I am a massive history nerd. I love the stuff. I can’t get enough of it. I loved the time I got to spend immersed in it in University, and I still enjoy dabbling in history with the books that I read. However, making a (traditional) career out of it isn’t for me; to live with History as a profession, I’d need to get a doctorate in it, and the process and the end results aren’t for me. To start off with, I’m good with being done with School; I think six years was enough. But the main problems for me are what being a professional, academic historian would mean: first, the ‘publish or die’ mentality isn’t one I can work with – I hate looking at a blank pages, knowing I have to fill them. Second, professional historians (from what I saw) have a hard time distinguishing between the professional and the personal – professional criticism is taken as personal insult, and animosities emerge and follow careers for years. No thanks. On both counts.
But, that doesn’t mean that I can’t keep my eye on the profession to see what the major trends and thought are. In recent years, I’ve become increasingly interested in how professional and academic history interacts with the public sphere. The dream for any professional historian is that they’ll become a popular historian, that is, that the general reading public will be so interested in what they have to say that they’ll buy their books. Authors like Pierre Burton are often viewed with envy (though he stumbles on respecting the academic historical conventions), but in recent years, historians like Margaret MacMillan have found a way to publish for the public while still holding to their professional rules.
Now, back when I was delusional and thought that a PhD was an option for me, I was shopping around for potential supervisors and was considering studying at the
. One of the luminaries at U of T that has a focus on British imperial history is MacMillan, so I knew about her and her work before my latest read, The Uses and Abuses of History, but I hadn’t read much of her work. However, The Uses and Abuses of History convinces me that I need to read more from her. University of Toronto
MacMillan’s work is a collection of lectures/essays on how history is understood and used by the general public. She touches on how we use history to construct our personal understandings of self, how politicians use it to further their own ends, and how it influences our daily lives in the most innocuous of ways. With a series of well reasoned arguments, MacMillan tries to get her readers to consider how it is they interact with history, how it is forced upon them by external sources, and how it pervades every aspect of their daily life.
For a quasi-professional historian, it was interesting to see how an expert like MacMillan views the pervasive nature of history in everything we do. At multiple points, I saw my own thesis reflected back at me (both in support and in condemnation), and I was able to conceptualize how much history impacts my daily life often without my conscious knowledge. I would imagine that, for a non-historian, this books would be equally informative on how much of their daily life is wrapped up in historical forces without their knowledge.
I think MacMillan’s take-away message from this work is to be critical – everyone should always consider the why and wherefores when their heart-stings are tugged at; critically examine why it is your emotions have become involved in a situation, and odds are you’ll find that there is some sort of historical basis for it, and with a little extra examination, you’ll often find that history is repeating, or will repeat, itself.
So, final verdict? I’d say you should read this book. As MacMillan points out repeatedly, politicians are frequent users/abusers of history; if for no other reason that to see how and why we should critically examine why we feel the way we do in response to politicians, this is a valuable read. But on a more personal level, this book opens a door into the reader’s subconscious (if you’ll allow it) that illustrates why we behave the way we do, and why we think the way we think. It’s a stunning set of revelations that benefit all readers, not just the historians and academics out there.