Margaret MacMillan on the doing of history

Margaret MacMillanIn an interview with about her new book, The Uses and Abuses of History, Margaret MacMillan — the award-winning author of Paris 1919 (2002) and Nixon in China (2006) — describes her take on the doing of history.

Q: What is your theory of history?

A: My theory is that if I’m interested in a problem, I try to come up with the best possible explanation as to why it happened. We’re not scientists, but scientists go through the same intellectual process. They try to come up with a theory that fits the facts. And they accept the fact that there may be another theory later on with more facts.

Q: Do you think there is more interest in history now from the public and publishers?

A: Science was big with publishers several years ago; now, it’s history. History can be fun and it has great stories. I think also there’s a growing interest in ourselves. People want to know their ancestors. The boom in genealogy is extraordinary. I think it is partly just interest in where we come from, but maybe it also appeals because it all seemed simpler back then. The world has become really complicated since the end of the cold war.

Q: In The Uses and Abuses of History, you talk about professionals abandoning history writing and leaving it to amateurs. How can you tell good history writing from bad?

A: I think good history asks good questions, looks at the evidence. If there’s an awkward thing, it doesn’t gloss it over. So if you’re writing a history of Winston Churchill, you don’t say he was always right. That seems to be bad history. Good history is grounded and confronts awkward issues. It’s not been easy, but French historians have confronted the role of French collaborators in the Second World War. That’s good history.

Read the full interview here.

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.