Gregory Melleuish: Too many historians know little history outside their own area of expertise

Roundup: Talking About History

[Gregory Melleuish is associate professor of history and politics at the University of Wollongong.]

ON the ABC quiz show The Einstein Factor there is a so-called brains trust as well as contestants. Sometimes questions are referred to the brains. On occasions the brains trust includes a historian to whom questions of a historical nature invariably are referred. What is amazing is how often these historical experts, who boast the title Doctor, get the answer wrong.

On one occasion the historical brain thought that World War I began with the invasion of Serbia by Turkey; on another, Dr Brain could not distinguish between Oliver Cromwell, Richard Cromwell and Thomas Cromwell. Most recently, the brain answered that the famous statement of queen Elizabeth I, that though she had the weak and feeble body of a woman she had the heart and stomach of a king, was uttered by queen Victoria.

We are dealing here with individuals who have received a doctorate, who have been certified by our universities as being learned and supposedly fit to call themselves professional historians.

Of course, we know that the possession of a PhD does not indicate anything of the sort. Historians today generally know very little outside their particular area of expertise. We have had the spectacle of the supposed leader of the historical profession in Australia, Stuart Macintyre, making as basic an error as not knowing the origins of the word history.

How can we be producing historians who are so ignorant and lacking in general culture? Isn't it like producing medical practitioners who know only about the big toe or the spleen? Do we not have a right to expect that our historians will have a broad knowledge and understanding of the history of human beings?

Unfortunately that is not the case. Historians tend to be trained in one particular geographical area of history covering only a small period of time. They are encouraged to specialise and to ignore everything outside their particular specialisation. They are not encouraged to learn a foreign language or to appreciate a variety of cultures.

Let's consider the education that a typical historian might have in Australia. They do an undergraduate major that might include the study of areas outside Australia. If they attend a small university they cannot avoid studying the history of areas outside Australia. If they go to a large metropolitan university they could conceivably do a major without studying much beyond Australian history.

My experience is that while the general run of students is interested in studying a range of historical eras, those who do honours, and hence go on to PhDs, tend to be much more narrowly focused. This means they are more likely to specialise in the Australian area....

What is to be done? Obviously we need to look at how we educate historians. They need to have a much broader education. They need to be able to understand cultures other than their own, including languages other than their own. And one fears that there is a similar story to be told about all of the other areas of the humanities. The humanities have become full of ignorant specialists.

Sydney University's vice-chancellor, Gavin Brown, complained recently about philistine rednecks who are in favour of voluntary student unionism. He was wrong. The real philistines are within the university, not outside it.

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Alonzo Hamby - 12/30/2005

Questions of just what is trivia aside, PhDs in history and other fields are more likely to be intellectual technicians than broadly educated intellectuals, more the equivalent of first-class plumbers and electricians than individuals or wide learning.

This is a situation that gets worse by the decade as the discipline becomes more specialized and fragmented. More and more, history graduate students are also likely to be taught that the "classical interpretations," i.e., the writings of important historians more than a generation distant, are irrelevant. It is ironic but neverless true that this is happening in a discipline centered on the study of the past and just one example of the quiet crisis afflicting history as a scholarly discipline.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/30/2005

What, an historian's education isn't complete until he can ace a game-show trivia test? Of the examples given, only the first one qualifies as a possibly serious educational gap; the second is pure trivia and the third trivial in that historians would almost never need to identify these people outside of their context, which is lacking in the question.

Without depth, historians are no better than walking textbooks.