Academic history

Academic history

An academic history can mean a large, multivolume work such as the "Cambridge Modern History", written collaboratively under some central editorial control.

In the nineteenth century, the idea appeared in universities that a definitive history could be written of a major region of the world for a great span of time in a similar manner to the way that an encyclopedia was written. The time period was subdivided into eras and one volume specified for each. Within each volume there would be a fixed number of topics. Either each volume would either be written by one historian on the faculty, or else each topic would be handled by a faculty member throughout the series of volumes, or perhaps another system of specialization would be prescribed. This procedure was similar to that undertaken on such campuses to produce encyclopedias of "natural" history, such as marine biology, for which different scholars would write about different "phyla." Examples of the end result of this procedure include the series done by Cambridge on Greco-Roman history, and that of Oxford on British history, which may be found on the reserve stacks of many public libraries in the twenty-first century.

What gives this concept of 'academic history' its own historicity, or "cubbyhole in time", superseded by progress, is that an academic history was intended to be "definitive" even though its subject matter, unlike the marine biology mentioned above, was not "objective". When the volume on the Regency was published, for example, some may have thought that such would be the complete history of that era, and no one would need to do as much work in that field, because the best people with the best resources would already have written it down. Subsequent changes in scholarly perspective can alter that perception; for example the work of Lewis Namier on mid-eighteenth century British politics caused one of the "Oxford History" volumes to appear outdated.

It was not considered that entirely new viewpoints and methods would come into being, or that scholars would follow new threads of causality throughout stretches of time that differed from the canonical ones over a region which varied over time. And as each academic history was primarily a list of persons, places, things, and events, there was hardly any Marxian content to any of these projects. By the second half of the twentieth-century, there weren't any more academic histories. History is no longer subdivided in such an assembly-line fashion with such an authoritative result expected.

However, the project of globalization has brought with it the notion of writing a history that has no national center. All the projects above, allocated to the faculty of a university, had the viewpoint of their country or region in mind. These new histories are similar to the academic, in that they are large and done by many people by a similar process of allocation, but they do not have the same all-specifying concept of classification; instead, it is interrelation which is of concern.


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