Big is Back: The Return of Public History

In the ivory tower: from the Book of Good morals, 1360-1415Long established in North America, the discipline of Public History is now gaining a firm foothold on this side of the Atlantic. Evidence of this was abundant at the annual seminar held at Royal Holloway, University of London, which runs an MA in the subject.

The emphasis is on the practical communication of history via a range of media, new and old. The students are bright, original and, like the team at History Today, committed to bringing serious history to a large audience. They range widely in age and background, coming not just from the UK, but from the US, Austria and the Netherlands. Yet that such courses exist is something of an indictment of academic history in recent decades. All history should be public history; for even the most challenging ideas, when expressed with clarity, can engage the intelligent non-specialist. Somewhere, the academy lost sight of its mission and the likes of Royal Holloway’s MA are valuable correctives to such solipsism.

The retreat from public engagement – and the way back – is the subject of a fascinating paper, The Return of the Longue Durée: an Anglo-American Perspective, delivered at Brown University at the end of 2013 by David Armitage, Chair of the Department of History at Harvard, and Jo Guldi, Assistant Professor of Britain and its Empire at Brown. While the authors broadly welcome the ‘social turn’, the shift since the 1960s away from the study of elites to a greater engagement with the lives of ‘ordinary’ people, they regret the narrow focus of recent academic history, its fragmentation and the consequent lack of influence the subject has had on public policy and governance, a role vacated to economics.

From around 1968 until well into the 21st century historians embraced a ‘metaphysis of injustice’, concerned with class, race and gender that, ironically, in its ‘habits of microscopic attention’ created a new ivory tower at some remove from the political and economic landscape. Yet there is ample evidence that historians, seeking to embrace a wider public, are returning to the long view: Armitage and Guldi cite recent works by Daniel Lord Smail, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Joyce E. Chaplin and Lawrence Freedman as examplars of this more ambitious, comprehensive vision. Aided by new technologies, which allow scholars to ‘try out historical hypotheses across a timescale of centuries, ‘big is back’ and will not be confined to the academy. The new historians of the longue durée will, argue Armitage and Guldi, ‘return history to its mission as a critical social science’. We can look forward to that. 

Paul Lay is the editor of History Today