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 todays 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 havent got the time and energy now, and if youre interested, youll 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, Im 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 were trying to offer and what are the implications of this?
Quite a lot of the time what were 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 its 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. Were trying to influence political opinion.
Now, when I say Im 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 doesnt mean that the gravitational force doesnt 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 its 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 dont think theyve 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? Thats 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 Im not at all convinced that historians have any more insight into the future than any other group. I dont 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 hed 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 wont stop trying (in my very minor way) to be a public intellectual. But we do need to remember occasionally that the world wouldnt necessarily be a better place if historians ran it.