Historians (and Students of History) Influencing Public Policy on Capitol Hill and Beyond

Are you familiar with the National History Center‘s “Congressional Briefings” program?

The Center’s Congressional Briefings program aims to provide members of Congress and their staff with the historical background needed to understand the context of current legislative concerns.  It does so by bringing leading historians to Capitol Hill to provide non-partisan briefings on past events and policies that shape the issues facing Congress today.

In the last year, the Center has sponsored forums to help national legislators understand the historical context behind of a host of policy issues, including incarceration, tax reform, the Ukraine crisis, and the Ebola outbreak in Africa.  On December 4, 2015, the Center is sponsoring a briefing on the Voting Rights Act.  (I would love to see them do one on religion and the American founding.  I think a lot of GOP legislators need to be informed on this issue!)

This is an outstanding program.  It is yet another way to bring historical knowledge and thinking skills to some of the most important policy issues facing the United States today.

I was aware of the Congressional Briefings program, but I did not know that the National History Center had extended it to college students until Amanda Moniz, the Assistant Director of the Center, brought the Mock Policy Briefing Program to my attention. It is featured in her article in the October 2015 issue of Perspectives on History

Here is a taste:

This fall the National History Center is introducing the Mock Policy Briefings Program, modeled on our own Congressional Briefings by Historians initiative.

The inspiration for the Mock Policy Briefings Program comes from concerns and questions of colleagues and students. Last fall, in an address about the state of civic engagement in the United States, National Endowment for the Humanities chair William “Bro” Adams remarked that the humanities are the intellectual guardians of civic participation and challenged us to think about how we can strengthen civics education and practice. Later, one of the participants in our briefing last winter on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Mark Von Hagen of Arizona State University, told center staff that his students were surprised to learn that he, a historian, was going to Washington to brief congressional staffers.

The Mock Policy Briefings Program responds to Adams’s challenge and students’ curiosity about historians’ public role, along with broad concern in the discipline about declining history enrollments. The program has three goals. It aims to foster students’ understanding of the value of historical perspectives for policy decision making. It seeks to enhance students’ civic engagement by asking them to connect their historical studies to policy-making conversations. And, finally, it aims to help students recognize and showcase the skills and habits of mind they have gained from their history education.

This fall, Temple University’s Jessica Roney has incorporated the briefings model into a course on the history of the City of Brotherly Love. Examining local history within the context of national and international developments, her students will craft a briefing to bring a historical perspective to an issue currently facing Philadelphia policy makers. Members of the class are working both individually to research potential topics and collaboratively to choose and prepare the issue for the class briefing. Once they have identified appropriate policy makers and held a dress rehearsal near the end of the semester, they will hold the formal event before an audience of Philadelphia policy makers. (I am honored to have been invited to attend and offer feedback.) The final assignment for the course is a blog post reflecting on what students learned about how history shapes current policy considerations and how they can apply those lessons going forward. Watch AHA Today (blog.historians.org) to learn more about the students’ experiences.

Read the entire article here.  I especially recommend the section on how other history professors are using this model for student engagement with the past and the present in their classes.  This is definitely something to think about after I return to the classroom in Fall 2016.