Posts Tagged ‘What historians do’

Hindsight, it’s a wonderful thing

21 September 2010

By Kevin O’Sullivan

‘Governments, consultancies and investment banks rushed to hire economists, who were thought to possess vital skills and information. Historians, by contrast, were treated as mere entertainers and storytellers. They were archive-grubbers, lacking in scientific method – good on television, but useless with a PowerPoint and no help in government or the boardroom.’

A tad simplistic, a little provocative, Gideon Rachman’s comments in the Financial Times on the difference between historians and economists – he’s on ‘our’ side – have stuck in my brain. And not just because of the conversation they sparked in that august journal and across the blogosphere.

About a week ago, I gave a paper at a symposium organised by the Development Studies Association Ireland, the lone historian among a cohort of social scientists, economists, aid workers, natural scientists, aid officials and bureaucrats. Great company and a great audience to test some of the theories of my current project – the history of Irish foreign aid, in 15 short minutes. But I could see it in their eyes, and I could hear it in the question of one audience member: yes, this is all very well and a nice little story too, but what does it tell us about aid giving in the recessionary climate of 2010?

Well, quite a lot actually, I replied. But just what is not the point of this post. Or, rather, it is. Read More

What use are historians anyway?

9 August 2010

By Kevin O’Sullivan

It’s been a tough few months for history. In June, Diarmuid Whelan, lecturer in international politics at UCC, died at the age of just 37. The following month Peter Hart passed away in Newfoundland. And on Friday 6 August the profession lost Tony Judt, professor of European Studies at New York University, author of Post War: A History of Europe since 1945 (2005) and frequent essayist for the New York Review of Books, The New Republic, the TLS and the London Review of Books.

They left many friends, co-travellers, correspondents and discontents among history circles. Yet their work was also vitally important to a world beyond the gated communities of academia. Whelan’s searches through the Owen Sheehy-Skeffington collection in the National Library unearthed Peter Tyrrell’s Founded on Fear, a memoir of his life in Letterfrack Industrial School in the 1920s and 1930s and a vital contribution to the debate on child abuse in Ireland. The public view of Hart’s work may have, as one poster (Captain Rock) put it to Pue’s, ‘differed greatly from the academy’, but its findings and – most significantly – the debate it sparked were an important contribution to changing perceptions of Ireland and Irishness in the late 1990s. Judt’s contribution with Ill Fares the Land (2010) was a global one, but no less important to Irish society in its assertion that ‘something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today’. Read More