In Praise of the Go-Between
August 3, 2016 3 Comments
I doubt there are any who read here who don’t know that I’m a history buff, although I’m no historian, except maybe an amateur, not overly disciplined one. But part of that is that so many academic historians forget that history isn’t a spreadsheet, it’s a story. It’s a story that has fascinated us from the beginning, after all, it’s our story, the story of where we’ve been.
For me, one of the joys of the internet is that I watch a fair amount of British TV, both BBC, and others, and they do a far better job of making history interesting. Why? Mostly I think because they have some very good academic historians, who can span that bridge from academic historian to a popular book, or as the presenter of a TV show or series.
One of those who does this better than most is Suzannah Lipscomb is Head of the history faculty at the New College of the Humanities, London and a frequent presenter on British TV, and a best-selling author, who deserves to be. Yesterday she wrote about this, and I think it important.
In recent weeks I have gone from reading 16th-century manuscripts in a French provincial archive to speaking at two literary festivals. The close juxtaposition of these two ends of the historian’s spectrum has made me reflect on the nature of history as a discipline.
The sort of raw data historians dredge up from archives requires many filters and processes to become the finished product: a book, a television documentary, a literary festival talk. Extracting that raw data and conveying it in meaningful terms to an audience require very different skill-sets. Yet both are essential. Finding treasures in the archives is the essence of historical research, while, as G.M. Trevelyan put it: ‘If historians neglect to educate the public, if they fail to interest it intelligently in the past, then all their historical learning is useless except insofar as it educates themselves.’ This is why at my college we are starting an MA in Historical Research and Public History. Both of these subjects come under the historian’s purview.
Emphasis mine because that Trevelyan quote is the crux of the matter. If historians want to matter, and we need them to, they need to keep this in mind.
Nevertheless, they are different and it is easy for historians to get lost in one or the other. Public historians can be irritated by academic historians who get caught up in the minutiae and cannot see the wood for the trees, who cannot communicate and write in impenetrable prose, or who squander their material by failing to convey the importance of their subjects.
In turn, academic historians can be frustrated by media-savvy popular historians who come and prey on the material they have acquired through long hours trawling through archives, painstakingly deciphering ancient handwriting, or slogging through useless document after useless document in order to harvest some hard-won fruit, which the popular historian then serves up as a trifle for public consumption.
Suzie ends with this:
Those who think of history as much more of a soft, easily accessible discipline than, say, physics or chemistry should be warned that it is not as easy as it looks. There is a rift between the two ends of the spectrum, but it seems to me that the very business of being a historian lies in that space. We are go-betweens.
They are indeed, and they, and we need to remember that the best guide we have to the future, is the past. We need them, both those hidden in the stacks, and those out in the world telling us about what they found. We should also remember what Mark Twain, a pretty good amateur historian, himself said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it surely rhymes.”