David Olusoga: Support Historians in Culture War CrosshairsHistorians in the News
tags: colonialism, racism, culture war, teaching history
Universities must better support academics who find themselves under attack for their research into the atrocities of colonialism, a leading historian has said.
David Olusoga, professor of public history at the University of Manchester, told the Times Higher Education THE Campus Live event that “we are living in a moment when the work of scholars is regarded as fissile material that can be drawn into electoral calculations by political players”.
A key responsibility of universities was their duty of care “to protect and to support academic staff who are subjected to levels of misrepresentation of their work and personal targeted attacks”, he explained.
This has particularly been the case for historians who research race, empire or colonialism. Politicians looking for a fight do not care about historical accuracy or complexity, particularly if their assertions about history play well in focus groups, Professor Olusoga warned.
“These new history wars have the warped logic of a witch trial; their aim is to convince people that they are being oppressed by the irrefutable facts of their own national histories, such as slavery in America, or the British Empire,” he said.
There was now a “surgical targeting” of which aspects of culture and history and historians are tolerated and which are not, he continued. “They involve misrepresenting historians, creators and curators of historical knowledge, as wreckers and radicals and portraying the legitimate process of historical research and reassessment, whether carried out by heritage organisation or charity as ‘the rewriting of history’,” he said.
In the UK, universities as institutions have emerged relatively unscathed in the debates about decolonisation and empire because the key targets in the culture wars are other institutions: charities, museums and individuals, Professor Olusoga explained. Unlike in the US, where universities are specifically under attack, research shows that British universities are still regarded as trustworthy institutions by most of the public.
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