British historian says we should ‘look beyond Europe and America’

Lecturer says profession should widen its global outlook

September 19, 2013

A British historian has challenged his profession to look beyond the familiar territory – Europe and North America – that overwhelmingly dominates its research output.

Nicholas Guyatt, lecturer in modern history at the University of York, was speaking on a panel about “Teaching the Wider World” at the Institute of Historical Research on 11 September.

With Luke Clossey, associate professor in world history at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, he has surveyed nearly 2,500 historians in 57 departments in the US, the UK and Canada. About three-quarters of their total research was devoted to Europe and North America. Yet British historians, they say, notably lagged behind their transatlantic counterparts in their global outlook.

For the separate regions of Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa, Dr Guyatt presented evidence that in every case there was a greater proportion of historians at work in US and Canadian universities than in British institutions. There were 13.3 per cent of British historians studying at least one of these regions, 20.4 per cent of Canadian historians and 26.7 per cent of American historians.

With the obvious exception of Soas, University of London, where all the staff work on “wider world history”, only the University of Warwick manages to have 30 per cent of its historians pursuing such global themes. Three Canadian and no fewer than 15 American institutions do better than this.

Sir Richard Evans, Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge, argued that the post-war years had seen a notable flowering of British historians writing about Europe and producing “crossover” books that were “translated, became best-sellers and even had an impact on other countries’ sense of themselves. That was not replicated by continental historians writing about Britain.”

Yet Sir Richard feared that the decline of language teaching and “pressure from the political elite to reduce the amount of non-British history taught in schools” threatened this impressive tradition of UK historians looking beyond our shores.

A question from the floor raised the issue of student demand for global history, but Machel Bogues, who has worked as a project manager in major museums exploring how they present world history, responded: “Is it a question of the risk-averseness of students or what institutions really think important?”

Asked how he felt the balance of research output produced by British historians ought to change, Dr Guyatt replied: “We should be devoting more than 13 per cent of our research to countries which represent 85 per cent of the world’s population – it would be great if we could push that up even to the nearly per cent achieved in the US.”

Steps towards this would include “more fruitful dialogue with schools” and “the reintegration of history with languages in universities, even for students who don’t arrive with one”.

“Teaching the Wider World” formed the closing session of the Higher Education Academy’s 15th annual Teaching and Learning Conference for Historians.

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