The Dartmouth Observer

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Sunday, February 22, 2004
Schama on contemporary historians

Columbia historian Simon Schama is accusing his fellow academics of making the subject dull by publishing works too full of "scientific data" and "obsessive footnotes." Says Prof. Schama: "History's adventure has become a bit lost...It's not as explosive or exciting as it used to be. What we need to recover is our reckless literary courage."

One of his critics, J. L. Nelson, misses the point when she says that "History is very much more diverse in the things it covers now...There are more people studying history - it's more popular than ever." Schama is making a qualitative and not a quantitative argument here. Sure, there may be more people studying History nowadays, but just what are they studying? What do they hope to achieve by publishing books that no one except a handful of fellow specialists read? Popularity is not a measure of quality; given the current state of the job market, it may not even be a good measure of how interested people are in the subject.

That said, the kind of history that Schama writes and advocates is not without its deficiencies. Popular historians - and Schama is no exception - frequently get stuff wrong and make things up. It's to be expected when you're rushing to meet a deadline and employ armies of graduate students to do research for you.

The bottom line is that historians have a dual responsibility: 1) to their material and 2) to their readers, who constitute not just academics but intelligent laymen as well. History, unlike, say, Chemistry, has a sizable public role: it supplies the material essential for democratic discourse, and thus cannot afford to become either overly academic, or overly populist.