2014 is a hugely significant year in a vast number of ways for history. Not only is the referendum going to be hugely important in establishing a direction of travel for Scotland but, as historians, we know only too well other events will have already been set in motion and other issues will overtake it, no matter what the result on polling day.
I remember at university my counterparts in political studies debating over the issue of whether politics was dead. Today it seems the issue of 2014 for aficionados of antiquary is the question ‘is history dead?’
What, mighty you say, would make such a champion and advocate of historical studies say this? Especially in this year of historian Tom Devine being the first Scots Historian to be knighted in recent times. It is not meant as sensationalist, nor funeral pyre of the subject, moreover the sounding of a warning bell but and a much needed warning shot for the future. For history (like all humanities and arts) is under extreme threat. Two things are clear in my mind and need addressing if the discipline, community and development of history are to continue
Firstly the public need to be better engaged. Or, more accurately, maybe history needs to better engage the public. The poor uptake of historical fairs such as that arranged on the battlefields of Bannockburn is ample evidence of low public engagement with the subject. How do we square this with the growth of History Channels on TV? Some might say that is the problem with history- there is just so much of it. So for those who are engaged there is no easy entry point. Meanwhile for those not engaged, it looks a close shop. We need to do more to engage the general public in history. Moreover, we need to do it better. Lessons however can be learned. It is amazing to see how the science community has done this through community science projects which bring together micro action research feeding in to a much bigger project and allowing participants to see their role in in it and awaken an interest in Science. Participants are not mere recipients of information but are actively engaged. If there is one thing history should not be, it is a single monolithic beast. It needs to evolve and to do that it needs engaged people.
It is from Science itself that our second threat comes from. This is particular the case in terms of funding, government policy attention and thus influence. For years the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects have had an expediential growth in funding. Arts and Humanities have been side-lined. This was most evidence in a recent Commission for the government developing the youth workforce. The clear message was on promoting STEM subjects in schools. This history community along with arts and humanities colleagues need to quickly establish a narrative about what they can offer which is economically productive (including job creating in tourism, education and community) and which is internationally required (world wars have not happened for a number of reasons, one of which has been because of better understanding of other cultures, histories and values through history and associated citizenship education).
My rallying call for the last part of this year would be that the history community thinks hard about what it can offer and how it engages people with that message and offering. What does history bring to individuals, communities, countries and the world? Why is it of value? How can it be productive and, most importantly, what part do you play in promoting it?
Neil McLennan is an educator and author. He is the former President of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History