Thank You Rick Shenkman!

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Rick Shenkman, the founder, publisher, and editor of History New Network (HNN), has retired.  In a farewell interview with M. Andrew Holowchak, Shenkman tells us why he founded HNN:

HNN began with a grievance.  During the impeachment of Bill Clinton, you may recall, there were cries that Congress censor him rather than impeach him.  In their reporting the media kept citing the censorship of Andrew Jackson and sometimes John Tyler.  I was doing research at the time for my book, Presidential Ambition, and knew that James Buchanan had been censured too.  I tried to contact various media outlets like ABC News and the New York Times to let them know about this forgotten moment in our history but got nowhere.  I fumed about this.  It seemed crazy that journalists would ignore a historian who had valuable information to add to an important debate. (Here is the article I wound up writing about censure.)

This was the genesis of HNN.  It seemed obvious to me that historians should have a national platform to help journalists and the public make sense of the news.  I set out to create one in 2000.  (We went online in 2001.) 

Today, of course, it is not uncommon for journalists to seek the expertise of historians.  Rick had something to do with that.

I check HNN every day.  It has become an invaluable resource. As a blogger who tries to keep my site fresh, I usually gravitate towards HNN’s “Breaking News” and “Historians” tabs in the top right corner of the website.  There have been many weekends when I need a few additional entries for my Sunday Night Odds and Ends feature and I always find something of note at HNN.

Rick has also made HNN a place to go for news, videos, and interviews from the American Historical Association and other conferences.  In fact, I first met Rick when he was covering an AHA meeting.  He was the guy running around the lobby conducting video interviews with historians who had just presented papers or talks.  In the process, he has done a wonderful service for the historical profession and the general public at large.

An accomplished historian in his own right, Rick has long served as a model for how to bring good history to public audiences.  His work at HNN has inspired my own work in this area and has certainly influenced what I do at this blog.

I came to HNN through the late Ralph Luker‘s blog Cliopatria.  Luker was one of the first historians to see the potential of blogging.  A check of his daily link roundup became a daily ritual for me.   I remember hoping that one day I might receive a “Cliopatria Award” for history blogging, but it never happened. 😦

In November, Rick e-mailed to tell me that he was retiring and wanted to run one more of my pieces.  I pitched a piece based on my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and Rick published it on December 30, 2018, his last issue.  Just recently he wrote to inform me that a piece I had published earlier in the year was one of the most read posts of 2018.

Rick has been publishing my stuff for nearly fifteen years.  Some of my pieces have been original to HNN and others have been reposts from other sites, including The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  I will always appreciate his willingness to bring my writing to a larger audience.  Thanks, Rick!  Enjoy your retirement!  I am sure that HNN is in good hands at George Washington University under the leadership of Kyla Sommers.

Here are most of the pieces I have published over the years at History News Network:

Trump’s White Evangelicals are Nostalgic for an American Past that Never Existed for Blacks and Others (13-30-18)

Why is Christian America supporting Donald Trump (6-29-18)

John Fea’s new book sets out to explain why 81% of white American evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016 (6-19-18)

You Are Never Going to Believe Which Verse Was Most Quoted in American Newspapers Between 1840 and 1920 (6-15-18)

The Discipline of the History Professor in the Age of Trump (9-13-17)

What the Trump Presidency Reveals About American Christianity and Evangelicalism: An Interview with John Fea (7-30-17)

Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity (7-17-17)

Historian John Fea’s twitterstorm in defense of the NEH (3-16-17)

John Fea warns evangelicals to be wary of David Barton (2-2-17)

What Was Missing from Trump’s Inaugural Address? (1-25-17)

Another Kind of Identity Politics (12-10-16)

Still Misleading America About Thomas Jefferson (2-7-16)

Has the Sesquicentennial of the U.S. Civil War Been a Failure? (4-29-14)

Why K-12 Teachers Should Attend the American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting (12-12-13)

William Pencak, R.I.P. (12-9-13)

Why Didn’t Obama Say “Under God” in His Recitation of the Gettysburg Address? (11-20-13)

Is a Historian Worth $1.6 Million? (11-23-11)

Interviewing at the AHA (12-30-09)

The Limits of Cosmopolitanism in Early America (5-25-08)

Are Christian Conservatives “Christian” or “Conservative” (11-30-07)

Is America a Christian Nation?  What Both Left and Right Get Wrong (9-30-07)

Protestant America’s Selective Embrace of the Pope’s Teachings (4-17-05)

The Messages You May Have Missed Reading Dr. Seuss (3-8-04)

Scholars Respond to Trump’s Border Policy

immigrants

The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a piece on the way scholars stepped-up to the plate during the “Trump border crackdown.”  I am glad that The Chronicle is noticing our work.  Here is a taste of Mark Parry’s article:

…In recent weeks, seemingly every Trump immigration move has prompted a real-time counter-mobilization of academic research, either by scholars themselves or by journalists calling on their expertise.

You see that in John Fea and Yoni Appelbaum’s breakdowns of how a biblical passage cited by the attorney general was used by defenders of slavery. You see it in Aliza Luft and Daniel Solomon’s analysis of Trump’s animalizing rhetoric. You see it in the debate over whether it’s fair to call America’s migrant detention centers concentration camps. (The answer, say two experts, is a qualified yes.)

For some scholars, research that had percolated for years suddenly carries an immediate resonance. On Monday, for example, the political scientists Emily M. Farris and Heather Silber Mohamed published a journal article documenting how news outlets stoke fear of Latino immigrants through imagery depicting them as criminals. Farris drew on her research in a Twitter thread contrasting two images that have shaped the family-separation narrative: the photo of a little girl crying as a border agent frisks her mother, and a picture released by the Trump administration of faceless boys in detention.

“We should think about how those images play a role in who we think is deserving of our concern,” Farris, an assistant professor at Texas Christian University, said in an interview. She added, “Images are powerful, and we don’t necessarily think about them as mediums for the ways we can interpret different policies.”

In interviews with The Chronicle, other historians and political scientists emphasized a dilemma of engaging this debate: how to raise alarms about the potential for human-rights abuses while conveying a nuanced understanding of a fast-changing situation. (Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday intended to stop family separations. It remained unclear on Friday how relatives would be reunited.)

The academics’ challenge is complicated by a paradox of scholarly communication right now. Thanks to social media and the proliferation of outlets like Vox and Monkey Cage, scholars are mixing it up in public like never before. But some scholars are frustrated that academe’s fact-backed warnings don’t penetrate to policy makers or large swaths of the public. Their struggle: getting readers to consider their evidence without dismissing them as Ivory Tower elites yet again denouncing Trump.

Read the entire piece here.

Historians Weigh-In on Trump’s War with the FBI

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Vox has collected nine historians to reflect on the Donald Trump’s belief that the FBI is plotting against himSean Illing has gathered responses from Douglas Charles (Penn State), Rhodri-Jeffryss Jones (Edinburgh), Meg Jacobs (Princeton), Carol Anderson (Emory), Ivan Greenberg, Morton Keller (Brandeis), Timothy Naftali (NYU), H.W. Brands (Texas-Austin), and David Stebenne (Ohio State).

Here is Jones:

The contest of wills between Trump and the FBI is not so much a part of a long-term battle between the president and the director of intelligence as much as it is the latest episode in the GOP effort to sideline and discredit the Russia investigation.

When Christopher Wray testified during his confirmation hearings, he assured the Senate committee he was “not faint of heart.” If and when necessary, he would be willing to stand up to the president. And so far, it looks like he’s living up to his promise. However, the fight over the House Republican memo is less about historical precedence or weakening of the checks on the presidency than it is a reflection of the polarized politics we are living through and, more generally, the attack on the credibility of all government institutions.

The memo scandal is a move on behalf of the White House … to tarnish the reputation of the FBI and of the Justice Department, and by extension call into doubt the motives of the Mueller investigation. In that way, it takes us further down the path of turning every development in the investigation into a partisan ploy.

That, of course, is nothing new — think of the attacks on Kenneth Star by the Clinton White House. But here, the charges are not simply that Mueller is an overzealous prosecutor, but rather that the FBI tried to help throw an entire election. The House memo seems like it will suggest that the FBI was implicated in an attempted coup. The long-term significance of the memo release is that it may confirm for some how few in government can be trusted to act in an independent and honest way, even the FBI —which has historically been seen as beyond the partisan fray.

Read the entire piece here.

More on Historians as Pundits

WoodwardToday we published two posts on a small debate raging over how historians should engage in public discourse.   After Moshik Temkin published a piece at The New York Times titled “Historians Should Not Be Pundits,” Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller responded at The Atlantic.  Earlier today I discussed these issues with historian and author Amy Bass on her New York radio show (WVOX) “Conversations with Amy Bass.”

Joe Adelman, an American history who teaches at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, has also weighed-in with a helpful critique of Temkin’s piece.  It is published (with permission) below:

Like many historians, I awoke this morning and recoiled when I opened Twitter and stumbled into an New York Times op-ed piece entitled, “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.” The author, a historian at the Harvard Kennedy School, argues that he is concerned by what he believes is “the rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented, as if it’s mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies.” He then offers examples of such analogies, and suggests that instead historians should address a variety of “historical processes” that led to the current day. I found the essay frustrating (and judging by my Twitter and Facebook feeds, I’m not alone in that feeling among historians), but set it aside to go about my day.

But the essay has stuck with me for three reasons, so here I am to respond. First, the headline (which was almost certainly not written by the column’s author), which is delightfully ironic in placing the construction “X Shouldn’t Be Pundits” at the corner of Main Street and Broadway in Punditville, USA (i.e., the New York Times opinion page). Second, the essay employs a series of straw men. Somewhere out there, the author assures us, are historians making “facile analogies” between the politics and personalities of 2017 and Adolf Hitler, Richard Nixon, and Huey Long. Sure, I’ve seen a few of those pieces, and so have you, but they are far from the majority of work that historians have done in the past six months. Even when I have seen essays that employed analogy, they were rarely “facile.”

It’s particularly useful here to note that Temkin is wrong in one of his examples, in which he claims that C. Vann Woodward avoided analogy in his classic study, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. One scholar quickly found evidence that Woodward had specifically said that he did use analogies, and in direct reference to Strange Career.

So historians are using analogies, but there’s a very good reason for that: analogies are in the air. I hesitate to generalize broadly at the risk of committing the same sin I just condemned, but anecdotally I can offer from the classroom and public talks in the community that one of the more common frames people use to ask questions is, “so is X like Y?” Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no, but it’s an impulse that seems common (at least among my own students and the audiences I encounter). In my own case, I demur on questions too much about the late twentieth century, since it’s far outside my research specialty. However, I will engage on most analogies that deal with the Civil War or earlier, and use what’s offered in the question to work towards an effective answer. As Woodward notes in the tweeted quotation, analogies aren’t meant to capture direct comparison, but rather a way to set something familiar side by side with something less so.

Prof. Temkin wants historians to engage the public and offer factual and nuanced portraits of the past. I agree. But especially when speaking outside the profession, whether in an essay for a news publication, at a public talk, or in the classroom, that means we need to start with where our audience is and work from there. And many of them are working from analogy.

Zelizer and Keller Respond to Moshik Temkin

Historians

Earlier today we posted on Moshik Temkin’s New York Times piece “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.”  Over at The Atlantic, historians Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller have also responded to Temkin’s piece.  Here is a taste of Zelizer’s response:

As he suggests toward the end of his piece, historians are particularly well positioned to place current events in longer time frames and to offer more perspective on the origins of a certain situation (another point that May and Neustadt made in their classic work). For my own part, I have spent much of my time on CNN and here in The Atlantic trying to explain how the Donald Trump presidency can only be understood within the context of the strengthened role of partisanship in Washington since the 1970s and the transformation of the news media. In other words, I have tried to show that President Trump is not a cause of our current political environment but a product of changes that have been building for years.Sometimes comparisons with the past, even if imperfect, are very useful. Most of the good historical work in the media does not claim that Trump is President Nixon. Rather, the point is that the institution of the presidency creates certain incentives and opportunities for abusing power and that some people who have held these positions have done just that. That is crucial to remember, just like the ways that the institutional fragmentation of our political system perpetually creates huge amounts of friction between the president and Congress, as well as between the parties, despite the endless nostalgia about how things worked better in the past.

Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture—something my friends in political science always remind me of. Claiming that we can’t look at these kind of continuities and similarities is in many ways moving in the opposite direction of what historians do. Some of the best books in American history, such as J.G.A. Pocock’s classic book on the history of Republican ideology, look over decades and even across national-lines to explain how history unfolds. It is possible for historians to take the long view and provide this kind of useful analysis in 800 words or even a five-minute television discussion. It has to be short, it has be to the point, but it can be as insightful and on point as anything said in the classroom.

Read the entire piece here.

Historians and History Teachers in the Age of Trump

hisotry-class

Last week I got a nice note from a former student. Let’s call him Patrick.

Patrick is a recent college graduate and a relatively new history teacher. He wrote to tell me that his middle-school principal recently praised him for his good work in the classroom.  In the course of their conversation the principal said, “history is important, particularly now.”

Patrick’s principal is right. Good history is always important, but it is especially needed in times of great social and political change.  We are living in a day and age when historians and history teachers must serve as a “check” on presidential power.

Donald Trump gave history teachers a gift when he released his executive order banning immigration from 7 predominantly Muslim nations. When the 9th Circuit Court refused to overturn a federal judge’s decision to stop this ban, classroom lessons on the separation of powers came took on new significance. The Executive Branch went too far and the Judicial Branch, at least for the moment, put a stop to it.  Chalk it up as a victory for the Constitution.  The facts of the textbook met the realities of current events.  This is every history teacher’s dream.

The separation of powers is not the only way to keep the President of the United States in check.  A free press holds the government accountable to the people. Freedom of speech and the right to assemble, as we have seen in American cities every weekend since Trump took office, is a means of getting the President’s attention and exercising dissent.

It is time that those of us who are called to teach and write about the American past must use our First Amendment rights to be part of the dissent.

Sometimes our public work as historians is as simple as correcting the historical record when it is being abused by those in power.

For example, earlier this month Kellyanne Conway, a senior official in the Trump White House, introduced us to something called the “Bowling Green Massacre.”

I imagine that there were people who saw and heard Conway’s conversation with television host Chris Matthews and believed her claim that two Iraqi refugees in 2011 led a “massacre” of Americans in the town of Bowling Green, Kentucky.  By claiming that such an event happened (it did not) and giving her fake story a historically-sounding name like the “Bowling Green Massacre,” Conway was trying to instill fear in ordinary Americans.  It was a blatant attempt to fabricate history in order to justify her boss’s immigration ban.  History teaches us that tyrants often manipulate the past to buttress their power.

Historians quickly debunked Conway’s fake history, but the damage had already been done.  The day after the Conway’s interview with Matthews I was speaking to a Trump voter who referenced the “Bowling Green Massacre” as a Muslim terrorist attack that could have been avoided if Trump’s ban had been in place in 2011.  A poll by Public Polling Policy found that over half of Trump supporters still believe that the President’s executive order is justified by the “Bowling Green Massacre.”

Historians might also show that Americans have been banning immigrants based on country of origin or religious faith for a long time.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 excluded people from coming to the United States on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or country of origin. The Johnson-Reed Act, which banned most immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, remained in place until 1965.

Historians must remind us, in this age of Donald Trump, that we as a nation have not always lived up to our highest ideals.  Their work can remind us that we have failed in the past and encourage us, perhaps this time around, to follow our better angels.

But most importantly, historians offer ways of thinking about the world that we desperately need right now.  History teachers challenge students to make evidence-based arguments. They spend time showing students how to write footnotes and cite sources correctly because they do not want them to speak or write in public without research to support their conclusions.  They counter “fake news” with facts.

In this regard they teach the nation’s young people how not to be like Donald Trump.

History teachers challenge students to enter imaginatively into the thoughts and motivations of the people they encounter in the past.  They teach students to listen before judging and to empathize before criticizing.  They want students to consider the public statements of our leaders in context, and to call them out when they play fast and loose with the past for the purpose of political gain.

There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution about the role that historians and history teachers play in the checking of presidential power.  But we need them now–perhaps more than ever.

Is History Hot?

Anxious-Bench-squareOver at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz responds to Jason Steinhauer‘s recent piece for Inside Higher Ed about how history can contribute to public life.

Here is a taste of Gehrz’s piece:

I’m glad that more and more of us seem to take an interest in helping the public to think historically about the past. (All the more so when one alternative is a politician encouraging frightened voters to think nostalgically about the past.) This is no accident: in many corners of the guild, we’ve received encouragement to move out of our comfort zones and use new and old media to communicate with wider audiences.

Indeed, Steinhauer has elsewhere urged at least some historians to take on the role of “history communicators” and

advocate for policy decisions informed by historical research; step beyond the walls of universities and institutions and participate in public debates; author opinion pieces; engage in conversation with policymakers and the public; and work diligently to communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal across print, video, and audio. Most important, History Communicators will stand up for history against simplification, misinformation, or attack and explain basic historical concepts that we in the profession take for granted.

Indeed, blogs like The Anxious Bench have sprung up in large part because more and more historians want to “communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal….” As many of us continue to wrestle with Alan Jacobs’ widely-discussed Harper’s essay, “The Watchmen,” I’d point to AB colleagues like Philip Jenkins, Tommy Kidd, and John Fea as sustaining a (vanishing?) tradition of “serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage.”

At the same time, I also think it’s important that historians and other Christian intellectuals continue to take up what Tracy McKenzie has called our “vocation to the church.” In my Trump post, I quoted John Hope Franklin’s famous claim that historians can serve as “the conscience of his nation, if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.” By the same token, I think Christian historians might sometimes serve as the “conscience of the church,” helping fellow believers to confess and learn from those moments when we fall short of our calling as the Body of Christ. For example, Justin Taylor has been doing a nice job of this at the new Gospel Coalition history blog he shares with Kidd, writing multiple posts on racism and segregation in the history of evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

A lot of good stuff here.  Read the entire piece.

And Gerhz is right when he says that some of us “continue to wrestle” with Alan Jacobs’s Harper‘s essay “The Watchmen.”  I hope to get some posts up on the Jacobs piece soon.  Stay tuned.

On the Dangers of Court Historians

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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.

More Historians on “Historians Against Trump”

HistoryTrumpThe debate over whether historians should sign a letter opposing Donald Trump’s POTUS candidacy has received a lot of attention.  (See our coverage here).

A few of these conversations took place yesterday on my Facebook page.  I asked some of the historians who wrote on my page for permission to publish their thoughts here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

John Haas, Bethel College (IN):

Back in the 1920s and ’30s sociologist William F. Ogburn was on the war path trying to discredit the notion that social scientists should be engaged with the present at all in their professional work. His strongest argument, it seems to me (if I recall correctly) was that taking stands on contemporary controversies would politicize their work, and ruin their reputations as objective scientists generally.

The problem, to get back to your specific question, is that in a democratic society history will be used to justify numerous courses of action to the people, and it’s the “lessons of the past” that the people are interested in. Politicians and pundits will generate and disseminate them, using them for their purposes, even if we won’t.

We can sit back and say, “Well, it’s far more complicated than that,” or “The discontinuities with the past outweigh continuities, rendering those ‘lessons’ dubious,” or just, “Read my book,” but the people have no patience for that. And who can blame them? The enlightenment dream of an educated and virtuous republic never imagined that the attainment of reliable knowledge upon which policies would then be constructed would be such a difficult, immense, contentious and ambiguous task. It takes years of full-time devoted study even to a corner of the field before you really start to know anything. The public can’t do that, and without doing it, they have a very hard time judging among contending voices.

If historians drop into the political realm, they run the danger of being dismissed as mere partisans. (Andrew Bacevich is a great example–theologically and politically conservative, his reputation among his fellow conservatives was trashed when he came out for Obama in 2008. The intense tribal-loyalty dynamics of contemporary politics makes this almost unavoidable.) But, on the other hand, if historians won’t speak up, others will, spinning out “lessons of the past” to suit their agendas, and the people, hearing no other voices, will begin absorbing those “lessons.”

It’s not particularly helpful to say so, but never mind: When we do this–if we do it–it needs to be done really well. Put simply, too many historians sound like any other partisans when they’re weighing in on political issues. I believe we need to stick to our guns: Use a scientific, positivist literary style–unemotional, grounded in facts (especially statistics), etc.–and simply hammer the conclusion in place. Jettison adjectives. Kill anything that even shows the promise of becoming a darling. Be as careful in formulating “lessons” as in determining matters of mundane fact. Practice, in other words, the virtues of professional restraint.

I’m not, to be honest, convinced we’re up to the task. But I think there’s no alternative. The stakes are too high.

Katy McDaniel, Marietta College (OH):

This is a great exchange. To my way of thinking, historians should not *routinely* publicly comment on specific political candidates in a campaign season in this fashion. However, there are times, there are times. And in these times, I think we historians bear the responsibility of informed commentary, of recognition and identification of dangerous demagoguery, even in such a direct manner: that’s a part of our jobs as historians in a democratic society. Otherwise, our silence makes us complicit in what would surely prove to be a disastrous shift in our country, perhaps even away from democracy. This is not hubris; it is responsibility.

Bill Kerrigan, Muskingum College (OH)

I find this whole argument that historians, as historians, “should not” publicly express their views on national politics bizarre. The implicit assumption is that voters need to be protected from such speech because they might be unable to assess the validity of the arguments the historians are making. But of course we know that voters reject arguments and evidence presented all the time. Sometimes for sound reasons, sometimes because they are simply not open to considering perspectives that challenge their already firm beliefs. Fish’s argument, it seems to me is really just another variant on the one that tries to silence a celebrity, for example, for expressing a view on politics, on the grounds that their profession does not qualify them to have any particular insight. Collectively, these types of arguments are harmful because they discourage people from all walks of life from being engaged in the public square. They encourage political apathy, and are I believe, a threat to democracy. Let a group of historians present their view as historians. Let dissenting historians present their own counterviews. Let soap opera stars, and minimum wage workers, and plumbers, and housepainters, and hedge fund managers all publicly present their views. Surely each comes to the table with a distinct perspective that can contribute to the debate. And trust ordinary citizens to listen and read them all, hopefully with a critical but open mind. Let’s stop telling people, or groups of people, that publicly expressing political concerns is a form of hubris. It is fundamentally an anti-intellectual, anti-democratic argument to make.

Historians on the Hill

capitol-hill-washington-dcOver at AHA Today, Justene Hill interviews Molly Michelmore, a history professor at Washington & Lee University and the chair of the “Historians on the Hill” Advisory Council.  “Historians on the Hill” is a project of the National History Center designed to bring history to bear on public policy decisions through the cultivation of relationships between historians and congressional staffers.

Here is a taste of Hill’s interview with Michelmore:

What are the broad goals of the Historians on the Hill group?

The most important goal is to cultivate relationships between historians, policy makers, and their staff. Members of Congress can benefit from historians’ expertise on important policy issues and historians can get their work into the public sphere, especially if there is a legislative component. This can be a mutually beneficial relationship, connecting the world of policy to the world of academia. Members of Congress and their staff gain a better understanding of the history of legislative issues and historians learn how to tailor their research towards new nonacademic audiences.

How was your experience working on Capitol Hill informed by your history undergraduate degree?

When I was in college, I first worked on the Hill as an intern during the summer before my sophomore year. Then I completed a senior thesis on the history of modern American welfare policies. This was at the time when politicians were debating the merits of the 1996 welfare reform law and working on the Hill gave me an interesting perspective on this debate. After I graduated from college, I decided to move to Washington, DC, to work on Capitol Hill. First I worked as a staff assistant for Senator Barbara Boxer of California. Then I worked in the House of Representatives (for Congressman Jerry Kleczka) as a legislative coordinator and a legislative assistant.

One of the greatest aspects about working on the Hill right out of college was that most of the work was done, and is done, by people under the age of 25. Being a young person on the Hill provided a lot of opportunities to learn about how Congress works and legislative processes. And knowing how Congress works and knowing how to do legislative research is important to my work as a historian because I focus on the legislative history of American welfare policies. Having that first-hand experience working on the Hill was helpful to my research.

How did your time working on the Hill influence your approach to graduate school in history?

I did a lot of research while working on the Hill and the ability to do that kind of research was easily translatable in graduate school. Most importantly, I learned how to say things quickly and explain ideas clearly because members of Congress want information distilled as succinctly as possible. Congressional staffers are working on so many issues at one time that being able to understand complex ideas and communicate them clearly is an important tool. These skills helped me as I made my way through graduate school, completed the dissertation, and continued my career as a professor. I also realized while in grad school that my chances of getting a tenure-track job in history were not great. So, I decided to focus on policy history because it was a good fit for me and if I couldn’t get a teaching job, I could still use the skills that I gained to get a job outside of academia.

Read the entire interview here.

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.