the yearning for history to teach lessons is more likely to arise nowadays on the demand side, as ordinary citizens recoil from the horrors of the recent past and seek some reassurance from historians that they need not recur. But that is properly part of the honouring and memorialising side of the recent history boom, which is not a part to which historians can legitimately contribute a great deal.

As for the notion that history tells us who we are, historians have been much more than complicit with the idea of history as an underpinning for national identity - for they know that the whole evolution of their discipline has been tied up with that idea. At the same time, they know that their discipline - and their audience - has for long been outgrowing that idea. There are still a small number who feel, with David Starkey, that if "we do not believe in history", that "you cannot have history without nationhood", and they have disproportionate influence because few other historians have offered alternative reasons to believe in history. But if we dismiss all history that does not subserve national identity, then we are dismissing most of the history that people are consuming today, which addresses identities other than national - local, familial, sexual, professional or aesthetic and stylistic identities, to name a few. Arguably, too, an excessive consciousness of history can distort as much as bolster national identity - by laying too much stress on elements of continuity at the expense of change, for example.

Why have historians been so slow to propose alternative rationales? As Starkey points out, for much of the past century the growth of the university has provided them with a captive and expanding audience of students and fellow academics who require no rationale. The tendency for historians writing about their craft to dwell on method at the expense of purpose has been further aggravated by a methodological attack on historians from within the academic world, from "postmodernists" who have made a frontal assault on history precisely by questioning its methods rather than its social function.

Taking history for granted is no longer an option, if only because the captive audience is no longer captive. The assumption that history's place in the university is naturally and for ever secured might have been safe in the early years of higher education when the nationalist rationale was still a trump card, but its purchase has diminished as nationalism has run into the sand and as the range of higher education options has extended. Nowadays, it is common for academic historians to puzzle over the hard times history is allegedly experiencing in higher education while history booms in the mass media - but this only points up how unaccustomed historians are to having to argue their corner. There are legitimate connections to be made between the uses of history and the appeal history makes to the mass market, but they need to be drawn, and separated from those illegitimate connections - nationalist and utilitarian - about which most historians today feel guilty or irritated.

Historians will need to mobilise all of their best arguments if they are to benefit fully from today's history boom. If they are to take advantage of the unparalleled opportunities offered by the unprecedented history boom from the 1960s onwards, they must transcend the nationalist origins of their discipline and chart a new social purpose for history in the 21st century.

Peter Mandler is a lecturer in history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. This is an edited extract from his book History and National Life , published by Profile Books, price £12.99 for the conference.

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