On the same day, I read two separate news stories about the state of history that shocked me.
One was an article from The Economist, which complained that historians "are isolated in professional cocoons ... rather than bringing the past to light for a broader audience".
The other was a video from Indy Neidell, an American historian who examines the two world wars, explaining how YouTube had consistently withheld financial support from, and had reduced the frequency with which they promoted, his educational videos purely based upon the fact that they discussed war.
The purpose of these two media releases was to call for greater engagement with history by members of the public. If ever there was a time when people needed to be informed about the past, it is right now.
Also, it has never been easier for everyday people to access countless hours of high-quality history content only for free. Yet, why is there such a disconnect between this information and those who need it?
A world crying out for answers
Right now, the world is in a state of flux. The economic and military status quo that most of world was used to at the end of the 20th century is no longer.
It has been replaced by nervous uncertainty, which has fuelled the rise of various political groups and influential new figures in many countries across the globe.
And this is not just true in America: the changing positions of Russia, China, India, Britain and North Korea, have filled the pages and screens of major news outlets for at least the last decade.
In an atmosphere of uncertainty, people need to hear is that none of this is new and that hysterical, reactionary panic is not the answer. In fact, we need to know that changing centres of global power is historically normal, but that people have always used it to justify extreme political agenda.
Unfortunately, the high-pitched anxiety of media commentators leaves many people feeling like we are in uncharted territory, and that the only solutions are extreme ones.
The need for historical wisdom
This is where historians are most desperately needed. Historical experts have a wealth of knowledge about the past that can help us make sense of the present chaos. As the old proverb goes, "There is nothing new under the sun". Humans are creatures of habit, and we tend to revert to a number of common responses to anxiety and change, even on a national and international level.
People need to hear about how humans have responded to these same issues in the past. There are lessons to be learned - both good and bad - from all periods of history. The world needs to know about significant mistakes that were made based upon poor judgment or misinformation. Similarly, we need to hear about how positive change was achieved and what steps were taken to avoid disaster.
Historians know these stories better than anyone else on earth. They have incredible depths of knowledge to answer questions, to discuss contrasting decisions and to fuel rational debate on interpretations of the same events.
These individuals carry the accrued wisdom of millennia, and the combined experiences of billions of people.
If we, as individuals, can learn from our own mistakes, how much more do we stand to learn from the mistakes of countless people before us?
Historians want to share their knowledge
The strange reality of the current situation is that people are not hearing what historians are saying. The sub-title of the article from The Economist blamed that fact that the historians have "isolated" themselves "in professional cocoons", as if they were willingly withholding vital information from the masses.
But this could not be further from the truth. Historians have never been more active in trying to engage with the general public. While twenty years ago, you had to specifically purchase academic books from the leading historians to learn from their knowledge, historians now are on every major media platform, most of which you can connect with for free.
Superb historians like Mary Beard, Michael Scott, Greg Jenner, Sarah Parcak, Helen Carr, Peter Francopan, Sarah Churchwell, Dan Snow, and many more besides, consistently produce videos, podcasts, TV documentaries and popular-level books, all designed to educate as many people as possible. What's more, these historians are also active on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.
Every single member of the general public who wants to engage on a daily basis with trained and passionate historians is absolutely possible. Rather than sitting in their ivory towers, these historians are spending their own free time trying to put themselves in front of as many people as possible.
So, why aren't historians being heard?
The tragedy of this scenario is that despite the fact that the world wants answers, and that historians are more than willing to give those answers, media and financial constraints tend to silence, rather than promote them.
This is what was most concerning about the video from Indy Neidell. Neidell, along with a legion of other history-related YouTube channels, have noticed that their videos are being demonetised and promoted less by YouTube. When approached for answers, YouTube has consistently stated that any video mentioning topics like war, conflict, or politically sensitive topics, will be recommended less by YouTube.
As a result, as many have pointed out, these are the exact topics that people want answers to in relation to present global concerns, but these are the exact things that are being intentionally directed away from audiences by YouTube.
The complete opposite should be true. The wisdom and knowledge of informed experts on these topics should be actively promoted by online media. It is the best way to create a public who is well-informed enough to have rational debates and to engage with extreme opinions. If ever more funding and awareness is needed, it is for the study of history.
To highlight the ludicrous nature of YouTube's rules, Indy Neidell made a satirical video that met with YouTube recommendations for the kind of video that it would happily share with the general populace: one that only had mindless footage of cats, vacuum cleaners and a historian dancing badly rather than sharing their wisdom.
In a chaotic world of people desperately crying out for answers, we don't need media promoting cat videos, or blaming historians for not being willing to engage with non-academics. We need media to connect their audiences with historians and to openly support and promote their material.
So, what can you do?
There are so many easy ways to engage historians in public discourse that you can do all of them in the next five minutes. Here is an action list:
Things that cost no money:
- If you are on Twitter, connect with these recommended accounts
- If you listen to podcasts, subscribe to these recommended channels
- If you are on YouTube, subscribe to these recommended channels
- If you are on Flipboard, follow the BCC History Magazine
Ways to financially support public historians:
- Subscribe to History Hit TV (the "Netflix for history documentaries")
- Purchase popular-level history books written by academics
- Subscribe to digital history magazines
Share your thoughts below.
Also, what else would you add to the lists above?
Write a comment
Spartacus Olsson (Thursday, 25 July 2019 00:52)
Thank you for theses wise words. We are humbly thankful that we could partly inspire you to write this.
Best regards from Spartacus Olsson
(Indy Neidell and I co-create TimeGhost and WW2)
Clair Monnickendam (Friday, 12 November 2021 20:35)
So no war or conflict but YouTube are happy to monetise beauty and wellness videos which promote unrealistic expectations about beauty and body image. And promote the sometimes misinformed views of influencers. Strange days, indeed.