‘History and the state: supporting institutional memory or challenging national myths? 

Should historians talk to government? Professor of British and Commonwealth history, Philip Murphy, introduces the tensions underlying the relationship between historians and politicians.

As an academic discipline, history can be thought of as something between a game and a work of art. Imagined as a game, each historical argument represents a move, challenging other players to respond with moves of their own. The validity of any move depends on adherence to a set of professionally recognised rules, largely governing the treatment and presentation of evidence.

This notion of history stresses the provisional nature of any conclusion and the essentially collective character of the historical enterprise. Yet we can also think of history as an art form. We admire something like Keith Thomas’s Religion and Decline of Magic not because we imagine it to be definitive but because the central thesis is so intellectually satisfying. It is, in a sense, ‘beautiful’ in the same way a work of art or a piece of music can be beautiful.

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‘History and Policy’ and the communication challenge

Cambridge academic Professor Simon Szreter on two decades of the pioneering network for historians

Why would professional historians not want their knowledge and expertise to be understood by policymakers, politicians and advisers? Why would any of the latter want to live and make their decisions in ignorance of history?

Historians research and teach all aspects of how our nations and how other nations – and their various communities – have come to understand their mutual political and cultural relationships in the world today. Historians also study how our economies, sciences and environments have changed so dramatically over time and come to be in the problematic shape that we find them today. This is all extremely valuable knowledge, much of it every bit as relevant for those involved in public policymaking as the ideas, theories, models and findings of economists, psychologists, medical and epidemiological scientists, sociologists, anthropologists or even psephologists.

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The Talking Humanities blog is curated by the School of Advanced Study, University of London.