15th October 2005
Studying history again after a gap of 30 years, I wondered how it had changed, so I re-read “What is History?” written by E H Carr in 1961 and “What is History Now?” edited by David Cannadine, (Palgrave Macmillan 2002), in which nine historians present their view of the subject forty years on. These views were originally delivered as lectures at a two day symposium sponsored by the Institute of Historical Research in London on 14 and 15 November 2000.
The theme that leaped out of the page for me was how the study of history seemed to have fragmented.
Seven lectures at the symposium, topped and tailed by a Prologue and an Epilogue, covered:
“What is Social History Now?”
“What is Political History Now?”
“What is Religious History Now?”
“What is Cultural History Now?”
“What is Gender History Now?”
“What is Intellectual History Now?”
“What is Imperial History Now?”
And as David Cannadine said in his Preface, why stop at these seven branches of history? He could also have included:
“economic historians, military historians, business historians, local historians, maritime historians, historians of art, of science, or population, of the family, and of diplomacy (to name the most immediately obvious examples).”
Quite so, I thought, and why stop there? Why not include garden historians, food historians, ancient historians, historians of medicine, historians of crime, historians of childhood, historians of sex, drugs and rock and roll. The list is endless.
It seemed to me that this is an approach which fragments and compartmentalises the subject.
In their lectures, instead of addressing the question “What is History Now?” many of the contributors were asserting the merits of their own branch; how it “expands our vision” in the case of Gender History; how Cultural History “contributes to the explanation and understanding of work, economics and politics;” or how: “the ultimate answer to the question ‘What is Imperial History?’ is really very simple. It is indispensable.”
One contributor went further to praise the universality of her own specialism: “The very notion of ‘intellectual history’ betrays the figure of sophia and the erotics of knowledge as the thirst after the eternally true, the eternally desirable.”
Surely History is more than the sum of its parts. Divide anything into too many fragments and the whole becomes meaningless. No complex structural or comparative analysis, let alone jargon and neologisms, intelligible only to the specialists in one narrow discipline, can put it together again.
As I read further, working my way through the reading list for my course, I found this view seemed to be shared by others. In the Epilogue to “What is History Now?”, Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto said that fragmentation leads to the “curse of over-specialisation: historians dig ever deeper, narrower furrows, in ever more desiccated soil, until the furrows collapse and they are buried under their own aridity.”
And David Cannadine himself, had written in a much quoted article in Past and Present (British History: Past present and future? Number 116, August 1987) of:
“…the triumph among British historians of the cult of professionalism…”
“…over specialised, over fragmented courses…"
“…the role of the historian as public teacher was effectively destroyed.”
“…more and more academic historians were writing more and more academic history which fewer and fewer people were actually reading.”
I am told that the pendulum has now swung back. My reaction to the problem of over-specialisation was to think: “Let’s go back to basics” and look again at History as the Study of the Past – how it really was – which brings us back again to the name of this blog…