The Historian as a Public Intellectual

This is a cross-post by James Snell

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.)

Do read the rest of James’s post here