Having read Pat Thane’s article on the suitability of historical comment on current affairs, I’ve found that I agree with her 100% of the way. After David Starkey’s comments surrounding the London Riots, the question of whether a historian has enough knowledge and insight to voice an opinion on a current event has been raised, and I am completely against the whole ‘the historian should live in the past’ theme.
Being a university student in today’s political climate I feel that (even though I am a historian) I am more than entitled to voice my opinions on the issues that are going on right now, whether they affect me directly or not. Why, because I love the history of Ancient Egypt, should I be stopped from protesting against the rise in tuition fees or commenting on the events in Libya?
As Pat states, historical events can even be used to explain why present situations may be occurring and looking at failures or successes that have been and gone may help us to prevent or encourage the solutions which may solve the problems we face daily. Historians are surely needed to provide context, and their opinions are just as valuable as anyone else’s in society. We don’t find anyone else being discouraged from making comment but a certain minority believe that if the past is all we study then we have no entitlement to an opinion on the present.
Most of us read newspapers, watch television, ‘blog’, ‘tweet’, ‘facebook’ and even more importantly talk to people (other than the ghosts of the past). Knowing what is going on in the world now is just as (if not more) important as what happened in the past, and I’m not willing to step back from arguments just because I enjoy learning about our heritage.
But I whole-heartedly agree that we have to comment within the right context. There is no point comparing the present day to a past event if there are no links or our facts are just plain wrong – we only make ourselves look stupid and the argument invalid. Using the past as justification for what is going on is perfectly acceptable, as long as we acknowledge that the current events may have slightly different motivations or circumstances. Not every event will be exactly the same as something that has already been and gone and the little details have to be taken into account. Of course. Research into the present is probably one of the most important things I am learning at the minute – the situation in Libya obviously has roots in the past, but if I don’t understand what’s happening at the minute, then how I am ever to gain a full picture of the problem – from start to finish?
Comments without thought behind them are made all the time – a common human fault! But when someone so high profile as Starkey states something that has no real relevance to the present day (or just makes no sense whatsoever!) then I guess I can understand why the ‘should historians make comment?’ question has arisen. Research and understanding is a valuable thing – and as a historian Starkey should know this – but one person’s faux pas should definately not be allowed to throw every historian into the fire. (Don’t let me start on the stereotyping issue – I could go on forever!)
Historical insight is a wonderful thing. It can provide answers and help prevent mistakes from happening again; as Pat says ‘historians can put current events into a more accurate context: challenging hyperbole, resisting the tendency to treat the latest crisis as unparalleled, and highlighting what is really distinctive’. But insight and knowledge has to be used correctly and the current situation understood well enough for comparisons to be made to the past. It’s a tricky thing to get right, but when it happens the impact could be enormous. Research guys. It really is everything.
Pat’s article can be found at http://www.historyextra.com/blog/opinion-should-historians-comment-current-affairs. Please take a look. I think it’s an excellent read. A total must!