Whose History is This?
Academic history is crucial to the health of the discipline, but there are many other ways of engaging with the past.
History After Hobsbawm, a major international conference ‘exploring where the study of history is currently heading’, promised it would address ‘what it means to be a historian in the 21st century’. Held at Birkbeck, University of London in April, it was featured in the May edition of History Today. To my dismay every speaker was an academic, as were all the topics. Several contributors were respected professors but there was no avoiding the fact that the organisers saw ‘history’ as synonymous with the academy.
I have nothing against academic debates. They constitute the most important five per cent of historical activity in society. But they are only that, a minority activity. The vast bulk of history lies elsewhere. It lies in provocative books that encourage discussions among millions of readers internationally (e.g. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, or Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules – For Now). It lies in the biographies and general history books that attract hundreds of thousands of readers in every country. It lies in the television programmes that can bring key themes to the attention of millions overnight. It lies in the mass of heritage activities that are undertaken every day. It lies in any conscious interaction between people and their past. The vast majority of historians are not academics and academia is wrong to regard itself as an island.