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.

Who Was More Complacent: The Leaders of Ancient Rome or Niall Ferguson?

In the wake of the Paris shootings, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson compared France’s “complacency” in allowing ISIS operatives into the country with the “complacency” of the Roman Empire in allowing the so-called “barbarians” to pass through its borders in the fifth century.  The final two sentences in his recent op-ed in The Australian sums it up best: “Poor, poor Paris.  Killed by complacency.”

Mark Humphries, who teaches ancient history at Swansea University, is having none of it.  I don’t know much about the 5th century or ancient Rome, and we don’t spend a lot of time there at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but I did find his response to Ferguson worth bringing to your attention.

Humphries writes at the blog of the History Department of Durham University:

In his op-ed, he argues that modern Europe, like the Roman empire in the 5th century AD, stands on the brink of collapse before insuperable external forces – but the 21st Europeans are too complacent to spot the obvious analogy. Where Rome faced barbarians, modern Europe faces Daesh. He quotes from Edward Gibbon’s lurid description of the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410, offering it as an obvious parallel to Friday’s massacre in Paris. Ferguson wants to push the parallel further: fifth century Rome was complacent about its frontier defences; so too, he argues on the basis of the recent influx of refugees, is modern Europe…
Ferguson admits he “do[es] not know enough about the fifth century” to trace what he would see as ancient parallels to the supine responses of modern European leaders to current threats. But I do know about the fifth century: it is my historical stomping ground, and I, along with others in the field (to judge by social media), have read Ferguson’s op-ed with dismay mounting to anger. He seriously misrepresents the historical experiences of the fifth century, which matters when a Harvard history professor purports to be presenting the past to a general audience. For all his lack of knowledge, Ferguson claims to have done some cursory research. In addition to Gibbon, he cites two important studies of the end of the Roman empire, both published in 2005: Bryan Ward-Perkins’s The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization and Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire.

But what he does with these works amounts to eye-wateringly simplistic distortion. For instance, basing his deductions on Peter Heather’s discussion of the economic attractions of the empire to its barbarian neighbours, he remarks: “Like the Roman empire in the early 5th century, Europe has allowed its defences to crumble. As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its malls and stadiums. At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.” Notice the pernicious conflation there between economic migrants and refugees: it is a point Ferguson labours elsewhere in his article, when he remarks “Things in their own countries have become just good enough economically for them to afford to leave and just bad enough politically for them to risk leaving.” For Ferguson, all these people, no matter how desperate their circumstances, represent an undifferentiated external threat.

There are other conflations too, this time underscoring an “us” versus “them” mentality of fear. He writes begrudgingly: “It is doubtless true to say that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe are not violent. But it is also true the majority hold views not easily reconciled with the principles of our liberal democracies, including our novel notions about sexual equality and tolerance not merely of religious diversity but of nearly all sexual proclivities.” But this is a straw man argument, producing a caricature of “us” that fails to account for the wide variety of opinions on matters of inclusion and tolerance to be found across Europe. In equal fashion, his construction of a Muslim “other” is a caricature devoid of nuance.
Gibbon, then, saw the demise of the Roman empire in the fifth century as a peculiarly western tragedy; it was also one that risked happening again. No modern specialist of the period would accept Gibbon’s analysis as anything more than the posturing of an Enlightenment intellectual decrying the forces of “superstition” and “barbarism”. That Ferguson chooses to do so fits neatly with the primacy and ascendancy of the West in his historical vision…
Poor, poor Ferguson. Undone by complacency.
Read the entire post here.