What is History Now? Synopsis

What is History Now? Synopsis

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

With scholarly insight, and an actor's flair, Felipe Fernandez Armesto set about the Herculean task of encapsulating the nature of history as an academic discipline, a popular pursuit and the human condition. Armesto took as his framework for the talk the title of E. H. Carr's important work "What is History", first published forty years ago. For Armesto, Carr's work is intriguing, but must of needs be viewed in light of the changes that have taken place over the past "forty interesting years."

Armesto sees four fundamental social and technological revolutions that have helped to create what history is now:

1) An egalitarian revolution, narrowing the gap between social classes, ages, genders, races, and almost all other social categories. The closing of these gaps has allowed historians to bridge them and to explore areas of interest once off limits to the discipline. Armesto also highlights the irony that as these social gaps have closed, the economic gap between rich and poor has widened.

2) A cultural revolution leading to pluralistic, multicultural societies, and the rediscovery of peoples and histories who were absent in the disciplines past. Historians have begun to accept that oral histories, mythic narratives, dance, and other non-literary genres are also part of their field of inquiry.

3) An epistemological revolution building on the cultural revolution, and posing a challenge to the historian. Post-modernism has been integrated into the discipline at all levels.

4) An information revolution in the form of the internet, television and other related technologies has provided for the dissemination of history on a scale never before seen. Not only is the professional field of history burgeoning, the number of non-academic historians has exploded as information becomes more accessible. In turn the results of this growing communities research are more easily disseminated to the public.

Armesto sees these four fundamental changes creating a moment in history - the "now" - when it is truly exciting to be a historian. Ironically, despite the growing numbers of people involved in the pursuit of history, Armesto feels that the results are not being well disseminated in schools, public policy, or other arenas where it might actually do some social good.

This, in essence, is what Armesto sees as "History Now." Carr's title, "What is History," was fundamentally rhetorical. A static question with a static answer, Carr's title implicitly states that the answers are to be found with historians. For Armesto, on the other hand, history is an ever changing and all encompassing discipline. Contributions are to be found in popular info-tainment and drawn from the physical and biological sciences as much as from the social and humanistic disciplines. The goal for those privileged to work as academic historians - and indeed it is a responsibility in Armesto's view - is to participate in the process of communication and reintegration of the professional and the popular. History is forever changing and the question can never be "What is History" but only "What is History Now."