Monoglot threat to historical dominance

Decline in language skills could end UK historians' European pre-eminence. Matthew Reisz writes

June 11, 2009

British historians are the most cosmopolitan in Europe, according to Richard Evans, recently appointed Regius professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge. Yet he has warned that recent trends pose a major threat to a great tradition of wide-ranging and accessible historical writing.

Professor Evans' inaugural lecture on the theme has been expanded into a book, Cosmopolitan Islanders: British Historians and the European Continent, which draws on the experiences of many leading British historians.

In the UK, 44 per cent of historians work exclusively on foreign - mainly European - topics, whereas in France, Germany and Italy, the figures are 23 per cent, 15 per cent and 12 per cent respectively.

Across Europe, books by British historians are widely acclaimed and are sometimes bestsellers in the countries they cover. For example, Sir Ian Kershaw's biography of Adolf Hitler has enjoyed a level of success in Germany that no translated life of Winston Churchill would be likely to achieve here.

Part of the secret is that British historians have long been adept at winning a popular audience through a combination of style and scholarship. A major problem in Germany, Professor Evans suggests, is that all dissertations have to be published, and subsidies give academics little incentive to keep their readers in mind.

His German publisher once told him that a book he had written would be taken seriously only if he included "a 30-page theoretical and methodical introduction". When he complied, it was predictably dismissed by British reviewers as "pretentious" and "unnecessary".

The pre-eminence of British historians in continental European history is not new. Britons were carrying out major research on Spain and Eastern Europe when local historians were restricted by the policies of the Francoist and Communist regimes. Some of them enjoyed an underground popularity at the time and have since been adopted as national treasures, including Paul Preston in Spain and Norman Davies in Poland.

But, alongside a celebration of British historians' achievements in writing about European countries, Cosmopolitan Islanders warns that such successess cannot continue.

"Language learning in Britain has entered a period of severe and perhaps terminal decline," Professor Evans writes, mirroring concerns raised in a recent report about the impact of diminishing language skills by the British Academy.

Timetabling issues in schools sometimes prevent pupils from studying both history and a relevant language, he adds, and a PhD is now "regarded increasingly as a test of the student's ability to do research, not as a major piece of research in itself".

Requirements to complete doctorates in three to four years encourage students to choose "safe and cautious" topics, while making it virtually impossible for them to acquire a foreign language, never mind several, and carry out extensive research abroad.

While it is theoretically possible to import promising young historians from elsewhere in Europe, many will choose to publish in their own tongues.

It is a great tribute to our universities that Germans and Italians, for example, have for several decades been happy to discover their own history through the work of British writers. However, if Professor Evans is to be believed, those days are numbered.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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