The Relevancy of Historical Topics

When we first set up this website, one of the major complaints from some of the members of the steering committee was that in the coverage over the economic meltdown in late 2008/2009 there was little historical context given. There was almost this sense of wonder that the ‘business cycle’ still existed, that outside of the oft-cited Great Depression and a few other issues, that this was unprecedented and a surprise. Labour and economic historians, however, often speak of the business cycle in their work and lectures, but this was largely lost in the coverage which was dominated by economists.
All fine and good, and I think it gave us some inspiration to get this site up and running. But then we decided that we wanted to post a paper on these issues, and here is when we ran into some trouble.
There simply aren’t many historians who study these topics anymore. This was put fairly starkly to me in a conversation with a senior historian at York University, as we went through the list of faculty that Active History might contact. There certainly were a few, but you could almost count them on one hand. We’ve been in touch with some of them (and if you’re reading this and feel like you could contribute on this angle, please e-mail us). So this, I think, leads us to the bigger question. Do the topics that we, as historians or aspiring historians, choose help accentuate the gap between the public and the academic?
Certainly it’s a critique that’s been levied, both in the infamous ‘History Wars’ of the 1990s here in Canada (what was it, nursemaids knees or something), but certainly down in the States as well. In the most recent Atlantic Monthly, actually, David Frum introduced his article on the 19th century Mugwumps (if you’re curious, you can read his article here):
They say history is written by the winners, but in the United States, at least, that is not true. Losers like the Confederacy, the 1930s Communists, and the 1960s New Left have received good press. Winners like the great industrialists of the 19th century and the American conservative movement of the 1970s? Not so much. (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/201001/mugwump)
I’d argue with the specific merits and examples used in his statement, mainly because I study the New Left and have studied early Canadian socialists as well, but it speaks to this broader issue. Even in the Sixties literature, for example, we normally think of the New Left, student radicalism, counter-cultural hippies, free love, etc.; even if this directly affected only a small minority of even young Canadians at the time. It’s worth noting, for example, that 88% of Canadian youth in the 1960s were NOT attending universities, but were mostly working for wages. When we think of the Sixties (with a capital S), we rarely think of the Medicare Care Act (1966) even though that continues to dominate political, economic and social questions down to this very day! Are we not speaking to enough issues, and is this inhibiting historians broader relationship with the media/public?
Personally, I don’t think historians should have to change their topics. But I’m largely indicting myself here in this post, as the process I study in my own work is perhaps not going to stir the attention of the mass-Chapters market. So what do you think? Are our topics relevant? Do we have more of an obligation to cast our historical nets wider?

When we first set up this website, one of the major complaints from some of the members of the steering committee was that there was little historical context given in the coverage of the late 2008/2009 economic meltdown. There was almost this sense of wonder that the ‘business cycle’ still existed, that outside of the oft-cited Great Depression and a few other incidents, that this was unprecedented and a surprise. Labour and economic historians, however, often speak of the business cycle in their work and lectures, but this was largely lost in the coverage which was dominated by economists.

All fine and good, because I think it gave us some inspiration to get this site up and running. But then we decided that we wanted to post a paper on these issues, and this is where we ran into some trouble.

There simply aren’t many Canadian historians who study the economy anymore. This was put fairly starkly to me in a conversation with a senior historian at York University, as we went through the list of faculty that Active History might contact. There certainly were a few – and many of them are very accomplished (and busy) scholars – but you could almost count them on one hand. We’ve been in touch with many of them (and if you’re reading this and feel like you could submit a paper on this angle, please consider contributing). So this, I think, leads us to the bigger question. Do the topics that we choose, as historians or aspiring historians, help accentuate the gap between the public and the academic?

Certainly it’s a critique that’s been levied, both in the infamous ‘History Wars’ of the 1990s here in Canada (when a prominent historian accused social historians of indulging too often in studies of milkmaids’ knee [quick correction: actually housemaids’ knee, as Christopher Moore pointed out], to use an oft-quoted point among his other criticisms), but also in the States. In the most recent Atlantic Monthly, actually, David Frum (the conservative Bush speechwriter and frequent contributor to the National Post) introduced his article on the 19th century Mugwumps (if you’re curious what on earth a Mugwump was,you can read his article here):

They say history is written by the winners, but in the United States, at least, that is not true. Losers like the Confederacy, the 1930s Communists, and the 1960s New Left have received good press. Winners like the great industrialists of the 19th century and the American conservative movement of the 1970s? Not so much.

I certainly disagree with most of what Frum stands for, and I’d further argue with the specific merits and examples used in Frum’s statement (Are they losers? What’s wrong with studying losers, if they were?), but it speaks to a broader perception in any case. Building on Frum’s argument, I’ll use a brief example from my own field of sixties literature. When many of us think of the Sixties, for example, we normally think of the New Left, student radicalism, counter-cultural hippies, free love, etc.; even if this directly affected only a small minority of young Canadians at the time. It’s worth noting, for example, that 88% of Canadian youth in the 1960s were NOT attending universities, but were mostly working for wages. When we think of the Sixties (with a capital S), we rarely think of the Medicare Care Act (1966) even though that continues to dominate political, economic and social questions down to this very day! Historians do work on these topics, but in their own fields, often disconnected from other avenues of inquiry. Does this inhibit our broader relationship with the media/public? This question has been raised by some historians, such as in a fascinating talk I’ve heard by Dimitri Anastakis, carrying on themes raised in his anthology on the Sixties.

Personally, I don’t think historians should have to change their topics – we need to be passionate about what we write. But that could just be self-serving, since I’m not writing for a popular audience (although my prose has been sometimes described as ‘journalistic,’ this isn’t necessarily the aim of a doctoral dissertation). I’ve also only met one person who explicitly thinks that their topic was useless and contributed nothing to society, although I’ve also heard this nagging doubt cited as a reason for people losing interest in their doctoral programs. Personally, I think my topic is useful – but it certainly doesn’t get everyday people gasping with excitement and interest.

So what do you think? Are our topics relevant? Do we have more of an obligation to cast our historical nets wider? Is this completely off-kilter? I look forward to your comments as always.

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