History’s bright young things?

By Lisa-Marie Griffith

History's bright young thingsI have always known there was a certain smugness radiating from The Observer but this fact was driven home at the weekend by a an article called  ‘They’re too cool for school: meet the new history girls and boys’ that claimed six Oxford and Cambridge graduates were finally making history cool (included in the piece are 6 pictures of these ‘young historians’ looking ‘trendy’). Their literary agent said of them: “They have brilliant new ideas, excellent writing and they’re exceptionally clever”- Well of course she would say that- she is trying to sell their books! Ok- I know what you are thinking: Yes- I grumbled that we were actually just jealous of Simon Schama and that we should be grateful because he is selling our industry for us BUT there was something especially irritating about the lot that greeted me when I opened The Observer at the weekend. So, with mixed feelings and reluctant to feel like a hypocrite, I asked around to see what others thought.

I was reassured that they do seem rather irritating especially as the author of this piece claimed they would fix the history discipline by making the British youth interested enough in history to take it up in school. The only problem in their master-plan, the literary agent complained, is that ‘they might be “too pretty” to be taken seriously’ in their attempt to do so. This particularly irked me because these people are young and presumably wealthy- of course they are pretty! Why is that worth mentioning? To reiterate the point that they they were out to make history more popular with the kids and they sought to rival ‘men of a certain age’ wearing ‘Dusty tweed’ and sitting ‘in ivory towers’ they were fashionably dressed in the accompanying photos.

My main problem with the piece is the way these history graduates are being represented by this journalist and the literary agent quoted in the piece. Can history be saved by these 6 individuals and does it need to be saved as this journalist suggests? Rather then being the saviours of the history discipline are they not just the next generation? As the younger generation of historians are they not just rallying against the older by questioning the material being studied, methods of investigation and how material is presented. This can be seen across all disciplines and in all professions and is the natural order. They will replace the old order and then become established and when they do there will be a younger generation to grumble that they have become stale, boring and dull. I also think that some of their publications to date, including the biographies and A History of Pineapples and A history of the English Peasants’ Revolt, while interesting are not ground breaking and going to change the world of history so what is it trying to say?

This piece does seem like it is written by a journalist for a literary agent in an attempt to sell some history books for those not yet established enough to rival the more established Starkey and Montefiore. It most be noted that both of these historians mentor the group. Is this just prominent Cambridge and Oxford historians pushing their favourites into the limelight?

Before I am forced to resign my position as an editor of this blog for the over-use of exclamation marks, I would like to say I would be interested to know if these historians are happy with how they were portrayed in this piece. Is there something more to this than I can see?

I will have to admit it may just be that as historians closer to my age are being put in the public eye I am suffering from Schama syndrome that I complained last month all the other green-eyed historians had.

To be continued…

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5 Responses to “History’s bright young things?”

  1. Ferenka Fred Says:

    How many people do you know who work in an ivory tower? It’s actually possible to a be a ‘cool, with-it, trendy young’ historian and be as divorced from reality as a ‘crusty’ old professor who still thinks he’s fighting the Wars of the Roses. The article was a puff-piece and again the actual practice of eh..teaching is written off as getting in the way of writing. It does of course, but that’s not the point. Anyway, where the Observer goes the Irish Times will follow so you may await a feature on Ireland’s bright young things soon.

  2. Juliana Says:

    Interesting point regarding teaching…although popular books are one way of exciting youthful minds about history surely teaching is also a point of consideration.

    Agreed with Lisa that there seems nothing particularly remarkable about any of their careers aside from the privileges they have had and the fact that at least some of them must be good writers. Or good enough to convince a literary agent to take them on. As an American I find the fixation with Cambridge and Oxford in Britain and Ireland interesting. And of course parallel to the American fixation with Harvard. A degree from a particular university seems to be taken as a certificate of the importance and value of your work. I wonder if this is because people are rather lazy and shy about making their own assessments. Is this a kind of ‘research assessment exercise’ for the general public where Oxford and Cambirdge get all the points and every other university gets none? Or maybe as an ignorant American I am unaware of how utterly superior a Cambridge or Oxford education is to any other university in the world.

  3. Ferenka Fred Says:

    A good lecturer also learns from their students; current opinions, the prevailing view of certain events etc; and its important that lecturers don’t recycle the same old shite for 20 years but actually keep up with new work and make sure their students know about it. Teaching can be a pain. Students are often frustrating. But it remains the reason why should expect the taxpayer to keep paying us, not our occasional article in IHS.

  4. Kevin Says:

    My main bugbear with the Observer piece is its frivolity, its ‘lets fill some space up and pick a few people from a tiny pool looking for a bit of promotion’ (I don’t blame the authors they picked in the slightest – except for the photos; bad idea). Has history not apparently died a thousand times before? Do history books not still sell? Is it not the more traditional history that sells rather than the quirky histories? (Is the latter really radical – see Kurlansky’s book Cod, for example). Are historians not allowed to use iPhones? Next thing they’ll be telling us we can’t blog either!

    Agreed with Juliana re the fixation with Oxford and Cambridge. There are plenty of other great historians out there, younger, trendier (better dressed?), though possibly based in Cardiff, Manchester, Cork, Galway, Dublin, Limerick, Belfast or Maynooth. But then we all agree that some (not all by any means) journalists tend to be lazy and that publicists are, well, good at their job and when the two meet such articles are born. Nor do the literary agents (can I have one of those?) and figures like Starkey and Montefiore do any harm in getting the leg a few rungs up the ladder.

    Still, what is interesting about the article is the apparent perception of historians. It’s like Juliana’s earlier blog here on history students having the most sex in Oxford, or my piece a few days ago about perceptions of how much money lecturers make. Maybe that’s something we should think about. I certainly think we should be careful about where we direct our criticism here; it’s not the historians’ fault that they are presented in this way, and is certainly good publicity for their books. They may appear to us to be just normal historians, but to those from outside they are certainly a million miles from tweed jackets and elbow patches.

    @Fred: I’m completely agreed re the teaching. It is the core of what goes on in history departments, the reason the students are there in the first place and I do believe that it should be a dynamic process as you suggest.

  5. puesoccurrences Says:

    I am not sure the claim that history is in decline rings true. Its certainly not true here where history books are always in the top ten bestsellers for christmas and do very well all year round. Some historians have very successfully married their career in ‘pop history’ with their academic career. History is one of the most popular subjects to study during an Arts degree and is the most popular Arts subject to do at postgraduate level. Look at how many mature students come back to study History rather then English. I have always thought the Uk was similar. Look at the history programs and historical dramas the BBC pumps out. If the subject is in decline in their secondary schools what is this in comparison to and what level is it in decline? There is always less of a take-up of history for the leaving cert when history becomes optional because the skills learned by studying history are not sold.

    For people who claim to be inspired by their history tutors at school they are very reluctant to go down that route and be ‘dragged down by constant paperwork’.

    Not to sound like a stuffy old historian but I think you are right Kevin- it is the frivolity of the piece that is particularly annoying! The comment at the end was particularly difficult to get through: ‘when you look at a historian you’re being offered a brand and people expect you to share your lives with Twitter updates and Facebook postings, as well as your findings in your books’. Really- twitter? Who wants a historian on twitter…?

    Maybe I am just proving their point by being stuffy and taking this all to seriously.


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