The ‘tyranny of relevance’ is a convenient and popular target for academic historians. Mention the ‘r’ word with a raised eyebrow during a conference coffee break, or condemn instrumentalist research policy at a committee meeting and you are likely to receive murmurs of sympathy. We have allowed an unstable and stormy climate in higher education to cloud our judgement, implicating notions of relevance, application and public engagement with a Dark Side of neoliberal politics in caricature. If history is to thrive as a discipline, we need to reclaim relevance for the whole field – and public history can lead the Alliance.
Relevance and Rigour
It is tempting to see relevance only as a product of the increasing pressure from governments and funding bodies for scholars to prioritise and account for the value of their research to society. An unfortunate corollary of this view is the placing of ‘relevance’ and ‘rigour’ into a binary relationship.
Currently, throughout Europe, various forms of nationalism are sprouting, as if decades of peaceful European cooperation had never existed. History education is looking on helplessly. Instead of providing students with the ability to orient to a future that is historically undefined, which is neither good nor bad, educational ministries are succumbing either to national hullaballoo (the UK and the Netherlands) or to curricular cluelessness (Switzerland, Germany). The future is not regarded as an opportunity for the present but, instead, almost exclusively as a threat. In other words: since the reorganization of Europe into a community of states in 1989, history education has lost its future. The past is used instrumentally for the present or is regarded only for its own sake.