Thursday, February 18, 2010

History and Relevance

Andrew Smith draws our attention to Ian Milligan's query at Active History about the relevance of historical topics -- "Do the topics that we choose, as historians or aspiring historians, help accentuate the gap between the public and the academic?" Smith offers a slew of his own suggestions.

Milligan writes, "I’ve also only met one person who explicitly thinks that their topic was useless and contributed nothing to society." I'm tempted to suggest this proves there are quite a few deluded grad students out there. But in truth, it's never seemed to me that relevance should be a high priority for all scholarly research. If trade publishing markets provided all the history we need, we would not need university history departments at all.

What we need more of from academic scholarships, I'm inclined to think, is more unorthodoxy and less of each generational cohort applying the same fashionable methods and theories to the same kinds of fashionable questions and issues. That a historical tempest-in-a-teapot from the 1990s is still remembered as a "History War" suggests how much little liveliness and debate Canadian historical scholarship actually nurtures. (Actually, Milligan misquotes the key reference in that story. It's "housemaid's" knee, not "milkmaid's knee." The whole phrase was "the history of housemaid's knee in Belleville," and since I was the first to publish the quotation, in a profile of Jack Granatstein in The Beaver in 1991, I want to have the record put straight.)

But this little exchange on historical relevance was fresh in mind when I read of another group offering to plan a program of events for "Canada150." Canada150 is the century-and-a-half anniversary of confederation in 2017. They are holding a blue-ribbon conference on the subject in Ottawa in March. And it seems from the program that historians are thin on the ground.
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