Historians: Too Popular, Too Telegenic, Too Awesome? Reflections on Sir Keith Thomas and Popular Historians

Are historians too popular? That’s the question raised by a fascinating article from The Independent that I somehow overlooked while traveling around the conference circuit this May.

On the one hand, the article points out, things have never been better for historians. ‘In the past decade’, notes the piece, referring to industry sources, ‘sales of history books have increased by more than 45 per cent to nearly 5.4 million copies a year – more than double the rate of growth across the publishing industry as a whole.’ In the United Kingdom if not in the United States, the demand for historical documentaries seems to be quite healthy. Last spring, the scholar of financial and international history Niall Ferguson continued his streak of book-and-TV-series releases with Civilization: The West and the RestOxford historian Jane Humphries released an excellent hour-long program on the role of child labor in Britain’s Industrial Revolution last August. And while not technically a professional historian, British MP and author Rory Stewart came out with a two-part documentary on the great powers and Afghanistan last week. There would seem to be, in other words, a remarkably healthy upswell in both public interest in important historical topics as well as scholars willing to put on the hat of ‘TV don’ – academics who are able to follow in the footsteps of Oxford don A.J.P. Taylor in producing popular historical content. What’s not to like?

Are historians like Jane Humphries, pictured above, too popular for the discipline’s good?

Not so fast, says Sir Keith Thomas, another eminent Oxford historian best-known for his work on popular belief and religion in early modern England and, incidentally, the former President of Corpus Christi College, my home base at Oxford from which I write this blog post. Quoted in the article in The Independent, Sir Keith notes that there

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.

More than that, Sir Keith expressed his worry about what he described as a ‘parasitic’ relationship between actual professional historians – the types who actually learn obscure languages, traipse to archives in unglamorous locations, and produce learned works of novel scholarship based on that hard work – and popular historians who then mine that original scholarship for neat findings, hammer it out into a more popular, easier-to-read format, and pass off these other scholars’ advances in scholarship as part of their own research.

Sir Keith, who speaks from authority on these matters – beyond his own academic career, he is a judge for the Wolfson Prize, one of the major awards a British historian can win – expressed his worry that the push towards celebrity culture and fame over legitimate scholarship is leading towards the mediocritization of British historical scholarship. Too many young scholars, he frets, are trying to do the popular historian thing first – without actually learning how to write or research. The result? ‘We now read in excess of 150 books a year’, Thomas says with regards to being a judge for the Wolfson, ‘and a good number are neither one thing nor the other – they are not popular enough to gain a wide readership but neither are they sufficiently academic to interest many historians.’ After sharing the article on social media and discussing it with friends at Oxford, many of the same questions came up: is this actually a problem? And if so, what is causing it?

Is Sir Keith Thomas right that too many young historians are pursuing flashy but unsubstantive scholarship?

As an American historian at Oxford – and one in the double-outsider position of studying something (international history) that is quite fashionable outside of Oxford but much less popular within it – I have complicated feelings on Sir Keith’s take on young historians today. On one level, if I can put on my anti-English hat for a moment, I think that a lot of the problems that Thomas highlights – a turn from serious scholarship to television scholarship – represent a grave that English higher education, and more specifically the historical profession, has been digging for itself for a long time. There are a couple of issues at play here, I think.

Start with what undergraduates are actually taught before they even contemplate graduate study. Today as with fifty years ago, the undergraduate education in history at Oxford is wonderful if you’re interested in specific things: English, British Imperial, and Commonwealth history; Ancient History; Late Antiquity; and to a lesser extent French history. Undergraduates studying for history often get a wonderful education in subjects like early modern English history, and often come out of their education as better writers than their American counterparts, but products of the Oxbridge undergraduate history curriculum I have spoken to often express their frustration with their lack of language preparation, and what remains a very national focus in historiography at a time when, in this author’s view, some of the most exciting work coming out today is explicitly international in focus.

Consider a few examples. As I have highlighted in conference reports from trips to LSE and Belgrade, whether one looks at graduate students (Zhong Zhong Chen at LSE, who writes on PRC-GDR relations, or Julia Sittman at George Washington, who writes on relations between the East German Communist Party and the Iraqi Communist Party), or young professors like Jeffrey Byrne at UBC (Algerian history) or Ryan Irwin at Yale (transnational history of South Africa) are engaged in projects that are explicitly international in focus. Many of these scholars are comfortable in a range of languages, from English to German to Afrikaans to Arabic to Chinese, and are able to deploy these skills working in multiple archives.

But because of the limitations of the undergraduate history education, many Oxbridge graduates – however wonderfully they write – are already a step behind the Americans and Germans (Chen and Sittman grew up outside of Germany but are native speakers of German) by the time they graduate and begin to contemplate graduate study or a historical career. And I wonder: how much does this pre-determine career trajectories? As long as Oxbridge resists reforming its history curriculum to be more explicitly international, some of these D.Phil. and PhD students will be able to get jobs as JRFs or, perhaps, eventually fellows at Oxford … to continue teaching the same conservative English and Continental history curriculum. But it is going to be really, really difficult to catch up with younger scholars like (to cite another example from the LSE Conference) Masha Kirasirova, who are capable of doing projects involving Soviet, Arabic, and Iranian material.

International scholars are unpacking the lives of people like Karen Brutents, one of the USSR’s chief policy planners in Third World policy …

Faced with this, it seems to me entirely understandable why authors like Lucy Worsley would go into television and non-academic careers that focus on really, really English topics (Worsley is the chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that manages Britain’s unoccupied royal palaces, and produces documentaries on the history of British homes) that the Americans and Germans are unqualified to take on. Indeed, why would one attempt to go through the pain of learning the languages (which Oxbridge does not teach very well at the graduate level) and try to secure funding (which can be hard to secure) to go to places like Moscow in winter, or Algiers in summer, particularly when a student has been raised and basically expects to spend their entire adult life in London or the Home Counties? In this sense, while Sir Keith is definitely right to highlight an issue in English academia, in my view it’s crucial to focus on the institutional imperatives and curricula that incentivize these career paths. Encouraging more serious, international scholarship would require significant a re-imagining not only of the Oxbridge history curricula, but also, as Antony Beevor suggests, the criteria that British educational funding bodies use to assess researchers ‘success’.

… while the English produce more and more books on … country homes?

More broadly, the question is one of, as the wonderful Cambridge historian of Germany Richard Evans suggests in his 2009 lectures Cosmopolitan Islanders: British Historians and the European Continent, a broader engagement of British students with the history of the Continent across the Channel from them and, today, a 21st century globalized world. As recently as the 1960s and 1970s, Evans notes, British historians enjoyed a reputation equal to almost no other country’s historians for objectivity and literary quality. Historians like Theodore Zeldin or Robin Briggs on France, Evans, Ian Kershaw or (more recently) Christopher Clark or Adam Tooze on Germany, or Norman Davies and Timothy Garton Ash on Poland and Eastern Europe, were read in those respective European countries to an extent that is unthinkable for a Pole writing on, for example, the history of Wales.

But as Evans laments, more and more many of his students at a Cambridge are simply unqualified to write on, for example, German history. More and more Germans are coming to Cambridge to study with him, true; but thanks to education reforms that have made it easier to stop studying foreign languages at a younger age in the UK, many British students are just too far behind to be able to contemplate completing (as Cambridge demands) the PhD in three years. (And if that’s true, forget about writing a 750-page book, like Evans’ Death in Hamburg.) The result is a story of slow decline. If it’s institutionally difficult to find students capable of tackling French or German history on a substantial level, it’s even tougher to find students at British universities ready to tackle, say, the Horn of Africa or the Gulf (regions which would demand combinations of Arabic, Amharic, Tigrinya, Somali, Persian, etc. to treat fully) on a substantial level.

Richard Evans’ lament to ‘Cosmopolitan Islanders’ turning inward on themselves

What we’re seeing going on, then, is the contraction of British historiography into more and more UK-centric subjects: not a terrible thing in itself but certainly a retreat from what was a wonderful tradition, all the more tragic at a time when the UK is trying to re-invent itself as a country with global ties beyond just Europe. Not that the British are declining as writers: many of the books that have won the Wolfson Prize are beautifully-written. But look at what the subjects of recent winners are: Nikolaus Pevsner and English buildings; the landscapes of Britain and Ireland; the Pacific World in the 19th century; Russia’s war against Napoleon; and others. Notice a theme? While there are certainly bright exceptions in the historiographical topos (Tooze and Clark won the Wolfson several years ago), what you find in looking at the literature is an interest in, first and foremost, the UK and then, to a lesser extent, primarily political history of the usual suspects: France, Germany, Russia, maybe Italy. Granted, many British historians educated at Oxbridge like Mark Mazower and Daniel Sargent are out there producing great stuff on international topics (Mazower’s book is one I’m looking forward to greatly), but note that both Mazower as well as Sargent teach in the United States – part of a problem of the UK’s best migrating to the States, as Beevor comments in his article.

British historiography’s omphaloskeptic future? British historians worry about the turn to tele-dons; I worry about navel-gazing.

What to say in sum? While I share Sir Keith’s concerns about incentives in British academia, I’m ultimately more sympathetic to the critique that scholars like Beevor and Evans make of the situation for historians in the UK. Working within the situation we have, it has to be said that with the rise of the Web there are, thankfully, plenty of opportunities for serious historians to expose plagiarists or celebrities like Orlando Figes, who was recently (and justly) exposed as having doctored sources or used non-existent sources. Serious scholars like Stephen Cohen and Peter Reddaway were able to take down Figes in an article in The Nationand it bears noting that Figes’ entire downfall from self-appointed master historian of Russia was precipitated in large part by his own posting unfair critiques of Robert Service and Rachel Polonsky on … Amazon.com. The flat structure of the Internet, in other words, makes it easier for serious scholars like Evans and Thomas to advance the discussion and create spaces for mentoring and conversation through online platforms. In the longer term, however, there are real problems with the way British universities and the UK’s educational system thinks about how to study history – problems which are contributing to the country’s slow decline as a place where serious historical scholarship is produced, if also its rise as a producer of television documentaries on … English history. Oh, England.


One thought on “Historians: Too Popular, Too Telegenic, Too Awesome? Reflections on Sir Keith Thomas and Popular Historians

  1. Tony Grafton

    Oh England, indeed. Great post. The change from when I was a student–when Hugh Trevor-Roper, a man of many languages, was Regius Professor, and the coming early modernist, a man of even more languages, was Robert Evans, is pretty dramatic.

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