Conversation, Contradiction and Conflict in ‘The Historical Present’

A couple of days ago Christopher Moore posted British historian Richard Overy’sThe Historical Present” from The Times Higher Education on his blog.  This short reflection captured my attention because of the dichotomy that Overy makes between academic, policy-oriented and popular histories.   Splitting history up into these categories misrepresents the value and purpose of practicing history and fails to acknowledge many of the contributions that shape the discipline as a whole.

Overy argues against the idea that history must have an ‘impact’ to be valid.  Academic history (real history), in his mind, should be independent of the need to be immediately relevant.  Although it can (and should) inform popular history and public policy, in his view, this should not be an end in itself.

I agree that the historical research conducted at universities should be conducted in an environment of relatively free inquiry where popular and policy concerns are not brought directly to bear on researchers and that the overall target of historical research should be centred on developing the field rather than furthering specific commercial or political perspectives.

The practice of history, however, is not a zero sum game in which historians can isolate themselves from outside influences.  The research, writing and teaching of academic, policy-oriented, and popular history are deeply political, social and ideological pursuits.    Whether historical research is intended to ‘add value’ or ‘make an impact’ is only one component of many that shape historical perspective.  In the Canadian context, the two areas identified by Overy as particularly problematic – popular history (heritage) and policy – do not appear to pose as significant of a threat as he suggests.

Rather than believing that “there is no higher intellectual purpose to be served by popular narration other than to describe and entertain,” as Overy suggests.  The intersection between popular and academic history has provided fruitful new directions and scholarly debate.  Craig Heron’s Booze: A Distilled History (recently reviewed for ActiveHistory.ca), John Demos’s Unredeemed Captive and Christopher Moore’s Louisbourg Portraits have all intentionally made both popular and academic impacts.  Heron’s and Moore’s books also partially developed out of their work for the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre and Louisbourg National Historic Site – demonstrating how academic history and the heritage sector are often fruitfully combined.

From the policy perspective, academic research that has been commissioned for policy purposes is drawn on regularly by academic historians, both as primary and secondary source material.  In my own doctoral research, I draw regularly from reports written for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and for Parks Canada.  This work was conducted specifically to have an impact on public policy (in the latter case on heritage policy) and it has made a significant positive difference developing our understanding of Aboriginal history in Canada.

The arguments that worry Overy are used most frequently in discussions related to teaching history.  Here, more than anywhere else, the emphasis seems to be increasingly placed on ‘transferrable skills’ and the value of history outside of the historical profession.  But is the classroom not exactly where we should be focused on transferrable skills?

Universities have undergone a profound transformation since the baby boom and students are coming into history departments with a variety of backgrounds and experiences.  More importantly, they are leaving history departments to pursue a variety of occupations and vocations in fields as different from history as science and business.  These are fields where historical perspective is important, if not essential.  Do we not want to demonstrate to students that history is transferable, adds value, and is important to their futures?

The fact of the matter is that good popular history, good policy research and good teaching contribute to broader historical debates and further the development of independent academic history even when they are commissioned for a specific purpose or intended to add value to further other social, political or economic goals.  This is exactly the same as in other fields, such as physics and biochemistry, where government, corporate and academic research work together, while sometimes at cross-purposes, to further the strength of their respective fields.

The pressures that Overy observes are real, however.  Placing heavy emphasis on public, popular and governmental uses of history can distort how the historical discipline is conceived.  He is right that too much emphasis could pose a real problem in the future for the historical profession.  Where he is wrong is in suggesting a bolstering of academic history and professional independence as the primary solution.

The real challenge for historians of all persuasions is to acknowledge that popular, policy-oriented, genealogical, and academic histories do not exist independently of one another.  Serious and important contributions have been made through each of these avenues – some with more-partisan beginnings than others.  Not all have been equal, and many have been contradictory and some even destructive.  It is the role of the historian, particularly more independent academic historians, to critically engage with how the past is used in each of these areas.

Academic historians will need to leave the ‘ivory tower’ just as their colleagues in popular and policy-oriented histories will need to leave their own comfort zones.  The value of history is found in the conversations, contradictions, and conflicts that occur when these groups meet.

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