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.

Today the popularity of history amongst the general public is dramatically on the increase and scholarly historians are becoming more welcoming of the lay audience. But this tentative rapprochement makes urgent the need for professional historians to clarify in their own minds what history can do – and what it can’t.

History is in the main, as the scientific historians always said, ‘an activity of the reasoning mind’. It ought to develop the capacity to measure, to judge, to balance, to compare. It helps us assess change over time, to separate and determine causes and effects, and to identify and compensate for scarcity of data. With its incredible range of subject-matter, it lays special burdens upon the memory; today’s integrated, multi-factorial history tasks the mind to keep in play a bewildering host of dates, facts, actors, levels of causation, spheres of human activity and shades of meaning.

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