What Sort of History Should Historians Write?

The blog entry below is the second in a series of responses to a question, ‘Who should historians write history for?’, that was posed by an event of the same name held in the history department at KCL on the 14th of January 2015. These responses are intended to respond to the debate initiated recently by Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto about the public role of history.

After I submitted my PhD proposal I realised how it was exactly the sort of history which had recently been labelled as utterly redundant. Needless to say, this made me feel a little sad. This stark come down came in the form of Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto. For these scholars, to produce an account of the ways in which science informed the politics of the British Left between 1964 and 1979 would be about as useless as a modernist historian explaining the minutia of an Anglo-Saxon hill fort. In fact, perhaps worse. As to Guldi and Armitage histories based in a single country over a short period of time, micro-studies, are representative of everything wrong with modern day academic history. To these scholars, since micro-studies could only ever be small, insular and irrelevant, such work embodies as well as ensures the slow demise of history into an immaterial subject of no contemporary importance. So Guldi and Armitage suggest all historians (including would-be historians in training) should all ditch the particulars and work solely in terms of big data and the longue durée. Only through doing so can historians hope to be of any relevance outside of three other researchers in their field.

For many reasons, it is a relief that I do not exactly agree with the arguments laid out within the History Manifesto. Actually, I think it would be difficult for me to disagree with them more, but I’ll keep this focused. My most central objection is to how Guldi and Armitage conceive of what constitutes good history and, more specifically, I take issue with their misplaced emphasis on the utility of quantifiable knowledge within historical practice.

I agreed with something which David Edgerton put forward at the event organised on this topic. He made the excellent point that there are, of course, a plurality of historical approaches and histories. This makes Guldi and Armitage’s dogmatic stance on a single type of history seem a little odd. In fact, Edgerton went so far to say that the History Manifesto presupposes a stage theory of history which would make Stalin blush. It is clearly strange to state that a single type of history should dominate over all others. But I also think we can level a more specific critique at the type of history which Guldi and Armitage put forward as the sort which they feel should dominate historical practice.

Guldi and Armitage argued all historical work must use big data as it is only through presenting quantifiable knowledge over a long period of time can history “speak truth to power.” The first issue I have with this idea is the strange assumption that history speaks any truth whatsoever. Isn’t this the sort of thing that an undergraduate would be scolded for? Yet, throughout the criticism and discussion on the History Manifesto the problem of historical truth is not really discussed. However, this is a really important thing to talk about not only in and of itself, but because it reveals to us what I think is the real importance of history. I believe the radical potential of history rests not in any mysterious claims to objectivity, but in its very subjectivity. This is not to lead us far down the terrifying far reaches of a postmodern rabbit hole. In fact, quite the opposite. I think that through understanding how the power of history lays in its subjectivity we can produce not only better scholarship, but also ensure that our histories can play a vital part in contemporary political discourse.

I turn to international development as an important example of where historical thinking, and not the big data stuff, can help us think about very real policy issues. Michael Woolcock, Vijayendra Rao and Simon Szreter in their 2010 paper ‘How and Why Does History Matter for Development Policy’ argued that in contrast to the universalising abstractions of economists, historians can provide localized, nuanced and self-aware accounts of the impact of development policies. This is particularly useful as Woolcock, Rao and Szeter stressed how historians can appreciate, for instance, that the consequences of policies might be unexpected or that the same policy can mean different things to various groups of people. What is important here is how history has the capacity to treat human beings as human beings. This is what historians of the longue durée and big data can miss out on by conceiving of people through numbers. So history might not tell the truth, but if it doesn’t attempt to this can make it all the more useful.

So, for me, the wonder of history is not in its ability to “speak truth to power,” but in its potential to speak another language than that of power. Not one of arrogance, data and economic growth, but one of humility, scepticism and self-awareness. I believe that the central question which the History Manifesto raises is certainly not one which it intended to. It makes us think why do Guldi and Armitage suppose the link between quantifiable knowledge and relevance? I feel answering this could tell us a lot about the modern world and looking at this question historically could result in some interesting research. I think it is fair to say that, perhaps, it would produce arguments that would neither span over three-hundred years nor have their basis in numbers.

Tom Kelsey is currently a student on the Science, Technology, and Medicine in History MA at King’s College London.

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