Should historians be public intellectuals?

The idea that some (if not all ) historians should aim to become ‘public intellectuals’ is one that is increasingly heard: sometimes as a lament for a Golden Age when such people were prominent, sometimes as a challenge that should be accepted by today’s historians. (At this point any serious discussion of the topic should include a brief outline of the history of the word ‘intellectual’ (and possibly ‘public’) and a sketch of culture and its audiences since the Enlightenment, in order to define what a public intellectual actually is. But to be honest I haven’t got the time and energy now, and if you’re interested, you’ll have read this bit before, so please just construct your narrative from a mixture of coffee-house society and the development of public space, Edward Gibbon, Left Bank cafes and A.J.P. Taylor as telly don as seems appropriate).

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to work from a far more informal definition: that a public intellectual is someone using their academic training to try and make clever observations to a wider (non-academic) audience. I know that sets myself up (and other medievalist bloggers) as at least would-be public intellectuals, but I think most of us probably are aiming for that some of the time. So: why do historians do this and is this a Good Thing?

The obvious answer is that the two opposites of the public intellectual are the private (=ivory tower) academic and the public ignoramus (=many prominent commentators in the media). We want to address a general audience both to justify our existence and because we think we can offer something to the public. But what is it we’re trying to offer and what are the implications of this?

Quite a lot of the time what we’re trying to do is broadly boost the study of history (by pointing out how interesting and life-enhancing it is). This is always prone to the charges of self-interest (that what we really want is someone to fund our research, buy our books or enrol on our courses), but otherwise it’s no different from what enthusiasts for lots of other things (from obscure musical groups to growing vegetables) do. The trickier area is the other thing we tend, implicitly to be doing. We’re trying to influence political opinion.

Now, when I say I’m trying to influence political influence, I mean that roughly in the sense that the Earth influences the movement of Jupiter; the effects are almost undetectable, but that doesn’t mean that the gravitational force doesn’t exist. One of my purposes in writing about history (among other things) is to make people think slightly differently about not only the past, but also the present, and maybe, just maybe, change their moral/political/social/religious views. Think of me (and other would-be public intellectuals) as medieval butterflies flapping their wings in the vague hope of somehow mysteriously causing a tornado in York or Paris or Los Angeles.

The big problem is, would a world where historians and historical thought were more politically prominent necessarily be a better world? If you want to see the problem of using historically-based arguments in politics, just consider all the leaders since 1945 described as being a ‘second Hitler’ (from Nasser to Saddam and Bush to Ahmadinejad and probably many more). The immediate answer to this is that the problem is just bad history, but it’s not clear that more ‘good history’ in the public domain will drive out ‘bad history’; nothing keeps the Templars properly dead and buried. In addition, there are all too many historians who while well-respected in their field, have shown themselves to be idiots, and sometime influentially dangerous idiots in their broader public comments. (I would mention Bernard Lewis, Victor David Hanson and Michael Ignatieff as just a few; there are probably left-wing historians equally as bad, but I don’t think they’ve been as politically influential recently).

But what about the right sort of historian? Surely if they were more influential, the country would be governed better? That’s the premise of a recent initiative by a distinguished group behind History and Policy. This organisation (so they announce):

* Demonstrates the relevance of history to contemporary policymaking
* Puts historians in touch with those discussing and deciding public policy today
* Increases the influence of historical research over current policy
* Advises historians wanting to engage more effectively with policymakers and media

Underlying all this (and much of the intended role of the historian as public intellectual) is the implication that historically evidence-based policy-making would be more effective.

There are two possible problems here. One is that I’m not at all convinced that historians have any more insight into the future than any other group. I don’t know of many historians, for example, who forecast the fall of the Berlin Wall, the key role of religion in the twentieth-first century or any of the many other unexpected events of the recent past. (If any reader knows of some, let me know). The second problem, specifically related to this, particularly for liberal historians, is that historically-based policy-making is always liable to be conservative. An emphasis on learning past lessons and avoiding past mistakes is prone to conclude that nothing new should ever be done (since most attempts at change are unsuccessful initially). An evidence-based policy-maker in say 1700 would probably have concluded that democracy was intrinsically unstable, high infant mortality was inevitable and that no country could expect to abolish slavery. One in the 1930s would probably have explained how Hinduism was intrinsically incompatible with democracy and India should remain under princely/colonial rule forever.

Many historians have rightly lamented that Tony Blair thought so little about the history of Iraq before supporting the invasion. But if he’d been well steeped in the political history of Northern Ireland, would he have had the same commitment to producing the Good Friday agreement? It would have been easier to assume that ancient hatreds made a peace deal impossible. To imagine Sinn Fein and the UUP collaborating is (historically speaking) ridiculous. Maybe there are times when a refusal to consider historical precedents is actually useful. I won’t stop trying (in my very minor way) to be a public intellectual. But we do need to remember occasionally that the world wouldn’t necessarily be a better place if historians ran it.

4 thoughts on “Should historians be public intellectuals?

  1. Ignatieff probably thinks he is left wing. Just “sensible” left wing. I am sure he’ll sign off on any bombing campaign if you can give him a trendy rationale. QED, actually.


  2. This provokes a number of fragmentary comments (besides being an obvious song cue for “If I Ruled the World” – just imagine me humming this in the background):

    – For Americans, the locus classicus (homo classicus?) of liberal historian as public intellectual might be Arthur Schlesinger, Harvard historian (of Jacksonian America, primarily) who served as JFK’s spokesman/alter ego for many years. I assume you yourself are too far from the topic – wrong continent, wrong millennium! – to pursue this, but some of your other readers might be interested.

    – You’re right that the knowledge of most historians is likely to be effectively “conservative” as a guide to policy. However there are some radical historians (not me) and others who can actually point to aspects of the past conducive to present change. In the current Harper’s magazine, just out, there is in fact a lovely little essay by Marilynne Robinson called “A Great Amnesia,” which touches on this. She’s not a historian, so it’s more pointing the way than showing how, but it’s worth consulting. (I don’t know if it’s available online.)

    – WRT Hitler analogies, surely the answer is not for historians to avoid the subject entirely and leave it to amateurs, who have no hesitation in invoking comparisons. Bad history needs to be opposed by good history, not ignored in the hopes that it will simply go away. It won’t. Ever.

    – As for history in general inclining one to be cynical and thus suspicious of change, one can only cite Gramsci: Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. As historians, we can/do provide the former; it would have to be in some other capacity that we contribute to the latter.


  3. The immediate answer to this is that the problem is just bad history, but it’s not clear that more ‘good history’ in the public domain will drive out ‘bad history’; nothing keeps the Templars properly dead and buried.

    I think it’s inarguable that Gresham’s Law (“all other things being equal, bad money will drive out good”) applies to history. Bad history is done with those with interests as opposed to disinterests, whereas good history is done by those with interests as opposed to uninterest, if you see what I mean. But how you then apply a Gresham-like analysis to history and call in all the bad stuff for recoining, I don’t know. It will never go away precisely because there’s a market for it. So we have to maintain peer review and so on, however flawed it is, as a way to indicate an élite status for our own writing. Our coin has been tested, at least. Of course, Gresham doesn’t really work for history, because Gresham says that the bad money wins because people take the good stuff out of circulation because it’s worth more as bullion whereas it’s not as if people are hoarding Malcolm Lambert books at home but only talking about Dan Brown in public. Though actually that is very much like what OUP have the Clarendon Press imprint for isn’t it? So maybe we are doing that just because our work costs much more to read…

    I have now strained this analogy far enough. But I do agree that most of us, as can be seen by our efforts at the administration we do do, should never be allowed to make public policy…


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