Seven reasons historians are failing to inspire the next generation

 In General

We are in the second year of the First World War centenary, and, for me, this should be a period of time where historians do everything in their powers to educate, inform and inspire the general public, especially children and teenagers, to take an interest in a very special part of our history. However, for all of the books, programmes, lectures, discussions and debates that are being churned out, I get the distinct feeling that it is not quite turning out that way…

Here are seven reason why I think mainstream historians are failing to inspire the next generation:

One – Writing War and Peace… (Literally!)
Historians love writing a good epic. 950 pages in font size 8 seems to be the perfect way for these people to convey all they know about a given subject (and they know a great deal!) However, it is not what you know, but how you tell it that is important, and you don’t need to be Einstein to figure out that these kind of epics, though historically very impressive and thorough, will only appeal to geeks and other people who already have knowledge of the subject. They are not really written for the average chap (or chap-ess) in the street or the teenager who wants to get to grips with the subject for the first time.

Two – Attitude
To me, these massive epics actually seem to be written solely for the benefit of other academics. These books are so rammed with minute details of every miniscule thing they just seem to be a vehicle to show everyone how clever the author is. Not the best attitude if you want to engage and inspire the public, many of which are not holders of PhD’s.

Three – Are they missing the point?
By writing such massive, complicated pieces, I wonder whether many historians have actually forgotten what the point of history writing is – i.e. to educate and inspire the general public, regardless of their base line knowledge of the subject. It does make you wonder sometimes…

Four – Reading habits are changing
The way people (especially kids/teenagers) consume information these days has changed radically from the way we used to just ten or fifteen years ago. People demand the whole story in 140 characters, not 140 pages. The way history is written and told these days needs to change if it is to capture the imagination of the next generation.

Five – Have they lost touch?
The reaction from many historians to the recent J.Sainsbury’s Christmas advert has been drastically different to that of the general public. Many historians rubbished it for being cras, disgusting and not historically accurate, whereas the vast majority of the public loved it. Does this show that they have lost touch with the views of the very people they should be helping?

Six – Are they focussed on the wrong things?
Many historians get very excited and animated about popular books, programmes, apps, etc. that, (in their view) spread historical innacuracies and dumb down their subject. In reality does it really matter too much if the trench in the Sainsbury’s ad was too wide and too deep and too neat to be representative of a 1914 trench? In my opinion, no. What should matter is that 16.8 million people have seen the YouTube version of the advert. That’s 16.8 million people who now know the general story of the 1914 Christmas Truce. Surely that is a good thing?

Seven – Hidden Agendas
Often, mainstream historians have a bias where they believe a certain military leader or politician was good/bad/strong/weak/evil. Their writing can contain hidden agendas as they try to make the case for their own particular point of view. Sadly, because of this, you cannot always believe everything you read…

However, saying all of that, it is not all doom and gloom. Luckily there are a number of excellent alternative sources out there from different writers and publishers. Below is a small selection…

Great War Photos
The Great War 100
Imperial War Museum
Made From History

With the centenary of the First World War upon us, we (and by ‘we’ I mean historians, writers, broadcasters, journalists, publishers, teachers, lecturers, academics and parents) have the perfect opportunity to educate, inform and inspire the next generation to take an interest in this very special and important part of our history.

I hope we don’t miss the boat.

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