Keith Thomas and the Decline of History: a few observations

23 Jun

It’s nothing new to watch a historian get a lot of mileage out of a source that might seem uninformative at first glance. Done well, it can be beautiful: a triumph of analysis, of interrogation and imagination. It’s easy, though, to go too far – to put words into someone’s mouth, or to distort what they were trying to say. As historians, we’re meant to be good at doing the first, and avoiding the second.

Have a look at this, then. It’s an article from last month’s Independent titled “Young historians ‘are damaging academia’ in their bid for stardom”. This caused a bit of a fuss when it came out: basically, Keith Thomas – eminent historian and author of the famous Religion and the Decline of Magic, among others – was quoted as commenting on this year’s Wolfson Prize entries (he was a judge). He said this:

“There is a tendency for young historians who have completed their doctoral thesis to, rather than present it in a conventional academic form, immediately hire an agent, cut out the footnotes, jazz it all up a bit and try to produce a historical bestseller from what would have otherwise been a perfectly good academic work. The reality is that only a few of these works succeed commercially.”

Thomas reportedly went on to say that there exists a ‘parasitic’ relationship between high-flying popular historians, who let poor academics slave away in archives, doing the real work of research, before nicking it for their mass-market paperbacks.

Needless to say, a lot of people weren’t thrilled at this. A fair few of my fellow ‘young historians’ took to Twitter and Facebook to vent. Soon, though, a white knight came to our rescue. Or did he? Antony Beevor’s response appeared on the Indy website a few hours later. We hoped – or I did, anyway – to hear a rousing defence of the work being done by young historians, at a time when research funding is as scarce as the pressure to produce scholarly writing is fierce. It would have been nice to see a senior academic recognise that this year’s Ph.Ds are looking at a crowded field with fewer and fewer dependable jobs.

That wasn’t quite what we got. Antony Beevor’s article began by saying ‘Sir Keith Thomas is right’. Thanks. He was right to argue that “Governments have disastrously placed the priority and the criteria for promotion on being published rather than on being a good teacher”, but if you were looking for a vindication of the young academic with an eye on the public, you’d have to look elsewhere: here, the idea that there’s “a dash for fame among freshly-hatched PhDs” goes unchallenged.

Of course, the funny thing is that in all of this rush to get a word in about the awful mess these young historians are making, none of the commentators has yet noted the fact that Keith Thomas actually responded to the original article in Independent Letters page. Here’s part of his letter:

“Mr Milmo informed your readers in a news report that I believe that “the pressure to achieve a public profile is damaging for academia” and “risks undermining the status of academic study”. Again, that was not the implication of what I said. I merely expressed regret that some young academic historians were attempting to adapt their work to a genre for which neither it nor they were well suited, a view endorsed by Antony Beevor on the same page. I greatly welcome attempts in books, television and other media to encourage public interest in history.”

This is outrageous! Oh wait, no it isn’t. It’s a slightly more measured statement of a relatively reasonable point. Not that Tim Stanley recognised this when he riffed on Thomas’ supposed theme in this month’s History TodayDr. Stanley found a lot to agree with. “We all know of whom he [Thomas] speaks: those beautiful historians who graduate from PhD to Penguin to BBC with indecent haste.”

Actually, I don’t. Who are we talking about here? Leaving aside, for a second, the idea of ‘indecent haste’ (when I get my Ph.D I’ll have been training as a historian for nine years; when, precisely, will it be ‘decent’ for me to have the gall to seek a wider audience?), there’s another problem with the whole argument. Apparently “we all know” who Stanley and Thomas are talking about. I’m not sure I could name them, though. Can they?

This is a problem with all the comment on this issue. There is, it would seem, a spectre haunting the historical profession. But that’s all it is: neither Thomas, nor Stanley, nor Richard Evans – who mentions the whole affair in a Guardian article here – deigns to give any examples of the young historians who, in the words of Stanley’s headline, have been drawn in by “the lure of the lamplight”. I genuinely don’t know who these people are. Apparently, “While the university lecturers do all the primary research, the trade press historians lift it as secondary evidence and scoop all the cash”. This is despicable! But would it hurt – actually, wouldn’t it just be good historiographical practice – to give us an idea who’s doing it? I only ask, of course, because if you told me that there were historians with an academic background who were giving us all a bad name, my thoughts might be more likely to turn to the likes of David Starkey or Orlando Figes, rather than the young ‘uns who dared to try abseiling down the ivory tower.

This is the other problem: for Stanley, the people who write trade paperbacks in history are seeking stardom. For Thomas, some are parasites. Beevor baulks at the figure of “the hated ‘tele-don'”, while telling us that “I believe that history books which are not based on a large measure of original research by the author are a waste of time, since they do not push the boundaries of knowledge forward”. Of course – all those schoolbooks and syntheses are a bloody nuisance, aren’t they? Give me The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485 any day.

Or not. Maybe – just maybe – the new crop of historians can see a value for history outside of common room. Maybe these people – a lot of whom are just a few years ahead of doctoral students like me – would rather speak to a wider audience not because they’re out to make a quick buck, but because they want a history that is truly popular. Maybe, like me, they believe that a work of history can only have minimal value if it cannot be explained and made interesting to a wider audience than the ivory tower mafia. And maybe they’ve looked at their elders – the increasingly reactionary rantings of Starkey and Ferguson, say – and thought that it might be time for the whippersnappers to roll up their sleeves and show how they think it should be done.

Before we finish, an aside on the articles by Beevor and Stanley. Is it possible that they may have jumped the gun, been only too keen to take the Indy article at its word? Not to suggest that I’d come top of the class for journalistic practice, but at least I did get in touch with Cahal Milmo (who wrote the first article) on Twitter, to ask if he could provide a transcript – because that’s what we’re meant to do, you see. Historians, faced with a quote, usually look at the context and interrogate the source to make sure they’re not being misled. In this case, Mr. Milmo kindly told me that, as the interview had taken place over the phone, there wasn’t a transcript available. When I asked him if Thomas had used the phrase ‘are damaging academia’, he didn’t reply. I’m certainly not suggesting anything he wrote wasn’t true, but when I read the piece I assumed that the quotes were part of a considered public pronouncement by a concerned judge of the Wolfson Prize; I think it does put a different spin on the whole thing when it turns out the source was a telephone chat. Perhaps Stanley missed Keith Thomas’ correction in the Indy of the 30th of May. Perhaps, though, as a journalist, he could have asked?

These few articles that have come out of the affaire Thomas all concede, in some way, that young historians are having it tough. More doctorates, fewer jobs. Pressure to write which comes at the expense of teaching – something dismissed by Stanley with the  multiply condescending assertion that “the vast majority of students go into academia to write rather than teach: we want to be Mary Beard, not Miss Jean Brodie”. Younger academics (not that the Indy, Telegraph, or the Guardian bothered to ask any) are trying new things in the face of changing times and a changing idea of what the historian should be. We can do better than knocking them down.

Advertisements

4 Responses to “Keith Thomas and the Decline of History: a few observations”

  1. The Chirurgeon's Apprentice July 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm #

    Well said. Thanks for sharing. Let’s make sure we post this anywhere and everywhere it is relevant!

  2. Robyn Grace November 29, 2012 at 10:38 am #

    Your link to Keith Thomas’s response is not working and I would love to see the source if you could possibly get it working?

    • earlymodernjohn November 29, 2012 at 11:27 am #

      Hi Robyn – it’s working for me at http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/letters/letters-all-equal-subjects-of-a-monarch-7800885.html, though it’s a ways down the page. Here’s the whole text:

      “In your leading article of 9 May, you say that “according to the chairman of the Wolfson History prize there is no decent history being written because the younger generation is jazzing up its work with one eye on the best-seller list”. I discussed present-day historical writing in a telephone conversation with your chief reporter, Cahal Milmo, but I certainly did not make the preposterous suggestion that “there is no decent history being written”. On the contrary, the judges for the Wolfson History prize nowadays have more excellent works from which to choose than ever before.

      Mr Milmo informed your readers in a news report that I believe that “the pressure to achieve a public profile is damaging for academia” and “risks undermining the status of academic study”. Again, that was not the implication of what I said. I merely expressed regret that some young academic historians were attempting to adapt their work to a genre for which neither it nor they were well suited, a view endorsed by Antony Beevor on the same page. I greatly welcome attempts in books, television and other media to encourage public interest in history.

      Sir Keith Thomas

      All Souls College, Oxford”

      • Robyn Grace November 29, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

        Brilliant thanks!!

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: