Tuesday, 5 May 2015

A Delightful Discussion of the Self-Made "Historian" Dan Snow

This morning we had a lively discussion about the famously famous, self-made historian called Dan Snow. Dan presents television programs in the UK in way that might lead you to believe that he is an actual historian who carries out original research using archives, museums, small, hard to get to libraries, microfiche and dusty books. It was a delightful conversation that began with an honest question to my honest reaction regarding Historian Dan making a program about a project close to my heart: the Mary Rose.

Dan Snow - self-made 'historian'.

Dan Snow – self-made ‘historian’.

Now, that’s an amusing picture with some pointed comments. This is what the professional, published historian in the group had to say:

Hello —, he routinely refers to himself as a historian when he doesn’t have a PhD or equivalent and therefore has not done the years of original archival research that professional historians have undertaken and then he takes our research and re-hashes it without any credit. And gets his facts wrong but still continues promoting himself as an expert. I think he is a dick and every time I hear the BBC refer to him as a historian I shout “No he fucking isn’t!”

Lots of laughs there from someone who has taken a large chunk of their life to become authoritative on an aspect of the historical record and the historiography relating to it. More amusing still is what Dan the Historian’s friends say about him:

When Snow left Balliol College, Oxford, with a double first in Modern History, Peter helped launch his television career, as father and son toured eight of the most famous British battlefields for a BBC series.

Dan has never looked back, bringing his authoritative, enthused approach to subjects including a well-received history of the Royal Navy and most recently Filthy Cities, a visceral journey into the sewers below Paris, London and New York.

That’s from Adam Sherwin’s puff piece Dan Snow: The historian who’s not attached to the past – The Monday Interview: The educator, AV campaigner, and royal wedding guest talks to Adam Sherwin published in The Independent in 2011.

And next for a text-breaking illustration that illustrates that the kind of historiographic debates that were going on in 1992. That’s 1992, that’s quite a while ago really… probably classifiable as “back in the day” and certainly available to 1992 historians of the First World War. I’ll try not to spoil it for you but, it basically reviews a book that attempts to radically reimagine how different generations of historians radically reimagine how they radically think about the past… radically, yet also predictably because that’s what good historians do after they’ve also analysed and understood the available work. Stick with it, it applies to Dan the Man later.

From the review of John Fuller's 'Catastrophe and Culture: Recent Trends in the Historiography of the First World War' by J. M. Winter, The Journal of Modern History Vol. 64, No. 3 (Sep., 1992), pp. 525-532

From the review of John Fuller’s ‘Catastrophe and Culture: Recent Trends in the Historiography of the First World War’ by J. M. Winter, The Journal of Modern History
Vol. 64, No. 3 (Sep., 1992), pp. 525-532

But Dan does think about history and historiography, surely? Sure he does. Let’s take this as an example, from an article in The Guardian called called Dan Snow: ‘Clearly an app is better than a book for history’ in which Dan talks about World War I.

This is one of the biggest wars and disasters in the history of the world, and it’s a unique opportunity to work out if the audiovisual revolution that’s happened since the late 19th century is going to radically reinvent the way we think about the past.

So, let me understand this. Dan (who owns a company that makes apps) wants us to think about whether our thinking about an historical moment that occurred in the early 20th Century has been reinvented by a technological ‘revolution’ that has been happening since (not in) the late 19th Century.

I will leave aside the idea that this all-encompassing ‘revolution’ has now taken more than a century – longer even than the Soviet revolution, which was used by the governments of the USSR as a hagiographic event to ideologically whip its populations into a slavery of ideas. (As a side issue, surely the October 1917 Revolution must be yet another area of Dan’s expertise due to be rolled out in 2017).

I can’t really leave the contorted ‘logic’ that sees WWI as a unique opportunity to “work out if the audiovisual revolution that’s happened since the late 19th century is going to radically reinvent the way we think about the past” because it’s not unique. Dan’s already pointed out, in the very same sentence, that WWI is ‘one of the…” thereby undercutting any unique nature he may then choose to assign to it. It is also not ‘an opportunity’ to do anything at all with the way that we reinvent our thinking. It is, sadly for Historian Dan, an area for research, study, analysis, discussion and learning using all the tools we have – whether they were invented before our after the events.

Why is any of this important? The telling of history is important when it is based on analysis rather than guessing or repeating canards or simply skating its surface in order to achieve easy wins. The people who we trust with the telling of history, in whom we place that trust, are important. Rather, our trust is important, hugely so because history and the interpretations of it are central to our knowledge of ourselves, our cultures, our friends, our enemies and our decisions for the future. I might trust somebody who achieved an undergraduate certificate in architecture to build my garden’s brick BBQ, but I’m not going to trust them with the bridge that takes my kids from home to school over a raging. piranha-filled torrent. Sorry Dan. I’m sure you’re a lovely person in person, just stick to selling apps and maybe following your dad (off camera) around Ypres.

Notes: Also worth a read are:

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A Delightful Discussion of the Self-Made "Historian" Dan Snow