Monday, February 28, 2011

The Historian-Pundit: Oxymoron or Moron?

The American Historical Association is encouraging historians to engage issues of public concern more actively. I am not sure I think that good historians are or should be particularly effective in such a role, and I fear that this may encourage historians to become pundits.

I strongly agree with the somewhat skeptical response by Tomiko Brown-Nagin at the Legal History Blog. Dr. Nagin, who teaches American social and legal history at UVA, writes that the historian may not be suited to advise on policy in large part because of
the "problem" of historical indeterminacy. Good history is multi-layered and may not provide definitive answers to questions posed. Historians may discover new facts or offer interpretations that illuminate public controversies, but they do so—at their best—through nuanced discussions of the past. Such nuance often make history less "usable" in the context of policy and adversarial legal settings—where clear answers and easily packaged explanations of complex phenomena have the greatest currency.
She does suggest that historians should play a corrective role of sorts in the public sphere.
When history is featured in policy battles or litigation, partisans much less inclined than professional historians to tell the truest story possible, given the available evidence, often are the first to trumpet historical arguments. Or, the partisan in question might be a professional historian, one who clings to the virtue of "objectivity" while engaging in partiality—excluding certain actors, viewpoints, events, interpretations, and analytical tools.

In these situations and others, perhaps it is irresponsible to disengage from public conversation. And one can appreciate the request to "say something historical!" and oblige. Context is everything.
Again I can't agree more.

I do not think historians ought to be saying things like, "History teaches us that [insert highly dubious claim]." There are fewer more misleading phrases than "history shows/teaches..." That really means, "I am using historical evidence [of whatever accuracy or truth] to argue that..."

I do think historians ought to complicate simplistic pictures and correct untruths, and that, if they feel so inclined and are capable, they ought to do so for the public.

This brought to mind a passage from Timothy Garton Ash's In Europe's Name (1993). He writes
…the end of Soviet communism and of the Cold War posed the largest questions to those disciplines, or branches of disciplines, that made some claim to quasi-scientific prediction.

Most historians make no such methodological claims. Some would agree with E.H. Carr that they should at least have in their bones the question ‘whither?’ as well as the question ‘why?’ Others would dispute even that. Yet in his wry way, Adenauer identified a real problem. It is surely reasonable and right for politicians to ask historians to make informed personal guesses–so long as everyone clearly recognises that they are just that: personal guesses. These guesses are related to the history they write, but separable from it. The history may be good but the guesses bad–or even vice versa. . . . [These guesses] can be overtaken by events in a way that the historical analysis cannot be. For the one thing historians can confidently predict is surprises.
I have to add that Garton Ash has been doing quite well for himself writing on current events for the Guardian.

Do read the rest of Dr. Nagin's excellent post. And a hat tip to Peter Haworth at FPR for bringing Dr. Nagin's post to my attention.