“Our history teachers readied us for this dumb sh*t”: public history and the political present

If ever we need historians, it’s now.

Niall Ferguson has recently urged the President to convene a Council of Historians for the ‘United States of Amnesia’. It seems unlikely that Trump would be interested in understanding the past – ever the assertive businessman, he insisted on Twitter he calls his own shots – or that any historical perspective would survive the ‘alternative facts’ treatment.

Historians may find the current political climate frankly pretty scary. In November, three judges ruled that the British Prime Minister needed Parliament’s support to begin the process of leaving the EU – and were duly accused of being ‘enemies of the people’ on the Daily Mail front page. The historical alarm bells were deafening.

On the other hand, the ignorance of and hostility to history around at the moment can be a galvanising force. The social historian George Gosling (@gcgosling) posted the photo below of a protest placard in Birmingham. As someone interested in the potential of public history as activism, this was an encouraging moment in the midst of widely felt distress and anger.

george-gosling-protest-banner-tweet
‘Our history teachers readied us for this dumb sh*t’. @J_C_Graney_Art‘s placard at protest against US travel ban, Birmingham. Via @gcgosling

So, for me, finding the ‘public’ in public history is no longer just intellectually interesting but politically pressing. What I mean is that public history can’t just be popular history. It has to also be about giving people – the public – historical resources to think with. History with public purpose if you like.

The idea that history was key to sound political judgement – that history and politics belong to one another – is as old as the discipline itself. But historians in the UK have only really been engaging seriously with policymakers in the last ten years or so, led by the efforts of History and Policy. Public history, however, has never really claimed this territory as its own, wary perhaps of ceding the more politically conducive ground of history-from-below informed collaborative projects with local institutions and community heritage groups.

We don’t have the luxury of that choice any more. My latest post for the international blog-journal Public History Weekly  makes the case:

In a world in which the “voice of the people” is being celebrated by populist politicians in defence of often xenophobic nativist agendas, we need to revisit what the “public” in “public history” means. While popular engagement with the past may always provide orientation for the field, a truly public history must also be concerned with the political present. If we don’t give people access to intellectual resources of our discipline, we cannot then lament the use and abuse of history in public debate. Let’s unpick our terms.

Read on here: Keywording the Field: From Popular to Public History? – Public History Weekly

A Skeptical Note on Policy-Prescriptive Political Science

work shedJay Ulfelder’s recent ‘skeptical note’ on the ‘actionability’ of political science research makes some essential points about the problematic assumptions underpinning policy recommendations. In Britain, the Blairite manifesto pitch ‘what counts is what works’ subdues the complexities of research method that might, at best, conclude ‘what works here’ (with further caveats about target population and other central aspects of the design).
I’m not sure, however, that scholars of any discipline should therefore refrain from proposing recommendations or, even more cautiously, withdraw from offering expert advice.

One of the important problems Ulfelder identifies is the uncertainties that are involved in the space between research and policy. How can a scholar answer the ‘so what?’ question that follows from any finding?  There are two issues that we can unpack here.

The first is the inevitability, indeed, the necessity, of uncertainty. Policy is messy, unstable and contested because it involves human beings and their beliefs, habits, commitments, decisions and relationships – in the exercise of power, the exertion of influence, in policy implementation and debate. Instead of searching for the definitive research design to address all the assumptions about the transferability of findings – or indeed, just leaving it to ‘elected officials and bureaucrats’ to do the interpretation – we should be bringing together different disciplines with complementary insights. Given the uncertainties of anything involving human beings, the humanities need to be in there too, rather than ignored as irrelevant, if not ornamental.

The other issue is the ‘so what?’ question. I agree it’s hard for scholars to come up with policy recommendations, but that’s at least in part due to their lack of experience of policymaking in practice. In the UK, there is far less interchange between higher education and government than in the USA and the academic career is still pretty intolerant of periods spent in other settings, something that needs to change. Taking a look over the fence and trying to prescribe policy interventions based on research designed for academic purposes seems foolish at best, if not rather arrogant as well as misguided. Humanities scholars may be largely ignored, but we can often be too concerned to preserve our integrity by not allowing policy concerns to ‘sully’ our work.

This seems a rather self-defeating formula. Policymakers don’t get access to an ecosystem of expertise. Scholars remain on the far side of the fence lamenting the intellectual illiteracy of political rhetoric and decision-making.

But does it need to be this way? I don’t think so. But there’s no easy policy prescription for fixing it, as it involves major shifts in perspective among scholars – towards actively looking for cross-disciplinary approaches – and in policy communities that often have limited conceptions of ‘relevant’ evidence.

Being honest in response to a request for expert advice is not just about admitting the limits of one’s own expertise but also the limits of one’s own discipline. It’s the mix that matters, but it’s not easy for the expert to admit it.

Dart-Throwing Chimp

My sometimes-colleague Michael Horowitz wrote a great piece for War on the Rocks last week on what “policy relevance” means for political scientists who study international affairs, and the different forms that relevance can take. Among the dimensions of policy relevance he calls out is the idea of “policy actionability”:

Policy actionability refers to a recommendation that is possible to implement for the target of the recommendation. Most academic work is not policy actionable, fundamentally. For example, implications from international relations research are things such as whether countries with high male-to-female ratios are more likely to start military conflicts or that countries that acquire nuclear weapons become harder to coerce.

As Michael notes, most scholarship isn’t “actionable” in this way, and isn’t meant to be. In my experience, though, there is plenty of demand in Washington and elsewhere for policy-actionable research on international affairs, and there is a subset of scholars…

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Self-herding, discrimination, pride and defiance: thinking about badges

One of my teammates in the university football team had a wooden sign on her door: ‘Mathematics Department’.  She was training as a teacher after her maths degree and had been given the sign after a school clearout.  It was of the era of flip-top desks with inkwells and a fine thing in its own right.  But it also captured my imagination – I’ve always hankered after a history one since then.  I guess we all love a label.  We like to badge ourselves, thereby both defining for ourselves and declaring to others aspects of our identity we deem important – which club we support, which political party or band we prefer…  The idea of taking sides in the antagonisms of celebrity life is one of the more recent examples –  Marina Hyde recently gave a sharp critique of the inclination to ‘self-herd’ in this way after David Cameron professed his allegiance to ‘Team Nigella‘.

Badges can also have a more sinister side, of course.  They can be applied to people to define them as different – inferior, suspect, a legitimate target.  The patches, hats and other distinguishing items and marks that Jews were required by law to wear at times in medieval European states predated the Nazi yellow star by centuries.  In the concentration camps of the Third Reich, extensive systems of insignia defined inmates by their initial ‘crimes’, such as political prisoners, homosexuals and asocials, and also by aggravating factors: a ‘repeat offender’, a flight risk, Jewishness…

Badges can also turn others’ discriminatory labelling into statements of defiance.  The ‘March on Washington’ button badges on sale in the bookstore near the Martin Luther King, Jnr memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC don’t just serve as marks of homage or respect.  They also make a statement about the present day and the as yet incomplete fulfilment of equality of opportunity.  Such badges are also a kind of visual shorthand for a collection of political ideas (not necessarily clearly defined or coherently assembled, or even historically consistent) and invite the viewer to associate the wearer with them (badges on sale at public history sites would make for a very interesting research project – maybe it’s already been done).  We can ‘badge’ ourselves in many different ways too; when Barack Obama took his second oath of office on bibles used by King and by Abraham Lincoln, those books played a similar symbolic role.

Credit: Wikipedia
Credit: Wikipedia

As an aside, an excellent session at the American Historical Association conference explored significant shifts in the design process of the MLK memorial, including the omission of King’s own strident references to race from one of the quotations etched into the inscription wall that encloses the statue of King as the ‘rock of hope’.  A pen was to be in King’s hand as he looked across the water to the Jefferson memorial, pointing to the ‘promissory note’ that the architects of the republic had written ‘to which every American was to fall heir’: a note on which America had defaulted insofar as her citizens of color are concerned’.  A rolled-up scroll is all that survived of this plan.

Credit: Marjory Collins (1943), Library of Congress
Credit: Marjory Collins (1943), Library of Congress

A badge to show a certain defiance, as well as pride, is evident in the display of service flags in American windows to show sons on active military duty.  They emerged in the First World War and were then widely adopted and subject to standardisation and codification – although a blue star for each son (or, now, daughter) in service and a gold star for those who had died have emerged as common practice. The flags have become symbols around which communities can build: Blue Star Mothers and American Gold Star Mothers interestingly accord a special status to the grief and the subsequent activism of mothers (and a proposed monument will give that status material form).

The badges that announce our disciplinary affiliations are, of course, of a different order.  The specialisation that many disciplines underwent in the second half of the twentieth century proliferated sub-fields, and new ones continue to emerge.  We can now be rather specific about our academic identities, should we so wish.  The question is why we would wish to do so – why do we like to label ourselves – and others – within academe?  A certain anxiety could be one reason.  The outgoing AHA President, Kenneth Pomeranz, noted in his recent annual conference lecture, that historians didn’t come to be unified by methodology, as did certain social sciences.  Many historians’ skills are to be found in other fields, albeit not in history’s distinctive combination nor field of application.  Does that mean that we feel the need for badges more than others?  If so, does it matter?

I don’t know the answer to either question.  I guess badges are fine if we use them mindfully.  We need to be aware of how they help – in helping to create a community of enquiry, for example – as well as how they might hinder us.  This concern seems particularly relevant for public history, which can all too easily become the place ‘over there’ where stuff can be placed so it doesn’t interfere with core business: community engagement, student employability, research impact and questions of ‘relevance’.  We need to ask what the price we may pay for public history being identified as a specialism.  The case for a more integrative agenda with ‘academic’ history is, it seems to me, a persuasive one.  I wonder what such a badge for history would look like?

This post was written during a visit to the US.

Public history and public policy: A view from across the pond

A re-blog of my recent post on the National Council on Public History’s Public History Commons, History@Work (comments welcome – please add to the original):

Looking from across the pond, the maturity and scale of public history as a discipline and a sector in the US is a striking phenomenon.  The narrative is well-established: the crisis in the academic job market; the emergence of new contexts for historical employment, in preservation, education and regeneration; the entrepreneurship of universities in structuring the supply of skilled professionals through new programmes emphasising workplace skills and experience.

The story is of course rather longer and more complex, nuanced and interesting than this, as I discovered during my comparative research on public history in different national settings.  In the UK, the contrast could not be more marked. The academic discipline here has also experienced periods of contraction and pressure.  But we have not seen the ‘push’ factor from higher education in terms of imagining (and foregrounding) the many pathways a historical education could lead to (and hence also what historical education could mean).  Nor is there much evidence of the ‘pull’ factor from employment markets such as government or business for historically-oriented roles.

The absence of such drivers for development and innovation is, I think, one element of the explanation for why public history in the UK remains rather tentative, even marginal, gaining some traction only in a few universities and remaining preoccupied with a narrower agenda than the American field.  Apart from a small number of pioneering MA courses, public history tends to be represented only by a single module in a ‘mainstream’ history programme.

One of the connections we have largely missed in the UK – to our detriment – is that between history and policy.  And here the US example is illuminating.   There have been some attempts to inform policy making–most notably the History and Policy network, which has done vital work in putting the cause of better public policy on the historian’s radar and raising the profile of the study of the past with politicians and the media.  These efforts have not, however, been located within a broader public history field.  One consequence of this, it seems to me, is that such efforts draw on the methodological models of academic history rather than seeking to create user-oriented and collaborative alternatives.

The importance of such alternatives is persuasively put by Duncan Macrae, Jnr and Dale Wittington in their 1997 work on expert advice for policy choice.  As few policy problems can be addressed by one expert community alone, cooperation and division of labour across disciplinary boundaries is needed to equip the decision-maker with the best possible advice. Communication must run, they argue, not only between experts but also between experts and users – and in both directions.  Macrae and Whittington draw attention to the benefits of having instruction in public policy analysis built into training in the basic disciplines, so that graduates are able to translate their specialism into salient policy advice (whatever the context they may work in).  History is only given a passing reference, but the work has much to offer the wandering public historian with an interest in policy.

I hope that as the academic history community in the UK develops its undergraduate and graduate programmes in public history, we will be open to such possibilities.  There is much we can learn from the US in this regard.  We should also take note of how early in the development of the professional discipline a sense of the importance of historians’ contribution to democratic institutions and processes emerged (for example, Benjamin Shambaugh’s School of Iowa Research Historians).

I am very much looking forward to hearing Shambaugh’s biographer and former NCPH President, Professor Rebecca Conard, speak at this year’s Higher Education Academy conference on Teaching History in Higher Education.  Public History can and should be so much more than museums and archives, heritage and commemoration, important as those dimensions are.  It is, in Alfred J. Andrea’s words, the application of ‘the dimension of historical time in helping to meet the practical and intellectual needs of society at large’.  And that is a definition worth aspiring to.

What should a public historian do with 3 hours in Paris?

A quick Google search will yield plenty of advice for travellers on a tight timescale (for example the Independent’s ’48 hours’ series).  You can be guided through the unmissable sights as well as pointed to some gems off the tourist trail.

Public historians are probably more likely than most to seek to make use of little parcels of time in a new place as busman’s holidays.  So with 3 hours in Paris in August, I’m hoping that the wonder of the web will allow me to gather the ideas of fellow travellers, public historians or otherwise.

So what are the unmissable stops and the hidden gems for public history in Paris?  Which places or experiences capture something important or striking about the way history is put to use, presented, represented or explored, in French public life?  Which offer a counterpoint to our understandings of public history/history in public in the UK or US?

Please do leave your comments here and I’ll use the blog to discuss my planning as well as to report back. Someone may already have got there, but, if not, would there be a market for an online space for public historians (broadly and inclusively defined) to share their tips for “trade tourism”?