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the guide to historical resources • Issue 2: What is History? •


What is History?

Book cover: In Defence of History

Author's response to his critics (1)

Book:

In Defence of History

Richard J. Evans
Granta, 1997 307 pp., 15.99 (hardback)
Reviewer:

Professor Antony Easthope

Manchester Metropolitan University
Criticism 1: The book is unnecessary because history doesn't need defending.

Several reviewers thought the book was, in a sense, unnecessary. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement for example, Joyce Appleby suggested that the book is only 'defending history from attacks that must surely have vaporized in their own light-headedness'. Its 'destruction of postmodernism may be a little wearying', Samuel Brittan confesses 'with chapter after chapter and example after example'. It could easily be done 'in a few lines', he says.

Appleby's claim that the book 'certainly will please those who think that pre-1970 history needed no defending' is somewhat untypical in this respect. Leaving aside the mysterious question of what happened in 1970 to make history worth defending in some people's eyes afterwards but not before, it seems strange that a book explicitly devoted to defending history (both before and after 1970) should please those who think it needs no defending at all. And in fact this is what a number of reviewers have more or less said. The fact that over 40,000 British 'A' level students took history examinations in 1997 and over 15,000 students were reading the subject at university, history in the same year means, according to Niall Ferguson, that 'history does not need much defending.' Of course, these figures are a substantial decline on those of previous years, the numbers of students taking history at A level have been falling for over a decade, and in the USA there were only a third as many students reading history at university in 1990 as there were in 1970. But this does not seem to bother Ferguson. As an economic historian, he should know that it is trends that count, not single-year figures.

To be sure, the numbers of history students at British universities have been growing in recent years, but this is a reflection of the huge expansion of the British university system that has taken place since the late 1980s, an expansion which has seen the participation rate of 18-21-year-olds in higher education virtually double to its present third from previously less than a fifth. In his review, however, Ferguson does not regard this as a welcome development. Indeed, if there is a threat against which history needs defending, it is according to Ferguson not postmodernism but 'the expansion of the subject at the universities since the 1960s'. Most historians, one would imagine, would welcome such a development, but not Ferguson, who as an Oxford don presumably thinks that universities other than his own and a handful of others should either teach useful subjects like carpentry or not exist at all. What has been the result of this expansion? he asks. 'Cosy enclaves such as "gender studies" or "gay history" exist to protect the talentless from serious intellectual challenge.' It should not be necessary to rebut such a statement of crass prejudice in detail; nowadays, a huge amount of imaginative, pathbreaking and first-rate scholarship is being devoted to these areas.

A more subtle argument is put forward by Daniel Johnson, with implicit support from Michael Burleigh, Matthew Trinca and Steve Weinberg, and that is that 'it is not history that needs defending, but professional historians', and this is what the book sets out to do. History books, both Burleigh and Johnson point out, are more popular than ever; but on the whole those that are widely read, are written by non-academics, and the popular view of history is stamped not by the Oxbridge professoriate but by cinema and television, and by writers such as Antonia Fraser. Roy Porter, indeed, reviewing the book on Radio 3, wished that it had 'looked beyond the walls of academe', just as Daniel Johnson criticises its author for giving 'no credit to those who practise his craft outside the university'. In Johnson's view, therefore, the book is written in defence of the academic historical profession, what Trinca calls 'a capital H History that is professional, discretely packaged with neat sub-specialisms, and manageable', not in defence of history per se. 'In Defence of History remains the swansong of a golden age of academic supremacy.'

This is an interesting criticism, and perhaps the most difficult to answer of all those that have been made of the book from a conservative angle, not least because there is something in it. The book does defend academic and scholarly standards in history and attack those who violate them. I considered at one point including a chapter about popular representations of history but in the end concluded this was a subject too vast to treat briefly, and deserved a separate publication in itself. In Defence of History focuses on the issue of how we define and achieve such things as truth and objectivity, whatever kind of history we are practising. These matters are, to my mind, the same whether you are Antonia Fraser, writing for a broad general public outside the academy, or whether you are Joyce Appleby, writing predominantly for a readership of students and other professional historians. It was gratifying, therefore, to see this view confirmed when Antonia Fraser named In Defence of History as her book of the year in the Christmas books issue of The Observer in 1997. Clearly some popular historians at least do think that the book applies to them as well as to their colleagues in academia.

There are two further points worth making in reply to Johnson's criticism. The first is that the book does endorse the writing of popular history by academic historians, and mentions a number of books which provide good examples of this . The more that the gap can be bridged, the better. The second, also mentioned (briefly) in the book, is that it is essentially not true that professional, university-based historians are facing a new challenge from popular representations of history in the media. Popular representations of history have always been widespread, whether in folksong and ballad, saga and legend, or broadside and chapbook, and they have always structured the historical perceptions of the majority. Two and a half thousand years ago, the Greek historian Thucydides complained in the preface to his history of the Pelopponesian War that poets and others were purveying false and imaginary accounts of what had happened, and announced his intention of setting the record straight. In the past, only a tiny minority of the literate and the educated were exposed to professional history and historians. Today, at the end of the twentieth century, with over a third of the entire population passing through higher education when they reach the end of their teens in most advanced industrial societies, and a growing proportion of mature and part-time students entering an ever-expanding process of lifelong learning, the number of those who have access to and are influenced by university-based history and historians is probably greater in absolute terms than it has ever been before.

This returns us to Ferguson's original point about the popularity of history as an academic subject today, even if he did overdo it a little. So while Johnson is correct to say the book defends history as an academic discipline, principally against its critics within the academy, he is wrong to say it represents in so doing the swansong of a declining elite, and wrong to say that it has no application to non-academic versions of history.

(Richard J. Evans, November 1999)

Author's response to his critics (introduction)

  1. The book is unnecessary because history doesn't need defending.
  2. The book is unfairly critical of conservative historians.
  3. The book fails to engage directly with the major postmodernist philosophers.
  4. The book defends an outmoded empiricist concept of objectivity.
  5. The book defends a conservative approach to history.
  6. The book's concept of a fact is untenable.
  7. The book misunderstands key arguments of the postmodernists.
  8. The book is unfair to those postmodernists whom it criticises.
  9. The book's arguments are contradictory.

Original review (by Prof. Antony Easthope)

A response by Dr. Diane Purkiss

A further response by Dr. Diane Purkiss

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