Simon Schama: Academic History Is Dull!

Roundup: Talking About History

Jonathan Thompson, in the London Independent (Feb. 22, 2004):

Simon Schama, one of Britain's best-known historians , has accused fellow academics of making the subject too dull.

Professor Schama is calling for a return to a "golden age" of historians of the calibre of Gibbon, Macaulay and Carlyle. He says modern-day historians - with a few notable exceptions - have lost the ability to inspire the public with tales of the past in the same way as their predecessors.

"History's adventure has become a bit lost," said Professor Schama. "It's not as explosive or exciting as it used to be. What we need to recover is our reckless literary courage." He blamed the subject's demise on the "juggernaut of academic history" which is obsessed with scientific data and obsessive footnotes rather than good storytelling.

On the eve of his new BBC television series, Historians of Genius, Professor Schama holds up the great historians of the 18th and 19th centuries as examples of how history should be written. Three of these - Thomas Babington Macaulay, author of The History of England, Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , and Thomas Carlyle, who wrote The French Revolution - are dealt with in depth during the series, which begins on BBC4 tomorrow evening. Professor Schama won great acclaim for two lengthy and highly popular television series on the history of Britain

"Macaulay was the first person to really bring history to the mass reading public," said Professor Schama. "His writing had great propulsion and he was very proud of the fact that he could entertain people without making anything up.

"Carlyle, too, was an exhilarating read - a fantastic dramatist. It was as though he kicked open a window and dumped you in the very room you were reading about."

But Professor Schama, who teaches at New York 's Columbia University , said today's books pale in comparison with those of the Victorian era. Although he conceded that narrative British history does have some proponents - notably Antony Beevor and Niall Ferguson - these are the exception rather than the rule.

"Popular narrative history was never entirely lost. It was just condescended to by the juggernaut of academic history which seemed to dictate how and to whom you wrote."

Professor Schama's comments look certain to provoke argument within academic institutions, but he received support last night from another high-profile historian - David Starkey, the Cambridge don and television presenter.

"Undoubtedly, academic history is deadly," said Dr Starkey. "A lot of books have become rarely animated footnotes. In fact, they should really be written upside down, with the footnotes at the top and a drip of text underneath. Footnotes aren't new, but what is new is our worship of them."

Dr Starkey, whose series on Elizabeth I and the six wives of Henry VIII helped win him the title of Britain's highest-paid TV presenter, added: "When I was at university, writing a readable book was seen as the height of frivolity: academics were taught to write for each other. There's this entire lack of public presence. Things like revisionism have led to utter trivialisation in the name of scholarship."

Professor Niall Ferguson, whose recent Channel 4 series on the British Empire led to him being nicknamed "The Errol Flynn of British history", was more guarded on the perceived crisis. "Happily, most of my colleagues understand that to reach a mass audience, one must make certain sacrifices", said Professor Ferguson, who recently left Oxford University to teach in New York . "For example, sacrifice of footnotes and of long historiographical introductions. And one must also strive to write rather more fluently - indeed grippingly - than is usual in the academic world."

Despite Professor Schama's criticism, record numbers of history books were sold in the UK last year. According to figures from The Bookseller, sales in 2003 totalled pounds 32m - or 3 per cent of the total market.

Last night, the president of the Royal Historical Society, Professor J L Nelson, denied claims that history isn't as good as it used to be. "History is very much more diverse in the things it covers now," she said. "There are more people studying history - it's more popular than ever.

"People do write in a different style nowadays. There's not such a large vocabulary, but that doesn't mean we're not writing interesting things."

But Bettany Hughes, presenter of The Spartans and one of the new generation of television historians , was less convinced: "There is definitely a danger that academics will simply sharpen their wits on each other. Throughout the 1970s, history became increasingly scientific, focusing on data, process and analysis rather than on comment and argument. There was almost a denial that you could be passionate about your subject.

"We need to reinforce the idea that it is the study of the living rather than the study of the dead."


comments powered by Disqus