Two years ago I published the post below about the new Radio Four series, The Public Philosopher (tagline: ‘Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel examines the thinking behind a current controversy’). In a way, I was pointing to a gap: a history gap. As the crisis continues in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine – and claims, counter-claims and denunciations based on the past abound – the need for a forum for ‘questioning the [historical] thinking’ seems even more pressing. Radio 4 has a good, and varied, offering in terms of history programming. But there isn’t really a forum in which a wide audience can debate the ways in which the past is put to use in the present, and on issues that would certainly qualify as ‘current controversies’: welfare, immigration, education, health, foreign policy, the economy.
This week, The Public Philosopher tackled ‘national guilt’:
Imagine a country guilty of past crimes. What obligations do its current citizens have to make amends? In this edition of The Public Philosopher, Michael Sandel poses that question to an audience in Japan. The discussion involves students from Japan and from China and South Korea – countries which were victims of Japanese aggression during the Second World War
It makes for interesting listening, and I’ll definitely add it to the teaching resources for next year, when my International Perspectives in Public History students will look at topics such as school textbooks, citizenship and identity, apologies and restitution, and commemoration, all in comparative context. But at the same time, it made me aware of that yawning ‘history gap’ (or should it be ‘public history gap’?). It’s great that a political philosopher is taking on the important and ever-relevant theme of guilt and apology – but shouldn’t historians be involved in, or initiating, such debates? Which comes back to the question we always ask our public history students: what are the responsibilities of the ‘historian in public?’
The Public Philosopher starts on Radio 4 tomorrow, the tagline being: ‘Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel questions the thinking underlying a current controversy’. Change ‘thinking’ for ‘history’ – or even just add ‘historical’ – and you have the pitch for The Public Historian. But would it ever happen?
Radio 4 listeners clearly like their history and historical perspectives, explicit and implicit, are to be found everywhere (for example, the amazing interview with Konstanty Gebert in One to One on the underground press in Poland, in which he discussed comparisons with journalists in Arab spring countries, or Chris Stringer’s highly engaging recollections on The Life Scientific). So audience interest probably wouldn’t be an issue. But what about the academic side of things? Would historians be keen to take on the mantle of The Public Historian, even if the intention was no more radical than to ‘look for the past behind the present’ (the tagline of The Long View)? Or is the term ‘public history’ too contested, too misunderstood, too elusive or even too restrictive in this country?