Skip to content

Academia: The Lure of the Limelight

June 24, 2012

Tim Stanley in History Today:

Too many young historians are quitting academia for the fool’s gold of trade publishing. That’s the view of Sir Keith Thomas, chairman of the Wolfson History Prize, who denounced the brain drain in May. He identified a worrying ‘tendency for young historians who have completed their doctoral thesis to, rather than present it in a conventional academic form, immediately hire an agent, cut out the footnotes, jazz it all up a bit and try to produce a historical bestseller from what would have otherwise been a perfectly good academic work’.

We all know of whom he speaks: those beautiful historians who graduate from PhD to Penguin to BBC with indecent haste. The academics that get left behind, says Thomas, enter into a ‘parasitic relationship’ with the stars of the field. While the university lecturers do all the primary research, the trade press historians lift it as secondary evidence and scoop all the cash. Over time the nuanced work of the academic becomes undervalued and overlooked, locked up in the library of some ivory tower. Meanwhile the trade press authors mature into recyclers of tired cliches.

Thomas has identified a real problem, but he’s only half right about the source. On the one hand the lure of fame and money is great. On the other hand any person with eyes can see that it’s a myth. (…)

Historians like me are drawn back into universities because we appreciate their collegiality. Researching as part of a community – drawing ideas and critiques from others – is infinitely preferable to writing alone for an invisible mass market. But, if many young historians quit the academy for a shot at glory, it is because universities are overstretched institutions that demand too much for too little. For my generation, who got into academia when the funding was generous and the history market buoyant, life in a modern history department can be a breaker of dreams. [More]

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s