Forty Years hence: the Repositioning of History

Being forty myself, looking ahead forty years is interesting for several reasons. One is that I might actually live long enough to see how wrong I am. Another is to comprehend the changes of my lifetime happening all over again – but differently, with less certainty of a positive outcome, and with fewer opportunities for me personally. What will the ultimate effects of postmodernism be on history? Will emission-producing travel be rationed by 2049, restricting us to research resources remotely available or close at hand? Will research funding be strictly controlled by government directives?

I suspect that it will be the continuing digital revolution which will prove to be the most significant development over the forthcoming decades. This is not because of any new digital possibilities (although I dare say there will be some) but rather the implications for the democratisation of history. The digital camera and laptop which you take into an archive today might appear just useful tools but the logical consequence of their widespread availability is the fragmentation of academic domination of historical knowledge. And with that fragmentation comes not the lessening of scholars’ prominence as cultural spokesmen and women but their promotion. The result is, as I see it, the possibility of a new golden age of history writing, in which historians are once again at the heart of the cultural life of the world.

Today one can film extensive runs of documents at an archive – as much material in a week as one could transcribe in a whole year prior to the advent of digital cameras. In two weeks’ filming one can obtain copies of more documents than a PhD student traditionally would have used throughout writing his entire thesis. The costs and prohibitive restrictions of photocopying are by-passed. True, not transcribing that material in the archive means some important points might be missed, but on the other hand the record which one takes away is correct – there are no errors of transcription. Foreign languages and difficult passages can be studied at leisure. American and Australian researchers can access as much original English material as residents of the UK. In short, one can create one’s own digital archive, tailored to one’s own research interests, cheaply and easily.

The implications of this are profound. A decade ago, it was difficult to be both a good historian and an independent one. Books had to sell in huge quantities in order to support the independent researcher as he or she laboured through hundreds of manuscripts. The tendency was for popular historians to write what pleased the masses to increase revenue and, at the same time, to minimise research expenses by limiting themselves to secondary sources. To be a scholar one had to be an academic. Not any more. Nowadays the independent scholar needs only a good understanding of the relevant archives and a good background education, such as a PhD, and the ability to write well. Online access to journals and resources like Early English Books Online, plus the ability to buy cheap books via the Internet, are making visits to a research library rare events. One can be a scholar on a low budget anywhere in the world.

As academic departments come under increasing financial pressure (as they have done hugely in the UK), and become more strictly aligned with their one inalienable responsibility – the tertiary education of young men and women – talented historians will think twice about dedicating their careers to a predominantly routine teaching role. In forty years a large proportion of top-flight scholars will be independent, very much as they were in the nineteenth century, although they will probably still be associated with universities for reasons of mutual prestige, companionship and access to online resources. They will shun routine lecturing to a hundred students in favour of writing for a hundred thousand readers. Their only lectures will be prestigious public ones. This is not ‘selling out’ so much as a deepening of an already present division between the practice of history as a vocation and the quite distinct vocation of teaching. Those employed by academic institutions will teach; those who want the freedom to be innovative, experimental, and to communicate their ideas with the wider public, will be independent.

This might be a less-than-welcome vision of the future for some. And there is an obvious riposte. Not all subjects are ever going to have a wide enough public audience to warrant publications. Will not the history-buying public in 2049 be just as keen on biographies of Mary, queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I, and just as reluctant to buy in-depth scholarly studies of historical demography? Will not the ambitious scholar of 2049 be cornered by the market into producing only a certain sort of book?

There are three key points one can make here. Yes, it is likely that Elizabeth I will continue to dominate her age historically – just as she dominated it in the late sixteenth century. But the popular books which will be written in 2049 will be written by scholars – those of us with literary ability and humanistic appreciation of another time. They will not be written by the sort of unqualified popular historians who gave historical biography a bad name in the twentieth century. Independent scholars writing in 2049 about Elizabeth and Mary of Scotland might only be loosely connected with institutions but they will be the real successors of today’s scholars: drawing on considerable quantities of unpublished material, able to access a wide range of journals, and trained to a methodologically rigorous standard.

The second point is that, by having no lecturing, tutoring or administrative distractions, the independent scholar of 2049 will have the potential to write thirty or forty monographs in his or her career – attracting a far wider readership, and developing a much higher profile than is possible in the academic world today. It is possible to think of historical writers attaining a form of celebrity in their own right. Such writers will have every opportunity to develop a wide personal following, so that an author who has written on Elizabeth I might take readers into the realms of Simon Foreman and John Dee, and through these secondary figures, into the conceptual world of sixteenth-century astrology and medicine.

The third point is perhaps the most important. Is there sufficient demand for academic studies outside academic institutions in order to warrant the continued publication of history? In other words, does the sort of academic history which is likely to fall by the wayside have any wider social value outside academia? Perhaps not, or at least not directly. A debate in 2006 among Fellows of the Royal Historical Society in the UK questioned whether the academic monograph is sustainable now (let alone in forty years time). It may well have a long-term future in print-on-demand, the Internet, and electronic books; but such opportunities are primarily dependent on the economics of publishing. The fundamental question is that of the value of academic studies per se: do they have value outside academia? As a form of education: yes, certainly. But some areas of historical research are now so obscure as to be little more than personal hobbies, inaccessible to all but the researcher. This form of activity is surely doomed. And doomed along with it is Geoffrey Elton’s dictum that ‘the purpose and ambition of professional history is to understand a problem from the inside. This may well involve tedium, pettiness and pedantry, the main faults of the professional... but even at his worst he cannot fail to add to learning, understanding and knowledge; he contributes truth’ (G. R. Elton, The Practice of History (1967), p. 31).

If scholarly research does not engage interest outside academia then it cannot be said to make a lasting contribution to ‘learning, understanding and knowledge’. Postmodernism has demonstrated the artificiality of many historical constructs, so any which do not attract a critical mass of attention will be like leaves falling in the forest; no one will hear them, and no one will care whether they made a sound or not. Unless historians start to justify their practice through recourse to public interest in the past, then what they produce will have less and less cultural significance.

In conclusion, history over the next forty years is likely to be conditioned by historians’ own ambitions. Those who have no will to affect the development of the profession – those who simply want to do a professional lecturing, tutoring and research job – will increasingly find the money squeezed, the research areas denigrated by non-academics as culturally meaningless or dictated by funding bodies, and the ability to publish monographs restricted to electronic platforms. But for those who see history as the exploration of humanity over time, as a matter of wide cultural interest, the future offers many opportunities. Those who ensure that their scholarship engages with wider public debates will overcome doubts about the sustainability and relevance of their work. Indeed, they may succeed in repositioning history at the centre of intellectual society – a position it has not enjoyed since the early 1970s – but where we all, in our hearts, believe it belongs.

Ian Mortimer
3 June 2008, published in the Sixteenth Century Journal, XL, 1 (Spring 2009), pp. 187-190.



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