This is an issue that I have really been wrestling with of late. While speaking and doing interviews for Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? I am often asked to connect the history of the American founding to current debates over church and state. While I believe that the past always speaks to the present, I also believe that one needs to be very careful when making such chronological leaps. For example, can a historian really say something significant about George Washington’s view of abortion? As much as the past is relevant to the present, it is also a “foreign country”–a place where they do things differently.
With this in mind, what role should historians play in the public sector? Should historians be advocates for particular causes? And if so, what might that look like.
I am always looking for helpful reflections on this topic like Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s recent post at Legal History Blog, “Say Something Historical!” (HT). Using the late John Hope Franklin’s career as a model, Brown-Nagin describes the fine line between historical thinking and public advocacy.
Here is a taste:
The AHA’s call for greater public engagement by historians likely will find support in many quarters. However, it also raises questions about precisely how historians should weigh in on public policy matters. In the past, historians’ involvement in public matters has sometimes been quite controversial, at least where legislation or litigation was at issue. The nature of the controversy is twofold.
First, there is the “problem” of historical indeterminacy. Good history is multi-layered and may not provide definitive answers to questions posed. Historians may discover new facts or offer interpretations that illuminate public controversies, but they do so—at their best—through nuanced discussions of the past. Such nuance often make history less “usable” in the context of policy and adversarial legal settings—where clear answers and easily packaged explanations of complex phenomena have the greatest currency.
The indeterminacy problem gives rise to a second barrier to historians’ engagement in public life: a clash of professional cultures. To many, the practice of history and the realms of advocacy are at loggerheads. The idea of historians—professionals guided by truth-seeking and critical standards that favor complexity over simplicity—serving the public good by collaborating with political partisans or lawyers–professionals committed to advocacy for a cause who may not necessarily speak truth or might even distort it—is inherently questionable. Recall, for example, the controversy over the historians Rosalind Rosenberg and Alice Kessler-Harris’ turns as experts in EEOC v. Sears, the 1980s’ employment discrimination case, the former for the company and the latter for the EEOC. Many historians considered Rosenberg’s position—in which she discounted the possibility that discrimination played a role in limiting women’s opportunities in certain employment sectors—an unacceptably “partisan” and strategic use of history. For discussions of the controversy, see Thomas Haskell & Sanford Levinson, Academic Freedom and Expert Witnessing: The Sears Case, 66 Tex. L. Rev. 1629 (1987-88), available here, and Alice Kessler-Harris, A Response to Haskell & Levinson, 67 Tex. L. Rev. 429 (1988-89), available here.
Like other historians, I have puzzled over the competing roles of historians and lawyers on many occasions. The question arises in several contexts: when historians submit amicus briefs to courts; sign letters or petitions in support of causes; or consult with interest groups, corporate bodies, or other entities. I even experience role tension when I teach subjects, such as constitutional law, that feature historicist arguments about contemporary public policy issues—ways of reasoning about history that often seem dubious to me in my capacity as a professional historian.
In reflecting on the question of whether and how historians should engage in public policy debates, I consulted the writings of the great John Hope Franklin. In his essay, “The Historian and Public Policy,” (contained in Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988 (Louisiana State, 1989) Franklin wrote about the constant barrage of requests he received asking him to weigh in on matters of public policy. He captured the ceaseless demand that he provide the “right” answer to pressing questions of the day in a pithy sentence. To him, all the requests posed the same dubious question: “Please sir, say something historical!”
The historian could not provide such easy insights, Franklin cautioned. In his view, the historian’s craft and the worlds of public policy and litigation were deeply in tension.
There's a good discussion about this issue going on over at the US Intellectual History blog. The comments section following the post reflects a range of views that are worth considering:
Pulling a Thread: How Should Intellectual Historians Deal with Erroneous, Foolish, or Vicious Thought?