Historians need to make a lean startup or they will become a history relic

Historians need to make a lean startup or they will become a history relic


The past two years, during my last days in academia and afterwards, I have been on a very steep learning curve. I learned how to view the world from a different perspective, how to talk to non academics, how to value ‘real’ life. As a result I reassessed my views on history and professional historians.

First of all, I would like to admit that I am guilty. Throughout my academic career (which spans almost two decades) I have been guilty of ‘academic exceptionalism’. I read in depth historical analyses, I participated in academic debates, I wrote articles and books for those few who could understand them. I knew exactly how to construct my work, so that it gets published in prestigious journals and presses. I gained grants and awards from the institutions that mattered! Obviously, I belonged to the ‘inner circle’.

Since I felt successful in what I was doing, I did not see a reason to change. In 2009, though, something happened. I started blogging and soon got hooked on it. Through blogging, twittering and facebooking I met a good number of very interesting non-academic historians- a truly eye opening experience. They were knowledgable, witty, ready to offer interesting facts, and challenging old assumptions. Their perspectives may have been different but their value could not be doubted.

I started wondering, if there was another history-related world out there worthy to be explored. So, I started doing the unthinkable: reading public historians, watching historical movies, communicating with ‘lay people’. My views of what is historical study shifted considerably during that time. The process was slow and almost imperceptible.

In due course my blogging activities were going strong and I seemed to have attained some balance in my professional life. On one hand, I continued publishing my exclusive, incomprehensible, highly specialised research. On the other hand, I considered taking my blog to the next level and dabbing into the black art of public history. There was something missing, though. The two aspects were not connected.

By 2012 I begun to realise what was wrong. The answer came from the most unlikely quarters. By then, I was involved in employability of university students – as part of my departmental service. I found myself attracted to entrepreneurship, probably because of my background in property development and ecommerce. As I was setting up an entrepreneurship course, a new book fell into my hands: The Lean Startup.

The ideas were not new. The author codified in a practical way older and tested practices. The book offered a new method to setup new businesses. Eric Ries, supports the sensible idea that you should not build a product until you know that you have customers who will buy it. So, your first step should be to figure out the problems customers face. What needs do they have? Which pain are you solving? The bigger the pain, the more are the chances of business success, as you will be creating products that the customers want.

Without a doubt, this is when I started questioning the way the academic system works. 

Let me analyse briefly the university as a business. I had to oversimplify the model for the purposes of this short blog post but the principles remain the same.

So, university’s customers are the students – who pay fees – and the government – which pays subsidies. Its product is intellectual property. It purports to advance knowledge (an undoubted benefit for society) and provide a life experience for the students. Which problem is it solving, though? Academics will insists that it solves many problems. For example, medicine battles diseases and increases chances of survival. Fair enough!

Let us now go to the discipline of history. The customer, product and unique value proposition remain the same as above. Which problem is it solving, though? There are two problems I came up with a) thirst of knowledge and b) entertainment. Academics are deemed responsible for solving the first and public historians the second (although there are exceptions).

The next question we should be asking is how important are these problems for society? Would people be able to live and breath without history? Would their lives be better or worse, if they never knew who Alexander the Great was? Would their intellectual activities be less enhanced, if they never read the Codex Theodosianus? How is history affecting our lives at a deeper more meaningful level? What value (not money-related) does it offer to society?

For years I heard historians exclaiming that, if you do not know the past, you will not be able to know your present or future. If you do not analyse historical actions, you will keep repeating the same mistakes in eternity. History forms and reforms our way of thinking and changes our world. Do not make a mistake! I truly believe this is the case. I have always been an idealist and I intend to remain so. However, I keep wondering how our individual research makes this a reality.

Let me give you an example. When academic historians contemplate a new project, they take into account specific parameters. a) They think about their own preferences and passions (after all they need to be committed to their research for several years and the process is indeed arduous). b) They take into consideration existing research, so that they do not repeat the same ideas. c) They explore the potential of getting a grant. Is there a grant funding body that will support their work? Who is responsible for giving out the money? Would the project please him/ her? d) They think in advance which press or journal will be more suitable for the publication of their results. The editors, which may be in the same position for decades, seem to have particular affections for specific ideas/ projects/ research. e) Last but not least, they need to take account what the Head of Department, University Committee or Search Committee will have in mind as the most appropriate topic.

In the above parameters there is no mention of the needs of the public (aka customers). History over the past few decades became a self serving profession that detached itself from reality. Which problem is it solving? The needs of Universities to absorb European funding? The needs of academic peers to engage in intense but meaningless debates? The needs of publishers to increase their citations?

Let us take a look now on the other side, the public historians. Whether you believe it or not, they actually have more freedom of speech than the academic historians. However, they still need to put food on the table, so they have to please the public in a consistent and immediate manner. As they cannot undertake lengthy research, they emphasize on entertainment and digestible education. These activities may offer value to society but they do not seem to be world-changing forces. At least, not in the way that medicine or macroeconomics are.

I strongly believe that history became irrelevant and historians are mainly responsible for this. We have failed to draw examples from our past and exhibit their connection to our present. We have failed to learn from older mistakes. Who have failed to use our knowledge of the past to solve the problems of the present. 

In the process of turning history into an exercise in intellectual exclusivity, we hurt the profession itself. There are hundreds of thousands unemployed or underemployed historians out there who live in poverty. Since we have not provided society with the product it needs, society turned its back at us. Universities are treating us like second class academic citizens, while they promote inequality among peers. The division between tenured and untenured staff is increasing. Administrators multiply their salaries, while professors are gathering the crumbs. History is suffering!

So, how can we make history relevant again? I am in the process of exploring this exact question, while I am growing as a historian outside the Ivory Tower. At this point in time, and since I have a strong background in comparative history, I see as only option the direct comparisons/ analogies with the present. I will try to find modern problems (problems that society needs resolved) and use the past to highlight the solutions. I am not certain I will succeed. I am almost certain that the academic opposition will be fierce, especially since I intend to use unusual methods. But I am willing to try, experiment and fail, until I get it right.

I cannot possibly indicate to esteemed historians, which directions they should take in their research. I could, though, ask them to be more introspective, while looking outwards. Take the time to ask the questions. Which problem is your research solving? How important is this problem for society at large?


Economic historian and numismatic consultant

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