The Historian-Advocate Question

by Peter Daniel Haworth on February 27, 2011 · 1 comment <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

My friend, Nathan Coleman, introduced me to this post on the question of historians advocating policy. If historians feel compelled to enter into public policy advocacy, maybe they should view themselves as explicitly engaging in two different functions– i.e., adopting a professional dualism. When speaking as a historian, they should NOT advocate public policy due to the problems mentioned in the article. Since, however, historians have knowledge, imagination, and (hopefully) humility derived from wrestling with historical nuances, they also might be uniquely qualified to function as public policy analysts who derive and advocate important conclusions. Nevertheless, when functioning as such an advocate, the historian should make clear that he or she is no longer functioning as a historian. This resolution might be a semantical distinction that is practically difficult to implement, but even just attempting this dualism might be a helpful reminder about the sticky problems and limits entailed in interfacing history and policy advocacy.

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avatar Mark Perkins February 28, 2011 at 2:14 am

Good post, and an excellent article that you link to. In line with that Timothy Garton Ash (who I can’t say I always love, and who has been cashing in as a political analyst for the Guardian) wrote the following in ‘In Europe’s Name’ (1991 or 92, maybe 93):

“…the end of Soviet communism and of the Cold War posed the largest questions to those disciplines, or branches of disciplines, that made some claim to quasi-scientific prediction. Most historians make no such methodological claims. Some would agree with E.H. Carr that they should at least have in their bones the question ‘whither?’ as well as the question ‘why?’ Others would dispute even that. Yet in his wry way, Adenauer identified a real problem. It is surely reasonable and right for politicians to ask historians to make informed personal guesses–so long as everyone clearly recognises that they are just that: personal guesses. These guesses are related to the history they write, but separable from it. The history may be good but the guesses bad–or even vice versa. . . . [These guesses] can be overtaken by events in a way that the historical analysis cannot be. For the one thing historians can confidently predict is surprises.”

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