Evans has expanded his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, in which holders normally talk about themselves in the context of the development of their discipline and their predecessors' work, to form a book of some 230 pages. The basic theme is British historians' time-honoured interest in studying the history of other, in particular European, nations, and writing about them so well as to become authorities and to appeal to broad audiences in some of those countries (one thinks in particular of Christopher Clark's fine history of Prussia, which did both). For much of the last two hundred years this has been a very one-sided affair: historians in European countries have generally not matched British historians' interest in other nations, and they have not achieved such broad appeal either. Along the way Evans explores the reasons for this tradition - historical and cultural as well as educational and biographical (had Gibbon not converted to the RC his father might not have sent him to Switzerland... und so weiter).
This triumphal parade ends rather abruptly when Evans catches up with the present. The British might still be interested in reading non-British history but the British are increasingly *not* producing historians linguistically capable of writing about it seriously. As a result history depts in the UK are increasingly staffed by young European-born academics who do have the linguistic capabilities to research European history. Universities are starting to look like the toilets at King's Cross: staffed by foreigners because the locals don't want to do the job. Evans rather grudgingly admits that attracting international talent is an implicit compliment to the UK university system, but he is clearly concerned that the indigenous tradition is fast disappearing - or simply becoming multicultural, much like most other aspects of British life. The main cause that Evans singles out is the devaluation of the the study of languages in the UK education system.
The decline can probably only be reversed, says Evans, by reinforcing the importance of the study of languages at school, and providing more generous graduate funding to allow for language acquisition at that level. But the decline in the study of history among the British and the devaluation of language study are part of a general dumbing-down of British culture, the flight from Aristotle to X-Factor, and it is hard to be optimistic that the trend will be reversed soon (especially through govt. funding). In a society that has promoted `going to university', turning polytechnics into universities, etc., larger numbers study the humanities - without a deep interest in the subject. Many simply do not have the kind of cultural interests that animated some of the best British historians of last century: they want a degree that gives them a job. Similarly, the gifted students that studied History last century now study subjects such as business - the road to success as defined by contemporary society.
Evans' focus is of couse very subject specific. Nothing about Classics, where non-British scholars are also increasingly appointed to academic positions in the U.K. And of course British classicists are quite used not to studying their own island. Similarly there is only a little on the American scene, and nothing on the study of history in the Commonwealth countries. I suspect that much of the increased bulk of this book comes from Evans' endless quotation from the survey he circulated amongst his contemporary historians. Some of them I was interested in hearing from (Clark, Kershaw, Elliott), and they provide good general observations; many very biographical ones. But the result is often a meandering impressionistic account. The disciplinary background is informative but dry, and Evans seems rather too keen not to say anything that might upset anyone. In the end, I think I would have preferred the original 30-page inaugural lecture. These are still printed, individually and elegantly, by the University Press at Cambridge.