The Chronicle Review

Who Needs Historians?

What a recent call to get historians to become political advisers gets wrong.

Bettmann

John F. Kennedy with the Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
August 09, 2016

In an article in the September issue of The Atlantic, Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson call for the creation of a White House Council of Historical Advisers.

It’s a sensible idea. The world within the Beltway has shown an aptitude for forgetting or exaggerating its successes while repeating failures of grand strategy. Amnesia, argue Allison and Ferguson, is in ample supply. They retell a story about George W. Bush — that he didn’t know there was a difference between Shiites and Sunnis when he sent troops to Iraq.

Not surprisingly, especially when it comes to the Middle East, presidents and advisers seem especially prone to remind us of George Santayana’s saw that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," recycled ominously by Winston Churchill in 1935 after Britain, France, and Italy pledged to uphold Austria’s independence at the Stresa Conference: "It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind."

But who needs who? Is it the state that needs the historian, or the historian the state? For some time now, injunctions for what Allison and Ferguson describe as a "new and rigorous ‘applied history’" have been aimed less at the republic than at the historical profession. A couple of years ago, another Ivy League pair, David Armitage and Jo Guldi, called upon colleagues to man up: Ditch the micro, embrace the macro, think big, and get relevant. Their summons, The History Manifesto, was a clarion call for historians to get with the digital age and pivot to policy makers, activists, and entrepreneurs who need help. Armitage and Guldi tapped into some collective anxiety about the future of historians. It’s not just Beltway amnesia that’s at stake. The crusade for relevance could also save a profession that has seen dwindling undergraduate majors and course enrollments year after year.

“What happens to pasts that are not so readily repurposed for the future as decided by today? Whose past gets summoned?”
The ailment and alternative don’t stop with history. In 2013 the American Academy of Arts & Sciences blueprinted a vision for the humanities and social sciences to help make America a "vibrant, competitive, and secure nation." (To make America great, again?)

With so much declinism in the air — the nation, the humanities, historical consciousness, the middle class — Allison and Ferguson’s proposal has the merit of solving two problems at once. Now, what’s good for history can be good for America. History can give America perspective; America’s needs can give history relevance.

But is Allison and Ferguson’s proposal a good idea?

I have two concerns. Neither of them, to be clear, is what prompted the French belletrist Julien Benda to denounce intellectuals — the "clerks" — for betraying higher, universal duties in order "to play the game of political passions," serving ideology instead of science and giving up on their hallowed place as the vanguards of rationalism. His famous 1927 screed, The Treason of the Intellectuals, blasted a turn in the human sciences that was well underway as universities were evolving out of the idealized 19th-century sanctuary model where they were cocooned away from society, serving an other-worldly purpose. The issue is not whether to defend the splendid isolation of history or the humanities that no longer exists.

Saving history and America at the same time means taking current problems, finding historic precedents from which we can learn, and bridging the gap between ailing mainstream historians and practitioners who need more informed coordinates about what’s going on in the world. That’s fine — good, actually.

But: It represents only one slice of what historians have to offer. What happens to pasts that are not so readily repurposed for the future as decided by today? Whose past gets summoned? And who is the past to serve if relevance drives the agenda, shakes up status differences, and allocates resources?

Economists talk about something called Gresham’s Law. A variation applies here: Just as bad money drives out good, the lure of relevant history today can squeeze out the need for multiple histories tomorrow.

We have seen this happen before. Ironically, the historical ignorance that Allison and Ferguson rightly decry as saturating the Bush White House reflected prior campaigns to make history more current. After the Cold War, when big funders and universities bailed on training in foreign languages and learning about exotic parts (bundled in stigmatized and downsized "area studies"), they laid low our capacity to understand Others — precisely when that skill was about to acquire a whole new valence with the rise of China, the flow of Latin American migrants, and the transformation of the Middle East. Universities are still recovering from the narrowed vision of what they thought was happening to the world in 1989.

Here’s an example of the problem from close to home. In the slipstream to get more perspective, a recent curricular review at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School made taking a course in the history department a prerequisite for a concentration in policy studies. That seems to fit with the bridge-building between history and policy makers, activists, and entrepreneurs, the enlarged client base that Armitage and Guldi want the profession to serve. Interestingly, the Woodrow Wilson School rules out all "history" courses taught in the Near Eastern- and East Asian-studies departments that are not cross-listed by the History department, codifying a stratification about what gets to count as relevant history.

So: I have no problem with helping those who need or want more perspective. But let’s not let policy makers with immediate (and oftentimes provincial) horizons overdetermine our professional fates.

“Giving the news cycle outsize weight in deciding what kind of history matters can lead to less, not more, remembering.”
My second quip is more banal. It is simply to call for a little more humility about what we historians have to offer. The worst thing that could happen in this sauve-qui-peut world is for the history brokers to give us all a shiny, new, higher mission, only to discover that we have oversold the importance of history. Having accepted that the old mainstream is in basic trouble, disappointment with this new bauble could leave us all wondering whether there is any point to history. Foolish collective decisions are often made on the rebound from panaceas.

One is tempted to side with Kurt Vonnegut’s riposte to Ivy historians (like me) who want to play the role of prophet: "We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive. It’s pretty dense kids who haven’t figured that out by the time they’re 10. ... Most kids can’t afford to go to Harvard and be misinformed."

In this sense, being misinformed might be the good news. Historians are notoriously slow movers, their trade is more of the slow-boil kind; it can take ages to master a tough language, to harvest data from archives and to write it all up, by which time the results are out of sync, badly timed. What’s more, their stories are often at odds with what the present wants — narratives of success when the world seems a mess, courses on human atrocity when our public figures go triumphal. They are often countervailing, countercyclical. So much of it can seem useless. Or downright misinforming.

Relevance is more than fine. It’s important. But let’s not inflate expectations. And let’s certainly not give up on a pluralistic commitment to the past, to teach our students and convey to our readers the importance of alternative narratives — and how to evaluate them according to shifting values of the present, new evidence, and the range of voices we need to hear. This pluralistic vision is not necessarily at odds with relevance. But giving the news cycle outsize weight in deciding what kind of history matters can lead to less, not more, remembering.

Jeremy Adelman is a professor of history and director of the Global History Lab at Princeton University. His next book, The Opening of the Global Mind, is forthcoming next year from Princeton University Press.