Matthew Francis, ‘Historians must ask difficult questions, not merely answer them’

Matthew Francis

Matthew Francis

While The History Manifesto is a welcome reminder of the duty of historians to speak beyond the academy – a duty that has in the past been too easily neglected – there is a risk that the approaches outlined by Guldi and Armitage risks underselling the contribution that historians can make. Others have written about the assumptions that the Manifesto makes about the public(s) to which historians should speak – but we should also consider its assumptions about the kind of questions that historians should ask.

In 1997 Quentin Skinner published an essay in which he considered which subjects, if any, could be studied by historians who obeyed the injunctions laid down in Geoffrey Elton’s The Practice of History. His conclusion was that any historian who attempted to do so would be reduced to counting the items furniture in Chatsworth – if she had had not abandoned history altogether in favour of a career in retailing – because of the way in which the obsession with technique would restrict the subjects that she could study and the questions that she could ask. Skinner warned that if other historians followed Elton into ‘the cult of the fact’, there was a risk that history would lose ‘the power to transform us, to help us think more effectively about our society and its possible need for reform and reformation’.

To conduct a similar exercise with the injunctions laid down in The History Manifesto would no doubt be instructive. If historians are to demonstrate their relevance through an engagement with policymakers, then which questions should we ask? And, more importantly, which questions would we no longer be able to ask?

Of particular concern in this respect must be the fate of the scholarship regarded by Guldi and Armitage as ‘microhistory’: histories of race and class and gender. To dismiss histories of identities in these terms is not simply to risk marginalizing histories that have done much to contribute to the intellectual vitality and diversity of contemporary historical scholarship, but is also to overlook the potential of these histories to stimulate wider discussions. While this scholarship might appear to have relatively little to offer to ‘legislative committees, [or] activist campaigns, or… Silicon Valley startups’, these histories can and do play an important role in informing and initiating contemporary public debate. To attempt to participate in discussions about racial discrimination or sexual equality without the benefit of these ‘microhistories’ is to step onto the battlefield deprived of an important weapon. These histories allow us to more powerfully interrogate contemporary assumptions around identities and rights, and to ‘speak truth to power’ in a way far more profound than that proposed in the Manifesto.

To tether historians to policymakers in the manner proposed in The History Manifesto is therefore to risk transforming history from a discipline that asks difficult questions to a discipline that merely answers them. While this would no doubt do a great deal to demonstrate the relevance of historical scholarship – and to increase the influence of historians among political elites – it would come at a tremendous cost to the discipline as a whole. While there is clearly scope for historians to make a far greater contribution to the work of politicians and policymakers, to conceive of the relevance of history exclusively in these terms is to overlook the much bigger contribution that historians can make to public life.

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