I recently had the pleasure of directing a seminar making the bold case that historians must do more to engage and inform the public, and inquiring as to what the historian is to do about it. I ran on the premise of making counter-factual history, of using evocative, dressed up history as a ruse to deliver the true facts and issues from which many are not in possession. The eminent Richard Evans described it as “all the rage,” yet was disparaging in his criticism. But its popularity speaks for itself. Niall Ferguson sold enormous numbers of copies of his 1998 Pity of War, whilst conceding in his introduction that much of his argument involves the creation of hypothetical scenarios, he nonetheless created an evocative and yet still highly informative narrative which hammered home the important point: war is not glorious. Thus, we have a successful example of how such a narrative could be marketed on the premise of it being a counter-factual scenario, rather than a deconstruction of a popular myth and exploration of cold-fact. It is a method of engagement well worthy of consideration in a society which seems to have developed a collective amnesia concerning aspects of its past.
A detail often forgotten about Britain’s post war recovery and economic successes (until the 70s at least), is that it was built on the large number of migrants invited to enter Britain, many of them from Muslim countries, a legacy of our former “greatness.” Without them, the glory years could not have happened. Somehow, prominent misuses of history has seen these people take the blame for our current woes as many conflate the circumstances of their presence, the EU and Britain’s decline.
It is one of the most unfortunate coincidences of history that Britain joined the EU in the same year that the OPEC oil-crisis nullified the key principles underpinning the state-guided economy, transitioning Britain to a free-market, neo-liberal economy which accepts the existence of the poor, and uses austerity as an economic strategy and merely shrugs of the job losses caused by globalization as inevitable, a sacrifice in the name of material progress. The migrant has through historical ignorance and savvy political manoeuvre, become the scapegoat for globalisation and an attempted return to classical era economic models of top-heavy aggregate progress.
The issue is that we live, as many commentators have asserted, in a post-fact, anti-expert, society. Image after image, story after story, seem to serve as reminders of the emotive judgements large sections of a scared and lost population are coming to. This is a serious matter, one with potentially dire consequences. There is a chronic disconnect between members of the voting public and the historic facts of the path we have travelled to the present day.
This “chronic disconnect” is significant. Elements of the public have no idea how we got to where we are now and are not making choices as informed citizens. This suggests that historians must do more to engage the public. The question is how to do this. The proponents of the “post-fact” wave are making emotive, sweeping arguments. They are easy to understand and easy to agree with. They are being swallowed up, and approved historical interpretations are on the back foot. It was this crisis in public interaction with history which spurred my thinking.
The debate threw up interesting discussion upon the role of the historian. Must their role change in adaptation to the times? There was a strong sense that the historian must not stray too far from their rooting in historical fact – something I must concur with, as the practice of uncovering fact is the historian’s tradition and thus identity. The case was made that it is dangerous to stray too far from this, that in adopting a less strict line on historical practice, the public could be led even further astray. Yet despite the dangers of straying too far from a foundation of wie es eigentlich gewesen, and the need to preserve the impartiality of the historian, the delivery of these facts is clearly an issue. Historians must figure out how to engage the public, how to rally their emotions, without sacrificing their key principles and duty to the truth.
During a stimulating discussion, attention was drawn to the successes of period dramas. The likes of Downton Abbey and the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice have demonstrated the concerns of people living in a historical context in a fictional scenario without straying too far from the reality of the age to a wider audience. They have opened people’s eyes to the social role of women, and the nature of poverty in society. It was suggested that this has been a success in terms of engagement, people are aware that much hardship has been endured by the poor and the otherwise suppressed in getting us to where we are now. But I feel that the migrant in the 21st century must still make the same transition from being seen as second class in the eyes of some, that women made in the 20th century and are continuing to now. Historians must help minorities join this process. An education rooted in historical fact can give the oppressed a hand up, but only if it reaches out first. Perhaps then there is room for more experimenting, maybe more evocative, stimulating methods are required if historians are to help enlighten the opinion of the man on the street. Always though, one must be mindful to be impartial, else far from “what if” being a “waste of time” as Evans has it, the historian runs the risk of going too far, of shaping opinion too subjectively.
Yet as Max Weber remarked in his Politics as a Vocation, every citizen is themselves a politician on polling day. This may be an inherent weakness in the system, one that will throw up disagreeable results. But in the name of individual freedom we must persist, and make it work as best we can. Is it not essential that citizens as politicians should be in possession of the facts? And is it not the role of historians to provide these facts? In a changing climate, with a greater threat than ever is it time for the historian to sacrifice some pride in adopting less conventional methods to deliver their valuable insights? In the wake of Goves’ assault on reason, it is time to find a way to stand up and be counted.
MA History Student