In Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis’s novel of the frustrations of life in a provincial university, the title character, Jim Dixon, strives to complete what he hopes will be a career-defining article: ‘The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485’. Amis has fun with its ‘funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems’, symptomatic of the humanities’ embrace of the hermetic. And so it may have seemed in 1954. But as Jo Guldi and David Armitage observe in their passionate new polemic, The History Manifesto (Cambridge University Press), just a decade or so later ‘a conscientious supervisor might have discouraged an essay on such an absurdly ambitious and wide-ranging theme’. Ever greater ‘focus’ – a ‘disappointing word’ according to the authors – became central to university training, with a calamitous effect on the historical profession’s engagement with the public.
Guldi, a young scholar based at Brown University, and the Harvard-based British historian Armitage blame such reductionist self-indulgence on the short-termism endemic in Western societies, with their permanent election campaigns and quarterly business cycles. More specifically, they point the finger at the ‘inward turn’ taken by academic historians around forty