Historians and the Public

The evidence for history’s immense popularity scarcely needs to be described: the huge interest in family history and tracing ancestors and the massive viewing figures for certain historians on television are all examples of a remarkable phenomenon. Some three-quarters of the British public are believed to engage in historical activities every year. Yet there remains a significant gap between the specialist and the public: knowledge transfer is not a simple process.

Professionals have to defend their discipline while also expanding the interaction and the links between themselves and the interested public. It cannot be denied that when the public engages with some historical representation, they usually reshape it and re-imagine it. A lifetime’s professional experience of talking to audiences about the significance of the Norman conquest of 1066 has provided me with vast experience of this interaction and a host of different interpretations of the event’s impact. 

Can history be an “applied” subject, or would trying to make it one compromise its academic value? It is “relevant” to policy-making in areas such as the war in Iraq, but also in relation to subjects such as the reform of local government and of pensions? History can be relevant not just because it is sometimes possible to learn from past mistakes, but because it imparts the sense of context and deepens understanding of belief systems. 

There is likewise the question of how history should be presented to the public. There is a common tendency to show the past as a comfortable and familiar place. Who has not visited an aristocratic home and found its history presented as a catalogue of family achievement, magnificent building and general harmony, when other sources will tell a tale of oppressive treatment of servants and tenants? Awareness of the past is thus often shaped by the institution doing the presenting, and by the traditions that shape the approach of the historians researching it. Specialists and members of the public alike should bear this in mind when studying the past.

David Bates, History Today, 2006


1. According to the text, history
A. is of no interest to the general public.
B. only interests people who wish to trace their ancestry.
C. only attracts TV viewers.
D. is of considerable interest to the general public.

2. Professional historians should
A. discourage people from taking an interest in history.
B. organize more TV shows.
C. have more contacts with the public while also maintaining a high level of expertise.
D. all of the above.

3. History can be of use to people in the present by
A. teaching them to repeat their ancestors’ mistakes.
B. telling them stories about the past.
C. bringing old traditions to life.
D. helping them contextualize traditions and systems of belief.

4. The text claims that
A. everyone is familiar with past history.
B. past history is best learned through visits to aristocratic residences.
C. we can only understand past history if we focus attention on the life of the poor.
D. none of the above.

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