Six of the best: recent posts on the future of history

Earlier this week we posted Neville Buch’s piece, ‘Do professional historians have a future?’ It has been very popular, with hundreds of views already. Serendipitously, blogs and online sources have thrown up lots of related material.

  • Swansea University historian of the Renaissance, Catherine Fletcher, wrote recently about academic ambivalence towards public history. ‘The issue that struck me most …’, Fletcher said, ‘was the wide reporting from many people working in public history, particularly young women, that they had experienced hostile or unsupportive responses to their work from academics’. She looked at solutions to the stand-off and quoted the Australian Treasurer.
  • Meg Foster, a PhD student at UNSW (atypical bushrangers), published a piece in Public History Review in 2014 about public history and historians in the digital age. She pointed out that ‘there has been a proliferation of histories carried out and disseminated in the virtual arena. And this trend shows no sign of slowing down.’ The fact that there is no road map is what gives public history an exciting future.
  • At a pinch, these new directions might counter some of the malaise in the history discipline that led New York Times contributors (and history academics) Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood to ask why we (that’s US colleges) stopped teaching political history. ‘A search of the leading website advertising academic jobs in history, H-Net, yielded just 15 advertisements in the last 10 years specifically seeking a tenure-track, junior historian specializing in American political history. That’s right: just 15 new jobs in the last decade.’ The marginalisation of the study of political history is important. ‘Knowledge of our political past is important because it can serve as an antidote to the misuse of history by our leaders and save us from being bamboozled by analogies, by the easy “lessons of the past.”’ (Honest History has noted the ease with which politicians in Australia have got away with generalised and misleading accounts of the history of Australia’s Vietnam War.)
  • Rather to the contrary, public historian, Jason Steinhauer, wrote on Inside Higher Ed that the chaotic political year in the United States provided a great opportunity. ‘History is hot right now. In the midst of a traumatic and turmoil-filled year — weekly violence, racial tensions, political upheaval, a shifting world order and wars with no ends in sight — we are crying out for historical perspective. Publications from The Wall Street Journal to Foreign Affairs are asking historians to tell their readers if (a) yes, it’s really as bad as it seems or if (b) it has, at times, been worse and humanity has survived. Historians are the dispassionate voice amid the din that gets us to calmly sit down in our chairs and reflect.’
  • On Aeon, assistant professor of philosophy and religion, Alan Jay Levinovitz, essentially warned us against confusing nostalgia with an understanding of history. ‘Longing for the past is generally referred to as nostalgia – a gentle, tender feeling that might make these stories seem like nothing more than harmless sentimentality. But it is crucial to distinguish between wistful memories of grandma’s kitchen and belief in a prior state of cultural perfection.’ Levinowitz looks at some research on nostalgia, which threw up ‘wildly implausible reconstructions of the past [which] owe much of their appeal to qualities shared with a close literary relative: the fairy tale’. He makes some links to the politics of Trumpery.
  • Finally, there was a story from Huffington Post about how destroying history may be treated as a war crime. An Islamist fighter is on trial at The Hague for destroying cultural artefacts in Timbuktu in Mali, Africa. There is international law on the subject though prosecutions have been inconsistent.

1 September 2016

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