Saturday 5 May 2012

Something for the Weekend 8

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.

The BBC’s HistoryExtra 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?

Mick Southwick

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.

If you've an idea for the ‘Something for the Weekend’ feature, run it past me - I'd really like to hear from you. There is no need to be an expert, a published author, or qualified in any way. You just need to have something interesting to say – or maybe you’d like to promote a product, a research technique or even show off your expertise! And you can even give something a little ‘plug’ if you wish (a book, or whatever). Get in touch with me at . Oh, and it’s OK to be controversial!


  1. Hi Mick,

    I can really appreciate your post and your questions, "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?"

    In my humble opinion, in some cases yes and in some cases no. Just mention the words "hobby" and "professional" to a room full of genealogists and the scene may turn a tad ugly. The terms are apparently very devisive. And that's just among genealogists not including historians!

    There seems to be divide between amateurs and professionals in any given area of expertise. For historians and public history, I did a double take when I read an article in the current issue of The Public Historian titled "Passionate Histories: "Outsider" History-Makers and What They Teach Us". While the author was attempting to show how involved amateurs may be, he really missed out by labeling them "outsiders". You can read the full article here:


  2. Thanks for that, Heather - some good points. Ironic, too, that by following the link you gave in your comment you have to pay 12.00USD to access the full article! Hopefully, those days may be coming to an end.