Ludmilla Jordanova insists on the importance of history beyond the groves of academia, and considers some of the challenges that historians face in this field.
Recent times have seen a surge of interest in 'history’, a word that has many meanings. It can simply mean the past, and in this sense history has become a focus of increasing popular and commercial interest. History is also an academic discipline, and debates about its status as a field of study have intensified. For many years historiography, often used loosely to convey reflection upon the practice of history, was considered a bit of a bore, necessary perhaps but not exciting, central to the field, or of wide interest. That has changed, although resistance to ‘theory’ remains a feature of some university departments. I believe history can best be described in terms of what it is that historians do, a set of social practices that are inevitably subject to a wide range of imperatives.
History is through and through a value-laden, political activity. Yet it does not follow that all historical accounts are equally satisfying or valid. There is no question of abandoning standards, rather the contrary. A frank appraisal of the elaborate imperatives to which history is subject demands discussion of the use of evidence, of the value of theories, and of what is sometimes called ‘bias’ – a notion that can be misleading because it implies the existence of pure, value-free knowledge, which simply does not exist. Accounts that carry values can still be critically evaluated. Recognising the limitations of historical knowledge need not be crippling at all. Rather it leads to a sense of how judicious accounts of the past can best be generated. This is not self- indulgent introspection. But it is an awareness of just how tricky the concepts and methods we deploy actually are.