In our time, for one reason or another, young people seem to know very little about the traditional histories of their own countries or of foreign lands. This clearly reflects the inadequacy of secondary level history teaching, which, in turn, is probably the result of the increasingly relativistic (in Eastern and Central Europe meta-historical, i.e. politicised) attitude with which history is taught at universities. Some postmodern theoreticians of history even convey the view that there is no such thing as history. One may conjecture that improving economic opportunities and contradictory political messages in the public domain have also diverted the average person from habitually seeking to discover details of the records our past inheritance. Whatever the cause may be, from academic discipline history is fast turning into ‘edutainment’. In the United Kingdom, as in many other countries, this form of entertainment is often manifested as ‘television history’. The flip side of the coin is, of course, the fact that through this means very large numbers of people have access to history, albeit a simplified, audiovisual, version of it.
This course will introduce the phenomenon of television history as it has grown from the spark of its initiating grandfather, A.J.P. Taylor, to its present best known exponents: Simon Schama, David Starkey and Niall Ferguson, to name but a few. While the methods, techniques, attitudes, approach and ‘art’ of these men differ, Taylor, the Oxford don, Starkey, the Cambridge scholar, Schama, the British expatriate in New York, Ferguson, the London public intellectual, sage and conveyor of the latest politically tested wisdoms—all share the characteristic of being rebels (or pretended rebels) within the orthodox historical establishment. The classes will examine both the overt and the subliminal messages of the television programmes created by the TV historians of the last few decades. Taylor’s mesmeric (unscripted) one-man shows, peppered with his characteristically wry quips, Schama’s panoramic footage where he rarely appears beyond the voiceover, Starkey’s compulsive delivery (piercing the camera lens with gimlet eyes) and of his idiosyncratic views and theories or Ferguson's multimedia conjuring tricks hardly ever fail to interest. But what is the historical message that we receive from these presentations? Numerous excerpts will be shown from the televisual masterpieces, such as Taylor’s groundbreaking series from the late 1950s and early 1960s on the Russian Revolution and Britain’s Prime Ministers, typical scenes from Schama’s History of Britain, and Starkey’s Monarchy.
A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945, Oxford: OUP, 1965.
Adam Sisman, A.J.P. Taylor: a biography, London : Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993.
Kathleen Burke, Troublemaker: the life and history of A.J.P. Taylor, New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2000.
Simon Schama, A History of Britain, 3 vols, London: BBC, 2003.
David Starkey, The English Court: from the Wars of the Roses to the Civil War, London: Longman, 1987.
E.H. Carr, What is History?, London: Macmillan, 1961.
Geoffrey R. Elton, The Practice of History, Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1967.
R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History,  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Students will be required to write a number of short papers during the course based on the audiovisual experience, on the teacher’s comments, and on reading assignments that will accompany the classes. The latter will include excerpts from books written by the TV historians and some classic texts on the essence of changing British views on history and historiography by G.R. Elton, E.H. Carr and R.G. Collingwood. Students will be asked to formulate opinions on the style of the presenters and their apparent attitude to history and historiography. There will be a final class paper in which students will need to provide a synthesis of the material as they perceived it during the course. Students will receive weekly study aids (recapitulations on previous material and preparation for forthcoming tasks) accompanying the course.