The Study of History - and its Decline?

Some writers suggest that the study of the past is no longer at the apogee of high culture or national identity as it has been for centuries, rather, today it has reached a denouement. In the West, younger generations do not care about their history.  In a recent article appearing in Standpoint Magazine,  Daniel Johnson lamented that the study of history has reached an all-time low.

He writes “What has become problematic is the assumption that general historical knowledge, an informed consciousness of our past, is the essential framework for Western civilisation. It is the decline of history in this sense that lies behind the heated debates about the teaching of history at school and university. The loss of such a temporal dimension has brought about a profound change in the outlook of the West: a loss of organic connection, not only with those who came before us, but with our place in the world.”

We agree that the ways in which politicians and the public at large value history is problematic, but we would argue that the fragmentation of history—from the grand narratives of Leopold von RankeAuguste Comte and others to the nuanced approaches to historical subjects—affords greater insight into our place in the world as well as those who came before us.  Proponents of these grand narratives used the nation as a unit of analysis for history at a time when our ascendant nationalism required it.  Today, they use much smaller frames of reference and write micro-studies of communities, organizations, while also studying individuals left out of the larger political narratives.

In many ways, the grand narratives that are now seldom taught at universities actually helped to shift focus from male-dominated, political history to the current smaller narratives that are a more honest and wide-ranging examination of our pasts. The unintended consequence of Marxist history, for example, was that exploring the past through economic inequality led a whole generation of history students in the 1960s to ask questions about other social and cultural inequalities which surrounded them. It’s no surprise that by the 1960s, historians in their incipient careers shied away from what was understood as an archaic form of historical inquiry, many finding “big man” histories out of date. Instead, students of history were influenced by the contemporary context in which they studied, exploring topics against the backdrop of de-colonization, ecological issues, civil rights, women’s history, and others.

Ironically, despite vehement protests against the Vietnam War, many American veterans benefited from the GI Bill, who upon returning enrolled in universities across the United States. The experience of these students contributed to fields like war and society, that moved beyond the impersonal details of national and operational military history to explore the social, cultural, and psychological effects of warfare. Studying war was no longer associated with condoning it, but rather with attempting to understand it on a human level. That transformation highlights an important point: that the social and political context in which students study history has an immediate effect on what questions students ask of their history. Today, the American-led debacle in Iraq and coalition efforts in Afghanistan, not to mention other pressing issues in the Arab world, have pushed many universities across North America into hiring scholars of the Middle East to better understand our current affairs.

This is not to say that reading works like Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Jan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages, Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft, or E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class is not important. On the contrary, they afford young historians insight into how our craft has developed over the last century or so.

But is Daniel Johnson’s lament that undergraduates studying at Oxford today are not examined on “historical classics” like Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Alexis de Tocqueville's L'Ancien Régime et la Revolution really that deplorable? The fragmentation of historical thinking has had many positive consequences, not least of which is a more nuanced understanding of the past across time and space. Many histories of marriage and sexuality, the environment, immigration, witchcraft, madness, PTSD, or emotions have contributed to how we understand the world in which we live today. These topics might sacrifice the breadth of Gibbon, von Ranke, and other great historians, but they often make up for it in their depth through a cautious probing of manuscript sources from a multitude of archives.

The study of history is far from a denouement. There are issues that might come at the “expense” of grand political narratives, but they are absolutely essential in understanding “those who came before us” and our place in the world today. In the Canadian context, it is no longer impossible to critically assess the impact of government policy and the residential school system on aboriginal peoples, or to explore issues of redress for the internment of Japanese-Canadians and the treatment of Blacks.  We must accept that these are a part of our historical narrative, even if they are harsh truths about our past. 

The study of history is far from a denouement.  The transition from focusing on national identities to social ones is a change, not a failing as Johnson may describe it.  Nonetheless, Johnson is right.  History has lost its relevance to the greater public. When once historians told stories of national triumph and progress, today they work to uncover the stories untold in the grand narratives of nation-building, politicians and (largely) white men.  New perspectives and access to an even wider body of sources continue to make the study of history a promising enterprise for historians and all Canadians. Whether history will reclaim its rightful position as the pillar of national identity or high culture is doubtful.

Exploring the stories of all people, not just those involved in the historic nation state, is important, but few historians have been able to translate them into consumable stories for non-academics.  Historians will have to relearn that skill if they want to stay relevant in our modern society. The question remains: how can historians take their view from below and present it to the average citizen? For the majority of people, history is not an inherently interesting subject.  For them, they must have a connection to past.  If you are not a black man, how interested are you in the history of black men in Canada? Or an immigrant in imperial politics of the 1920s?  Or a woman reading about the men who formed Confederation?  If we are no longer able to write national histories that appeal to an entire nation, then historians have to write histories that connect through some other common appeal.  Otherwise, they risk becoming as irrelevant as Johnson alleges, or worse, anachronistic scholars ignored by their fellow citizens, to whom they have a responsibility to educate.  If historians do not strive to communicate history to non-historians, then we have reached an impasse between utility and scholarly purpose that is increasingly difficult to overcome.