On the Dangers of Court Historians

Schlesinger

Historian Arthur Schlesinger (in bow tie) was an adviser to JFK

Does the office of the President of the United States need a council of historians?  Two Harvard professors–Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson–think that it does.  In an Atlantic article that has been making the rounds on history-related social media, Allison and Ferguson write:

To address this deficit, it is not enough for a president to invite friendly historians to dinner, as Obama has been known to do. Nor is it enough to appoint a court historian, as John F. Kennedy did with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. We urge the next president to establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers. Historians made similar recommendations to Presidents Carter and Reagan during their administrations, but nothing ever came of these proposals. Operationally, the Council of Historical Advisers would mirror the Council of Economic Advisers, established after World War II. A chair and two additional members would be appointed by the president to full-time positions, and respond to assignments from him or her. They would be supported by a small professional staff and would be part of the Executive Office of the President.

For too long, history has been disparaged as a “soft” subject by social scientists offering spurious certainty. We believe it is time for a new and rigorous “applied history”—an attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing precedents and historical analogues. We not only want to see applied history incorporated into the Executive Office of the President, alongside economic expertise; we also want to see it developed as a discipline in its own right at American universities, beginning at our own. When people refer to “applied history” today, they are typically referring to training for archivists, museum curators, and the like. We have in mind a different sort of applied history, one that follows in the tradition of the modern historian Ernest May and the political scientist Richard Neustadt. Their 1986 book, Thinking in Time, provides the foundation on which we intend to build.

Mainstream historians take an event, phenomenon, or era and attempt to explain what happened. They sometimes say that they study the past “for its own sake.” Applied historians would take a current predicament and try to identify analogues in the past. Their ultimate goal would be to find clues about what is likely to happen, then suggest possible policy interventions and assess probable consequences. You might say that applied history is to mainstream history as medical practice is to biochemistry, or engineering is to physics. But those analogies are not quite right. In the realm of science, there is mutual respect between practitioners and theorists. In the realm of policy, by contrast, there is far too often mutual contempt between practitioners and academic historians. Applied history can try to remedy that.

My initial reaction to this piece was positive.  I am certainly in favor of bringing historical perspective to the policy decisions.  But if John Hope Franklin is correct, and historians are indeed the “conscience of the nation,” I wonder how their work as White House staff members could remain free of politics.

Jeremy Adelman, a historian at Princeton University, seems to have a more sensible take on all of this.

Here is a taste:

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?…

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 thissauve-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.

Read the entire piece here.