History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Popular history should not only encompass the twentieth century

Published: May 12, 2010 at 10:00 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

In many ways, the decade since the first issue of this magazine hit the shelves has been a great one for history.


Merely to glance at a list of titles published around the time of BBC History Magazine’s launch is to be reminded of the extraordinary depth of talent to be found among today’s historians.

In the spring of 2000, a keen reader might have had on his bedside Piers Brendon’s The Dark Valley, Norman Davies’s The Isles, Andrew Roberts’s life of Lord Salisbury or Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx.

For Christmas, he might have looked forward to the second volume of Ian Kershaw’s Hitler, Michael Burleigh’s moral dissection of the Third Reich or the final instalment of Robert Skidelsky’s great life of John Maynard Keynes – all of them now regarded as classics of the genre.

Yet a sceptic might answer that these titles reflect history’s greatest weakness. Of the seven books – all of which were garlanded with literary honours back in 2000 and 2001 – the great majority are set in the 20th century. Four are devoted to the era of the Second World War, and four are biographies.

True, the last ten years have shown our public appetite for history to be as strong as ever. From the vast queues at major exhibitions on Tutankhamen and the Terracotta Army to the acclaim for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the British public clearly retains an insatiable thirst for historical narrative.

And it is worth noting that this is far from a metropolitan phenomenon. When the Staffordshire Hoard briefly went on show at the Potteries Museum earlier this year, so many people descended on Stoke-on-Trent that they were forced to wait for four hours to get in.

But while our enthusiasm may be deep, it is also disturbingly narrow. My own area – the mid-to-late 20th century – has a strong commercial appeal, but if I had written a book on the 1850s or 1750s rather than the 1950s, I might have struggled to find a publisher, let alone an audience.

By and large, most modern readers seem to prefer the familiar and inspiring to the surprising and unsettling, which is why Amazon lists a frankly staggering 39,000 titles on the Second World War alone.

Both in subject matter and in style, history publishing has become a deeply conservative business. While a few iconoclasts, such as the medievalist Ian Mortimer, search for new ways of communicating with a broad audience, most academics have retreated to the ghetto of the monograph, leaving the wider field to the failed politicians.

Behind this, I think, lies a deeper problem. While the enthusiasm of school history teachers puts most academics to shame, generations of youngsters are being short-changed by an education system that seriously neglects our national history.

Figures collated by the Historical Association show that just three out of ten children study history to GCSE level, while half of all 12 year olds in the recently established academies study history for just one hour a week.

Disgraceful as these figures are, they do not tell the whole story. Those children lucky enough to study history focus overwhelmingly on the modern period and especially (cue drum-roll) the Nazis. The wonders of our national story are denied them; through no fault of their own, they are growing up in ignorance of their own history.

Almost unbelievably, we now have the first signs that this culture is seeping into higher education, too. But the press furore surrounding the University of Sussex’s recent decision to downplay English history before 1700 and European history before 1900 masks a more problematic issue.

In an age of looming budget cuts, many universities are bound to pander to student demand for courses on 20th-century history, which means earlier and supposedly more ‘difficult’ periods will inevitably be neglected. Should history teaching really be subject to the laws of supply and demand, though?

If I had my way, all students would be compelled to study medieval and early modern topics, as well as more recent ones. For in a society obsessed by the new, we need the long view more than ever.


History may not teach us ‘lessons’, but it should give us a sense of humility and a welcome corrective to arrogant present-mindedness. And as the readers of this magazine have known for the last ten years, a journey into the endless and impossibly rich world of the past is the most fruitful trip most of us will ever take.


Sponsored content