By Chris Bennett |
Crafting a history PhD proposal that is both personally interesting enough to sustain your interest for three years and something an organisation might possibly fund is a process almost as convoluted as this sentence. Whilst putting myself through this ordeal, I thought it would be good to at least keep a hand in the historical sector. To that end, I took a part-time job giving tours around a castle. Not the most obvious application of a master’s in history, I grant you, but I have found it both rewarding and illuminating nonetheless, not least because it serves to illustrate the important role of the historian in educating the public.
This elitist divide between historians deep in archival study and insular discussion, and those actually engaged in informing the public in an engaging way is counter-productive
There is the common trope of the academic historian in their ivory tower, unconcerned with current events but willing to talk at length about the impact of aqueduct repair on provincial aristocracy in Second Century Gaul. This does have some basis in reality. No discussion of the public duty of the historian is complete without the obligatory G. M. Trevelyan quote: “If historians neglect to educate the public, if they fail to interest it intelligently in the past, then all their historical learning is useless except insofar as it educates themselves.” Nearly a century later, the same warning seems fall on deaf ears. Debates about popular history seem to rage every year with TV historians and historical fiction writers accused of that most unforgivable of crimes: ‘dumbing down’ to create entertainment for the masses.
This rather elitist divide between historians deep in archival study and insular discussion, and those actually engaged in informing the public in an engaging way is counter-productive. It may be a cliché to point out that a lack of historical perspective is partly responsible for much of the political upheaval of the past couple of years, but it remains a valid point. Heritage sites are one of the main sources of historical knowledge for the general public, and tours are therefore an excellent opportunity to educate people about local history and how it fits into a wider context. Engaging directly with people at these places also has an added advantage: a person who visits a site of historical interest is likely to have some degree of historical interest.
However, talking to people about history is not just a matter of educating them; there is a reciprocal element to it as well. Discussions with tour groups grant a greater understanding of how history is perceived by those whose history education often stopped at the age of 14. It is also a way of broadening your own horizons. Due to the increasingly specialised nature of academic study, an historian may have an incredibly detailed knowledge of Regency England, but would struggle to name which century Edward II was crowned. The man on the Clapham omnibus, however, has little understanding of the often arbitrary divisions between different subject areas or even between historical eras. One tourist was rather taken aback by my maniacal laugh after he asked me when the medieval period ended. In this sort of arena, therefore, a more general (and narrative) understanding of history is essential. This also helps put any personal research into a wider historical context, a necessity which is often neglected, particularly in microhistory.
Identifying oneself with people in history is a natural reaction, but is also at the root of much misunderstanding and misuse of history
People also have an emotional connection to certain historical events and characters, which often ignores the facts. One only has to look at the more histrionic reactions to the discovery of Richard III’s body in 2012, the only medieval English king to have his own fan club. Even figures more remote in time can provoke strong reactions. During one tour, I said William the Conqueror had dragooned every thief and rapist he could find across Europe and then thrown them at Harold’s forces. I also pointed out his claim to the throne was perhaps a little tenuous. A member of the group took exception to this, and said she was very much in favour of William as she came from Hastings. Identifying oneself with people in history is a natural reaction, but is also at the root of much misunderstanding and misuse of history. Academics are not immune to this vice and encountering this sort of obvious attachment is useful in prompting us to look for rather more subtle incarnations in our own work.
So use your historical qualifications. Go out and inform, educate and entertain. Ask not what history can do for you, but what you can do for history.
Also, on a purely selfish note, once people learn I am in the process of writing a PhD proposal they ask me what it is I am hoping to get funded. Explaining a PhD proposal in 30 seconds to a group of non-academics, whilst also collecting tour badges and thanking people for coming means I can now sum up three years of potential research in five words.