To what extent is there a conflict between academic and popular history?
Margaret Conrad, the President of the Canadian Historical Association, embodies a traditional historian who has “spent a decade or more mastering a discipline” and thus “sits awkwardly” at the thought that “anyone can be historian.” Indeed, as Conrad argues, in this Age of Wikipedia anyone and everyone can own history. This democratisation of history, which has been galvanised by post-modernism, has troubled traditional historians, exemplifying the conflict between academic and popular history. Ultimately, the only way to overcome such a conflict, is for the historian to be “involved in the wider world where many people have a curiosity about the past and a passion for historical research…”
Conrad’s view that history is a “discipline that has standard for practitioners” echoes the perspective of the “father of modern history”, Leopold von Ranke. Indeed, shaping history as a professional discipline in the late 19th Century, von Ranke envisaged the role of the historian as presenting the past “as how it really was” (wie es eigentlich). This “colourless” history, free of the prevailing prejudice and bias, could only be achieved through the historian’s scrupulous use of primary sources, “the most genuine immediate documents”, exemplifying Conrad’s claim that “historical analysis must follow the rules of evidence…”
Consequently, von Ranke, like Conrad, saw history as a science. Ultimately, however, despite von Ranke’s hermeneutical approach, he was far from objective, unable to escape his own context and subsequent prejudices. His understanding of the French Revolution as destructive permeated his work as he rejected Enlightenment thinking and French “philosophies” which, in his belief, were responsible for the horrors of the French Revolution. Similarly, as a devout Lutheran, his belief that history was the result of divine will, that God was reflected in the past and present,...
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