The Historian as a Public Intellectual

Recently I had the great pleasure of reading Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War. My review of that book – which takes a rather holistic approach – can be read on this blog. It has given me cause to think about the nature both of historical writing and how historians are perceived in the public sphere: whether, in other words, they can be ‘public intellectuals’ – that much overused phrase which somewhat lazy journalists use to denote academics who, in this view of the world, have apparently descended from the ivory tower to commune to the masses.

The book in question came under criticism from the moment it was published, from both popular and academic sources; these popular sources – mainly within the press, but also including politicians from time to time – often criticise historical works for reasonably inconsequential reasons. In Margaret MacMillan’s telling, a Canadian museum was criticised for being insufficiently patriotic in documenting the fate of those in Germany who met their ends during bombing raids carried out by Canadian pilots. The visceral attachment many feel towards history often justifies the possessive – ‘their’, ‘my’, ‘our’. It is therefore entirely understandable that nerves can very easily become strained when discussing these matters.

Returning to criticism The Pity of War and its author have received, however, it is evident almost immediately that many critics dispense with nuance entirely and criticise Ferguson personally. As a prolific journalist and commentator – one who is, according to a New York Times biography placed under one of his articles, ‘known for his provocative, contrarian views’ – such criticism cannot be entirely alien or unexpected. Nonetheless, the character of some of the attacks directed against Ferguson have been especially vitriolic in nature. (Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education, sparked a particularly combustible row last year over whether liberally-minded historians were deliberately traducing the service of British soldiers in the First World War.)

Returning to Ferguson, the London Review of Books published a particularly stinging review of his work Civilisation: The West and the Rest by Pankaj Mishra, which began with a comparison drawn between Ferguson and Tom Buchanan, the boorish, over-privileged, under-educated cad from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Such a comment seemed overdrawn and hardly apposite at the time, but the timbre of that particular instance of opprobrium has been replicated by very many indeed. The suggestion that The Pity of War in particular was animated by pro-imperial nostalgia has been dealt with, but innuendo of an unbecoming sort continues to be written about the author. (Gove’s suggestion of anti-war prejudice seeping into the historical debate was made especially important because of his status as the man who set the history curriculum in the nation’s schools. Many – and not entirely without reason – were worried that having such a willing ideological warrior in that office could spell disaster.)

Elsewhere in the public sphere, Ferguson’s career in newsprint has become the source of much reproval. His contrary style and intellectual panache served as the model for Irwin, a precocious and inspiring teacher in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. The character has a fascinating cleverness, a probing intellect which does not allow the cherished orthodoxies of his pupils to rest easy. This element of his portrayal is a positive one; there are, however, less pleasant aspects of Irwin’s character. Beneath the surface cleverness is a vacuum of sorts. The answers he provides and questions he answers are more provocative than stimulating, his observations more shallow than insightful. Irwin represents, it seems, a simulacrum of intelligence. The final nail in this particular coffin is the admission, weakly delivered, that he never actually got into Oxford; ‘I wasn’t clever enough’, he confesses sheepishly. This portrayal is not intended as a compliment, and Ferguson himself has acknowledged this. ‘Ouch’ – as Ferguson puts it – indeed.

Hector, a teacher in that play who is both paedophilic and shambolic yet somehow admirable, dismisses a particularly facetious comment by one of his students with the following statement of distaste: ‘It’s … flip. It’s … glib. It’s journalism.’ The latter adjective apparently embodies the former two in this case. Journalistic writing is, it has been said, seen by many academics as disposable and shoddily-sourced. While that perception is one which holds less water after one has spent any time in a newsroom, it is a widespread view. (Andrew Roberts and other historical writers – notably David Starkey and Tristram Hunt, now Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary – have had much success in cornering the market for media historians, ready to write either a book review or an opinion piece, or to appear on any manner of television programme, if the call comes.)

Some in academia – and other fields too, it must be remembered – take a less than complimentary view of the trade. Ferguson’s own prolific career in journalism, which first began in earnest in the course of his Ph.D. research in Germany in the late 1980s, has surely engendered the occasional jealous stare across the Senior Common Room. His book sales, as well as the carefully-made and high-paying contracts which preceded them, must inspire similar professional envy.

But there is a vital role for historians to play in public discourse. Roberts was an important voice, for example, in urging the government to react with force to President Assad’s chemical outrages in Syria; and the analogies he made – to Mussolini’s war crimes against the benighted Abyssinians – are still both pertinent and morally evocative two years on.

Returning to Ferguson, it can be seen that things are not always as gloomy as they sometimes appear in Britain. A New Yorker profile of the historian as a young man, it seems, is full of praise. Perhaps there is a cross-cultural element at work, too. As Ferguson himself writes of The History Boys when it had its Broadway run, ‘An Atlantic crossing had turned Bennett on his head. Far from seeing Irwin as the villain, my friend saw him as the hero.’ The same could be said of the man on whom his character was modelled.

Robert Boynton writes that

Ferguson was a charismatic teacher. One student recalls seeing a cadre of women and gay men swoon in the first few rows of a lecture hall as Ferguson launched a course on Weimar Germany with a multimedia assortment of Kurt Weill songs and Georg Grosz paintings.

One cannot but feel that some of the stridency in criticism comes more from jealously and personal dislike than solid historical scholarship. Perhaps many opponents of Ferguson – and other ‘media dons’, who can trace much of their place in society back to the great A. J. P. Taylor – cannot see past what the Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh calls ‘the sheer iridescent glare of success’.

1 thought on “The Historian as a Public Intellectual

  1. Pingback: When Historians Write About the Past, Are They Nearly Always Writing About the Present? | James Snell

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