restricted access The Landscape of History: An Interview with John Gaddis
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Historically Speaking · February 2003 an ideal environment for very creative work. To be sure, a few historians manage to transcend the limits and inadequacies of that environment and still produce great books, but they do that despite their professional environment, not because of it. Yerxa: There has been considerable discussion in recent years about the question of popular versus academic history. In your volume, Felipe Fernández-Armesto describes what he sees as a separation ofthe historical profession from the public as something of a crisis. What is your assessment ofthe current state ofpopular history? Cannadine: This is another one ofthese questions that has been around as long as historians have been writing. Recall the debate in the 1900s as to whether history was an art or a science. Ifhistory was indeed a science, then it should stay within the ivory tower. But if history was an art, it should reach a broader public. So this argument has been going for at least one hundred years, and it will doubtless continue. It has been reinforced and re-ignited, I suppose, by the huge appeal of several very famous historians on the television, which makes that apparent polarity between academic and popular history seem even more marked. My own opinion is that it is a false dichotomy. An increasing number ofacademic historians do accept that they ought be writing not just for each other, but for a broader public audience and that history is part ofnational culture. Ifone ofthe ways ofdoing that is appearing on television in addition to writing books, then so be it; that is one ofthe mediums that we live with now. After all, ifone thinks ofthe most successful television historians—Simon Schama or David Starkey, or indeed Felipe Fernández-Armesto himself—those are all people with impeccable academic credentials and with academic jobs. So I think it is rather misleading to draw an adversarial picture of academics who are somehow doing serious research versus popularizers on the television. Back in the 1950s or 1960s, in the days ofAJ. P. Taylor or Kenneth Clark, there was a huge appetite for charismatic, scholarly performers talking about history. And that's still true today; the only thing that has changed is that there are more of them now—there are more television programs now—than there were then. In fact, we had a conference at the Institute of Historical Research in December 2002 on history in the media, and we got to discuss a whole set of these issues. Yerxa: What do you see as the greatest challenges for historical inquiry? Cannadine: In many ways the greatest challenges for historical inquiry remain what they always were: whether it is possible for historians, either in the universities or outside , to live in environments which tolerate freedom ofresearch, freedom ofthought, and freedom of expression. If one looks at the 20th century, it is important to remember that while in most parts ofthe West, history has grown and advanced and become an essential part ofnational life, in many nations elsewhere in the world, history has been one of the great casualties of war, tyranny, barbarism , and revolution. In many nations the presumption that there is a trustworthy historical account of life in an earlier time is something that cannot be taken for granted. We normally do tend to take that forgranted in the West. But elsewhere, for much ofthe 20th century, that could not have been taken for granted. So it seems to me that the most important danger to history is the danger that it actually cannot be practiced as a serious profession and that it cannot be part of national culture. There are still many repressive regimes which do not want to hear the truth about the past any more than they want to hear the truth about the present. Historians are people ofintegrity and passion, who stand for truth and for freedom, but there are still far too many places in the world today where both ofthose things are regarded as anathema. David Cannadine is Director ofthe Institute of HistoricalResearch at the University ofLondon. He is the author, most recently, ofIn Churchill's Shadow: Confronting the Past in Modern...