In Defence of History (Richard Overy)

“Beset by the twin pressures of democratisation and ‘impact’, the study of the past faces an uncertain future. Richard Overy analyses the threats and offers hope that history will triumph

It is the year 2050. A bright young sixth-former is discussing her choice of university course with her grandmother. She is considering a degree in heritage studies.

“Is it really true that you did a course called history at uni?” she asks.

“Yes,” her grandmother replies. “It looked at bits of the past.”

“But what for?” asks her grandchild. “What was the point? Heritage studies is really useful. I want a job at a Heritage Trail agency when I’ve finished uni. History must have been so dead.”

Fantasy or the future? History today is at a crossroads; the debate about its “function”, its purpose, has sharpened. As an academic discipline it is under assault from two different, although related, directions.

On the one hand there is the “democratisation” of history – history as heritage, a commodity whose primary function is to entertain and inform. On the other there is governmental pressure to make history socially useful, contributing in visible ways to the gross national product while providing the taxpayer with some public display of its utility.”

Read the full story in the Times Higher Education, and also the Editorial ‘leader‘.

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