It’s not often that historians attending an academic conference find themselves the focus of attention. There may well be some concerted Tweeting between attendees and absent colleagues (#MBS2015 trended during the excellent Rethinking Modern British Studies held at Birmingham earlier this year – and led to animated post-conference blogging). But we would be deluding ourselves to think our collective discussions are the stuff of intense media and political interest.
Then there was the first International Congress of Historical Sciences to be held in Asia. Almost 3000 historians converged on a hotel complex in Jinan, China (the rumours were it was Communist Party-owned) and there, too, were the politicians and the press. A message from the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, was read
out at a formal opening ceremony as part of an address by Liu Yandong, Vice-Premier of the State Council. Her title: ‘Taking history as a mirror, looking forward to the future, and jointly promoting harmonius co-existence of different civilizations’ (we were all issued with a bound copy). The speech connected pride in China’s historical achievements with present-day political and economic ambitions. The whole event was carefully orchestrated and the audience clapped in an orderly fashion at the cues.
It was an uncomfortable event. It would be easy to say that the source of the discomfort was a narrative that put the past (or a ‘curated’ version of it) in the service of political rhetoric. Not that it would be any different should David Cameron ever take the stage at a history conference (a mental image I find hard to conjure up…) The sense of being part of a performance, but without having access to the script or being sure of your part, was certainly unsettling.
On reflection, however, there was something else going on that needed some thinking about. Liu Yandong and the other high-level speakers arrayed on the stage confidently asserted the value of history and historical knowledge for the present. Most of the historians in the audience would be profoundly suspicious of the particular way in which history was said to matter. And in the many panels, roundtables and coffee break discussions we proceeded to adopt a ‘business as usual’ approach of ignoring the question of how what we do connects to the issues and concerns of contemporary society.*
But we have a problem here. We want to make a case that history is a valuable way of knowing about the world, that its insights are important and distinctive and so it is worth funding, teaching and generally cultivating as a discipline. We want history to be seen as vital to a vibrant, engaged, democratic public life at a time when the humanities seem marginalised, if not under threat. At the same time, there remains a prevalent hesitancy about history actually being used by people who aren’t academic historians and for purposes that aren’t conventionally about constructing historical knowledge.
But it’s not an either/or of ‘pure’, disinterested scholarship or the distortions of ‘applied’ work; it’s not ‘Clio’ or ‘client’ . I quite like Christian Meier‘s refusal to abdicate the historian’s responsibilities to society. He acknowledges that there is a ‘danger that a subject is wrongly turned into something topical’, but he turns this back to his own profession:
But this danger will be lessened the more we are conscious of these questions and of our own present. There is also the danger that interested laymen in politics and the media will try to use historical insights for their purposes. The more topical these insights are, the more tempting this will be. This will be inevitable. But in this respect, too, I would like to assert that reflecting upon the historian’s responsibility offers the best antidote. The more a discipline insists on this responsibility, the more difficult it will be to pursue political tendencies within the context of science.
We can and should be active in critiquing political efforts to harness the past – but our responsibilities as historians don’t end there.
- David J. Rothman, ‘Serving Clio and client: The historian as expert witness’ in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 77, no. 1, pp. 25-44.