What’s the Use of History? A Postscript

Having already devoted my two last posts to John Pepall’s attack on “university historians”, I don’t wish to go on beating a dead horse. But inasmuch as I find his take on the nature of history’s relevance misguided, and his understanding of history as an academic discipline factually incorrect, I am loath to leave the subject on a wholly negative note. If he’s wrong about history, what’s right?

Shelves of books have been written on this question, of course, but a few basic points can be made in a small space. The first concerns the nominal subject of Pepall’s piece, the use of history. I said earlier that I agree with him on one thing: that history is public property. As Pepall puts it, however,

The use of history, the only use of history, is its being known and understood by the general public, those of us who are not historians, not producers of history, but consumers of it one might say.

And, as he goes on to argue,

There is some history we should know and some we can get on without.

We should know our history.

Here, I part ways with him. Of course, I agree (and I think any professional historian would) that we should know “our” history. But we should not take it as given either that “our” history is limited to the doings of our putative ancestors, or that “our” history is the only history we should want or need to know.

Even the most restrictive set of assumptions about the utility or relevance of history should make this obvious. If history is to supply the public with useful information about itself and the world it inhabits, then it cannot be restricted to a narrow national (or indeed Western) narrative; for neither the present-day public nor the present-day world are neatly divided into hermetically sealed national units — not that they ever were. Even if you assume the only reason to “do” history at all is to furnish the public with useful information — indeed, especially if you think that is its task — then a great many histories other than “ours” will be relevant. At the risk of sounding outrageous, I might even argue that knowing a little recent Chinese, Caribbean, (modern) Middle Eastern, African or South Asian history would be more useful, even to the very Europeanest, Westernest, Judaeo-Christianest Canadian, than boning up on Sumer. That’s not to knock the good, hardworking, gods-fearing people of Sumer. It’s just to make a basic point about the inherently mutable nature of relevance.

But why should we adopt so reductive a reading of public interest in the first place? Is it more condescending to think that a wide range of topics are worth writing about, or, as Pepall suggests, that the public can and should read only about itself — and even then only the stories about itself that it already knows or believes? The great gifts of history, as of the humanities generally, are their range and scope, their variety and multiplicity, and their dynamism — the fact that, implicitly if impracticably, they embrace all of human experience and can absorb an indefinite range of perspectives and approaches. That’s not to suggest that every subject is equally vital, or every history equally good — or equally “relevant”. But it is emphatically to argue that history as a discipline is better used as a tool for expanding our knowledge and interests — about our places, our times, our problems, ourselves, but also beyond them — rather than for keeping us confined within the narrow compass of familiar stories or the safe space of self-flattery. History is a vehicle for public as well as scholarly curiosity. Indeed, though the links are often indirect, each feeds the other.

There are, undeniably, a great many scholarly works of history that are of little interest to the public at large. (I’ve written a few, check them out! Or not….) If that meant that a public demand for history were going unmet, it would indeed be an indictment of academia. But the point is rather doubtful, and Pepall’s dudgeon at a couple of journal articles — which is, in the end, all his piece really amounts to — hardly makes the case. My own suspicion is that the public at large has an easier time finding what it wants on the shelves than academic historians do broadening their audiences. There are popular histories that sell well (some good, some not); there are academic histories — or histories written by academics — that find public audiences (many are written with the public in mind, others simply strike a chord); and then there are academic monographs, edited collections, and journal articles that find, at best, the academic audiences to whom they are addressed. These last are subject to a great deal of journalistic caricature, but they are neither the only point of contact between scholars and the public nor, as Pepall pretends, the only thing university historians are paid for. Most university historians are paid to teach. Those on the tenure track are also hired to engage in research and to undertake various administrative duties; but even for them, teaching remains the most significant and regular point of contact with a public.

Given all this, I am not convinced that the existence of journal articles meant for scholars to read is the problem Pepall makes it out to be; which is by no means to say that all is well in academic publishing. But if the existence of research that is inaccessible to the public in various ways is a problem, we should be clearer about exactly why it is than lazy rants like Pepall’s — which simply denies the existence of many kinds of academic publication, and which wildly mischaracterizes the nature of academic work — will allow us to be. My sense is that the core questions concern the purposes of research, the different meanings of accessibility, and the roles played by different kinds of publication, including teaching. I don’t have space for all that here (it’s a postscript, dammit), but I would like to come back to it in another post. I will instead simply note that, in my experience, archival and other research yields a variety of outcomes — arguments responding to other scholars, which mean more to academics than to the public but which can be made intelligible to nonspecialists; more general ideas about the places, periods, and themes I work on, which shape my teaching and inform my more publicly-oriented writing; and reflections on history that I have no trouble sharing here.

Still, I do wish my book was cheaper.

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