Margaret MacMillan ends The Uses and Abuses of History with a trite phrase: “In the end, my only advice is to use it, enjoy it, but always handle history with care” (187). I agree. But how, exactly, could you not?
There is little in The Uses and Abuses of History that hasn’t been said before with greater depth and detail. Herbert Butterfield articulates calls against simplifying history, making moral judgments, or imbuing history with a false sense of progression far more eloquently in “The Whig Interpretation of History” (1931)—required reading for most history students, and not at all inaccessible for the average reader.[*] Not that repeating Butterfield is a bad thing; his words do bear repeating.
Just not, perhaps, the way MacMillan does. Take the following: “When people talk, as they frequently do, about the need for “proper” history, what they really mean is the history they want and like.” (127)
With that in mind, what are we to make of this?:
It is particularly unfortunate that, just as history is becoming more important in our public discussions, professional historians have been largely abandoning the field to amateurs. The historical profession has turned inward in the last couple of decades, with the result that much historical study today is self-referential. […] Already much of the history that the public reads and enjoys is written by amateur historians. Some of it is very good, but much of it is not. Bad history tells us only part of complex stories. […] Professional Historians ought not to surrender their territory so easily. (35-36)
The problem, to me, is that popular history is the history “they want and like.” Whether a professional historian writes such a history doesn’t affect its chance of reaching the public or shaking opinion. Popular history follows a form suitable for mass-market consumption. It’s entertaining, with the added bonus of being informative (we would like to think)–and so we read popular history without realizing we often read the work of a frustrated novelist spinning plots and characters out of sometimes sparse and often contradictory sources. In other words, the kind of history that appeals to a mass audience will not necessarily be “good history.” Good history asks too many questions. Good history forces you to think.
After the theoretical challenges posed by Hayden White and Keith Jenkins, responsible history no longer fits the models that have market appeal; to do so, historians would have to ignore post-modernism, the question of narrative order, the problems of sources. But it’s clear that MacMillan holds one form of history above the others, continuing a cycle historians have, in the last seventy years, been trying to break: “[f]urthermore, historians must not abandon political history entirely for sociology or cultural studies. Like it or not, politics matter in our societies and our lives” (37). To which I give my response: like it or not, culture and society have a great deal of influence on politics. The primacy of political history comes from the days when the upper class wrote history, and politics was their primary business. Like, for example, the days of Leopold von Ranke.
While it is instructive, informative and indeed fun to study such subjects as the carnivals in the French Revolution, the image of the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages, or the role of the doughnut in the Canadian psyche, we ought not to forget the aspect of history which the great nineteenth-century German historian Leopold von Ranke summed up as “what really happened.” (37)
The many problems with the phrase “what really happened”—that’s what historians contend with these days. It’s the reason why history as a profession has diverged from history as a practice. Reading The Uses and Abuses of History might give you plenty of examples of simplified history, but it skirts the debates that shape the historical field today, or flat out dismisses them.
“The Uses and Abuses of History: A Short Review” by Michal Wojcik is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.