Knights on White Horses
Updated: 6 days ago
I once believed in Atlantis. Throughout my twenties I had no secondary, let alone tertiary education in the ancient Mediterranean. And so I just read and watched everything available to me in places I knew to look. And I believed. It all made sense to me, an ancient children's bedtime story half-remembered from a real event, just like I believed that Ring a Ring o'Roses was about bubonic plague. "Everybody knows that..."
I knew that Plato wrote it down. I didn't know why he did, the context was never explained. But I knew the gist, and that an island called Thera had a cataclysmic event that could destroy a city. I watched archaeologists talk about Akrotiri. I watched volcanologists explain how the Kameni islands formed in the Theran Caldera, and how perhaps previous islands in the caldera pre-eruption had looked fairly concentric. Just like Plato said. And honestly? I wanted to believe. That story slaps.
And now, I don't believe. I've been trained in enough disciplines to understand the context and purpose of the story, and Plato's repeated use of similarly fictional creations. I now know that Plato was a philosopher, not a historian. As I've said before, I'm a first-gen late bloomer, and am as such ideally placed to discuss the state of pop history. Few of the people I talk to these days had to survive on a diet of it like I did, and our perspectives differ accordingly.
To the matter at hand: should archaeologists and historians debate pseudo-historians on politically extreme podcasts? Honestly I can't believe I have to ask. No. Of course not. Nope. No. The host is potentially hostile, the interlocutor is potentially hostile, and they are on home turf. Only Philomena Cunk is better positioned to humiliate an academic 'guest'.
Academics in general do not spend enough time conversing with the general public.* That's not what academic training is for. Students are in training, as one of my professors likes to remind me, to write future articles and chapters and monographs. The target audience for those are other academics. Academics who have historically been encouraged not to write in an informal or even particularly readable manner. Why enjoy reading when it can feel like work? We stop reading pop history early. We're banned from citing it. We get accustomed to speed-reading dense academic writing so that we can write our thoughts about it, equally densely. This is all stuff I've said a hundred times before, but it bears repeating. All of this leads to losing sight of what the general public 'knows.' We use phrases like 'everyone knows x...' and 'obviously y tells us that ...' But why do we think this way? When was the last time we looked out of the window at what the latest paperbacks say, or read a blog, or watched a documentary with any other intention than to mock it? Academics have no idea what the state of pop history is, and have the audacity to be shocked when it's in a complete state.
*Appearing on documentaries as talkings heads does not count. The odd public lecture once every 5 years does not count. I mean a dialogue, not a soliloquy.
Let me tell you, when pseudos accuse academics of keeping secrets, they ARE NOT WRONG. I know that individual scholars don't set the astronomical prices for monographs, I know that they don't set subscription fees for journals or one-off fees for articles therein. But books of any academic worth ARE astronomically expensive. Journals ARE a cynical cash grab. And you just keep giving them content. For free! Academics know that the readership of all of these MOUNTAINS of new scholarship is tiny and exclusive. But you keep producing it, because of tenure tracks and Ref scores and because it's just What Academics Do. And you make sure all of it is unreadable without training, and then you only train those who are willing to part with enormous sums of money for the privilege, knowing that as soon as they graduate most of them have their institutional access taken away to keep your readership as small as possible. YOU ARE KEEPING SECRETS. It is disingenous and infuriating to say otherwise. So stop lying! Own it! Explain the publish or perish pyramid scheme. But stop pretending you're not more exclusive than a Pall Mall members' club.
If anything, this secrecy attracts as much curiosity as it does resentment. The general public have a genuine interest in history. If academics aren't willing to engage by writing paperbacks and fronting documentaries, then pseudo-historians will capitalise on the gap in the market. And this is key - it's a long con. The more academia clams up, the more pseudo-historians can spin the narrative of secrets and conspiracies. We offer explanations that require thesauruses and $$ per download, they offer conversational podcasts and websites. I'm not convinced pseudo-historians even believe in half of what they peddle, but they can monetise it. That's enough of a motive. So no, I don't think it's beneficial to anyone but pseudo-historians to challenge them to an academic duel in their own arena. Canute couldn't control the tide, he tried commanding. Requesting. Wheedling. Hell, he may have begged. The tide kept coming. As will pseudo history. We can't stop it, but we can learn to accept its inevitability and to plan our response accordingly.
First thing first: Can we all sign an agreement to stop being so bloody condescending? Let's think about the language I've seen multiple academics use on social media for pseudo-histories and their authors: dumb, stupid, ridiculous, ludicrous, crazy, batshit, trash, bananas, ignorant, moronic, asinine, cuckoo, farcical. The list is endless. If a picture is worth a thousand words, gifs and memes are a solid 5k each. We use eye rolls, we use dumpster fires, we use side eyes and shade. Understand this: if we are publicly this rude about pseudo-historians, however warranted we feel it is, then we are by extension being this publicly rude to their audience who have been persuaded by them. That's not a sensible tactic for counter-persuasion! It is not the fault of the general public that they are taken in by pseudo-historians. The training to recognise genuine scholarship from bunkum is long, arduous and expensive. Why are we being so patronising to intelligent people who don't have the money, time or inclination to study to such a high level? You cannot starve people of michelin star scholarship and then complain that they read junk instead. It's affordable, accessible and available. The public are not the problem. Even the pseudos aren't really the problem. The problem is academia.
We need to start valuing public engagement. Podcast appearances can attract thousands of listeners, compared to 150-200 copies of a monograph. Guest posts on websites like BadAncient can get ten times as many hits as a journal article. A reply on r/Askhistorians can see more engagement than any chapter in an edited volume. Start putting recorded talks on Youtube. Start making mini documentaries. Advertise lectures in more places than just the Liverpool sodding listserv. Demand that your talk is made hybrid. Universities should be encouraging these activities at every level. Universities should be providing appropriate training so that our output is as polished as any pseudo with media training, because pseudos are decades ahead of us there. Flood every platform with solid scholarship. Give it away with the verve of Michael Caine handing a fake turkey to Kermit the Frog on Christmas Day. Save current research for an academic outlet, fine. But once it's safely yours, printed with your name in real ink, shout it from the rooftops to anyone who will listen.
As for content: Stop assuming the public know everything. They don't. Stop assuming they know nothing. They don't. Before uni I had a good grasp of most things relating to ancient history, I just needed more context. I needed to know how to knit various threads together to recognise the patterns in the wider design. I couldn't fill the gaps in my knowledge until I could identify where the gaps were. Jargon wasn't going to help me, neither was infantilisation.
The best way to gauge levels of knowledge outside of the academy is to have conversations with non-academics. Conversations where we don't do most of the talking. Conversations where we ask the questions. Only then can we understand what we should be saying. Why do you believe in Atlantis? Where did you learn about the 300 at Thermopylae? Do you know where to find reliable information? Most important thing to keep in mind: undergrads have a reason to work hard for their education. They've made an investment, they want the dividends. The armchair historian is not compelled to toil in that way for in-depth analyses, which is not what they want and not what I'm proposing we offer. I propose concise, clear summaries on a myriad of topics, on a myriad of platforms. Answering the questions that are asked, not the questions we want to be asked. I want academics to stop laughing at misconceptions, and bother to find out how those misconceptions developed and took hold.
I would love to see academics stop sneering. I've seen pseudo-historians sneered at. If you need to vent about them, do it behind closed doors. Get an alt account FFS. Where they go low, we go private. I've seen their audiences sneered at. Good luck wooing them now... Why are we sneering? Because they don't have the same bullshitometer as the average postdoc, aquired after a decade of solid study? Because they sate their curiosity at outlets willing to serve them? Worse, I've seen the scholars who are actually genuinely great at chatting to the public and presenting decent, up-to-date scholarship teased by their peers. We have a lot of bad public historians, lets not pile on the few good ones. They possess a skill, honed like any other. And they're better at it than you.
Archaeology and ancient history is not a damsel in distress waiting for a knight in shining armour to wave his sword at a dragon. Archaeology is a passion that grips professionals and laypeople alike. Archaeology doesn't need us to vanquish enemies. It needs us to share the wealth and the joy amongst friends, with kindness, generosity and respect.