This week we look at the study of history…
The ‘Academic Spring’
As you may have noticed, the study of history falls into two wildly polarised and deeply entrenched categories: the world of the academic and that of the amateur, respectively. Respect, though, hardly enters into it. On the one hand we have the professors of this-and-that spouting forth from their ivory towers, and on the other we have the keen and unpaid part-timers with their untutored and ‘popularist’ ways.
Each camp is – traditionally, almost – suspicious and damning of the other. Will it ever be possible to bring the two warring parties together? The answer, it seems, may be ‘yes’ – for things could be about to change.
The rift has lain across the whole of the English-speaking world for decades. I couldn’t describe the situation better than this clearly-written (and non-academic) piece by Ian Willis, Honorary Fellow at the University of Wollongong, Australia. To his credit, he highlights a burgeoning air of conciliation in his closing paragraphs.
An infinitely more cutting piece is provided by the American, Scott Aaronson, in his review of a book called The Access Principle (OK, it’s a few years old, but that matters not). It’s a great write-up, with a wonderfully sarcastic opening salvo.
Inevitably, blogging also gets its oar in – as discussed in this post by Latvian academic, Anastasija Ropa. She beats around the bush a bit, but gets there eventually – and makes some good points.
website has even got in on the act with a short article on ‘Public History’ by Anna Whitelock and a related podcast (49mins
20secs in), in which a call is made for the effective articulation of academic research to a broad, public audience.
Crucially (and to at last get to the point), this upsurge of opinion has found official form in this week’s announcement by the UK’s Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts, which outlines plans to enlist the help of Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, to devise a way of making all taxpayer-funded academic research available to everyone (for free). It’s an astonishing development. Read all about it on The Guardian’s website.
So it seems like we may be getting somewhere at last. Could this so-called ‘Academic Spring’ be followed by a long, hot summer of co-operation, mutual support and, dare I say it, respect between the paid professional and the hobbyist amateur?
P.S. Do readers think that academic and amateur historians can learn from the world of genealogy/family history, where those of all abilities seem to get along so much better? Or do they? Please comment below.
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