Letter to the Editor: Debating the "Global History of Britain"
Dane Kennedy, February 2013
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To the Editor:
Like a soapbox preacher, Gregory Barton ("Toward a Global History of Britain," Perspectives on History, October 2012) promises salvation to those poor souls who can't find jobs in British history. I suppose I should be flattered that he approvingly quotes a passage from my contribution to the now-dated NACBS Report on the State and Future of British Studies in North America (1999), but, instead, I am taken aback by the self-serving purpose to which it is put. According to Barton, British history's prospects for a happy future lie in the journal he edits and the society that sponsors it. Britain and the World and the British Scholar Society certainly deserve our appreciation for what they have done to promote British history. But Barton seems more intent in his essay on purging the ranks of British historians than promoting their cause.
For starters, he conflates British history with the "British World," a euphemism for the British Empire, especially its settler colonies. No mention is made of the many British historians who study the domestic history of Britain, a subject that evidently condemns them to insignificance. Even those who follow his preferred path to salvation, the study of British imperial history, have too often been led astray, so it seems, by misguided approaches. Barton complains that this history has been too preoccupied with "critiquing and nagging the past" (an odd objection against historical inquiry) and too immersed in "tired, old battles that only a few practitioners of 'new imperialism' or 'orthodox imperialism' care about" (by which he presumably means debates between imperial historians, not "practitioners" of imperialism). He pointedly warns against any "obsession with theory and criticisms of imperialism," suggesting he has particular objections to the "new imperial history," with its theoretical concerns and attention to issues such as race and gender.
So what sort of approach does he prefer British historians to adopt? It should be "a global history of Britain" that somehow manages the remarkable feat of addressing "the British past on its own terms" while simultaneously enlightening us about "the globalized world we live in today." He stresses that it must be "an optimistic approach to world history," not one with "complaints about the past." Only those who are willing to give unstinting praise to Britain's impact on the world are admitted into this promised land. Far be it for me to advise Gregory Barton on how to win converts to his faith, or even to attract readers to his journal. I would simply observe that his doctrinaire views on how to write British history aren't likely to help.
—Dane Kennedy, George Washington University
Gregory Barton responds:
I thank Dane Kennedy for responding to my essay. His letter confirms what I wrote about the state of British history today.
Kennedy believes that my suggestion to quit "nagging" about the past is "an odd objection against historical inquiry." He also believes it is a "remarkable feat" to try to address the British past on its own terms. I would suggest it odd to justify one's profession on the basis of "nagging" and odder still to characterize an attempt at objectivity as a "remarkable feat." Rather, I argue that historians should identify new and important patterns and causalities from the past instead of using history to confirm what is already believed—often the repetition of simplistic ideological slogans from a media elite.
Increasingly fewer students are interested in taking courses that are mere talking points for sermons on race, gender and class. Why would students sign up for a course on Jewish history only to face an anti-Semitic screed, or a course on African American history only to be denigrated by an anti-black racist? As a gay man, I would never take a gay history class by a confessed homophobe. In the same vein historians need to shut off the spigot of race hate against Europeans. History is not a critique or celebration of peoples—it is an analysis of trends and patterns and causalities from the past. Students will take British history in droves if we would teach it fairly and objectively. It comes down to a simple matter of civil rights. British history is not an exception to the rule of fairness and balance. Everyone deserves fair consideration. Every person, male or female, gay or straight, of any race.
Kennedy misreads another point. The British World model of history does not mean only the empire and settler societies—it includes any part of the world that has interacted with Britain. This obviously includes British domestic history, just as the "British" in NACBS may also refer to imperial history. Are we purging domestic history? Hardly. Kennedy needs to re-read my essay.
Kennedy also imputes personal motivation to my actions, namely the promotion of a journal and book series. Are we to infer that the NACBS is desperate for members because its president has responded to my article? How silly.
Finally a word about language. The Christian-themed mockery throughout Kennedy's essay rather gives the game away. It's time we cleaned the stables and flushed out prejudice of this sort.
I look forward to more reasonable debates in the future.