What is History for?

Peter Mandler argues that academic historians have a crucial contribution to make to the nation’s cultural life.

Almost a century ago, in a celebrated essay, ‘Clio: A Muse’, G.M. Trevelyan appealed to British historians to resist the rising tide of ‘scientific’, highly professionalised history that he saw arriving on his shores from Germany. He sketched out an alternative programme stressing the educational benefits of history, not just for a professional elite, but for the whole of the population. It was capable of making them better citizens of Britain and the world, with a richer imaginative life, as well as the better reasoners aimed at by scientific history. Yet it cannot be said that the profession heeded his call. For most of the twentieth century, scholarly historians became more dependent on a captive academic audience, more specialised, more ‘scientific’. And, sometimes for good reasons – resisting political control or crude utilitarianism, for example – they stood aloof from efforts to justify history on any ground but their own professional turf.

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