By John Arnold
History and Policy website (2008)
Introduction: Why History Matters is thought provoking and challenging, in its insistent and urgent call for a closer engagement between history and public political discourse. It makes a strong case that an informed and nuanced sense of history is an essential part of civic empowerment, developing the remit of ‘public history’ far from its default grounds of heritage and identity. My admiration notwithstanding, in this response to his book I would like to question some of the author’s ideas and assumptions, consider some less welcome potential effects of political/historical engagement, and ask what the role of pre-modern history might also play.
A grounding assumption of Why History Matters is the existence of an unwelcome and problematic gap between academic historians and the general public, a gap which has arisen as the profession has become increasingly specialised and marginalised in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. This notion, however, strikes a number of ironic earlier echoes. When were historians and the public more closely conjoined? How far back must we look for our earlier golden age of authoritative and useful public history? George Macaulay Trevelyan, writing in 1903, claimed that:
Two generations back, history was a part of our national literature, written by persons moving at large in the world of letters or politics … Of recent years, the popular influence of history has greatly diminished. The thought and feeling of the rising generation is but little affected by historians. History was, by her own friends, proclaimed a ‘science’ for specialists, not ‘literature’ for the common reader of books.
To head a little further back, Henry Thomas Buckle, writing his History of Civilisation in England (1857), begins confidently enough:
Of all the great branches of human knowledge, history is that upon which most has been written, and which has always been popular… This confidence in the value of history is very widely diffused, as we see in the extent to which it is read, and in the share it occupies in all plans of education.