Editor’s Note: Jason Steinhauer is the director of Villanova University’s Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest and Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
The world is on fire, and historians are to blame. At least, such is the line of argument in a series of recent op-eds.
The latest one appeared recently in The Economist, under the headline, “The study of history is in decline in Britain.” It included among its laments that historians today are “fiddling with footnotes rather than bringing the past to light for a broader audience.”
The piece mirrored Max Boot’s similar article in The Washington Post a few months ago, as well as pieces in War on the Rocks and The New York Times in 2018. Each expressed nostalgia in the US and UK for a time when a select few eminent historians roamed freely within the halls of government.
These historians philosophized on the great challenges of the nation-state – war, diplomacy, and politics – penned best-selling books, wrote regular newspaper columns, lectured to throngs of students and attracted millions of viewers on television. The subtext of columns like this is a desire to “Make History Great Again” by returning to the days when historians played a central role in national life in both countries, studying war, peace and statecraft.
This line of argument links the decline of history as a discipline to a shift within the academy away from affairs of the state and toward studies of identities and marginalized populations. Critics characterize this shift as a form of professional suicide, which has led to lower undergraduate enrollments and increasing public irrelevance of the discipline.
Perhaps most alarmingly, all four authors contend, the disappearance of history from the public sphere has left us with abysmal ignorance, susceptible to demagoguery and ill-equipped to deal with seismic world challenges such as the potential collapse of American democracy and the dissolution of post-World War II alliances.
It is a compelling argument – and if it were true, it would be a stinging rebuke of the history profession. Fortunately, it is patently false.
Today, the publicly engaged historian is the rule, not the exception. Whereas in the past there may have been one or two historians on television or advising governments, today there are literally thousands of historians infusing their knowledge into contemporary debates through op-eds, on TV news, on Twitter, in classrooms and in advisory roles to governments, human rights commissions, the UN, Hollywood, law and video games.
This does not even account for the millions of museum visitors around the world enlightened each day through museum exhibits curated by historians. Historians engaging with broader audiences are everywhere in 2019; that it is so common may explain why it is being taken for granted.
Academic and public historians today are examining questions of war, politics and power – but they are doing so through the frameworks of race, class, gender, labor, sexuality, identity and disability and by studying the experiences of refugees, immigrants, women, children and marginalized populations.
Historians do this not because it is the popular thing to do but because it is the ethical thing to do. The histories of the US and the UK for too long edited these populations out of the national and international story. Historians today are editing them in, offering those who might listen a fuller picture of how our nations came to be, warts and all.
Authors of articles like those in the Economist suggest that if only more colleagues pursued the lines of inquiry they found interesting – and followed the careers of they and their mentors – the profession would be better off. That may improve relations with a select group of policy-making elites in Washington, but it would do little to serve the national interest of the public at-large.
The other pertinent context here is the messiness of political affairs in the US and Great Britain, a morass the punditry classes have attempted to decipher since 2016. While Rome has been burning, this argument goes, historians have been content to play the fiddle from within the safety of their ivory towers. They have thus been culpable in the road to Brexit and the election of President Trump. It is absurd to suggest that historians inside the academy or in museums and national parks were culpable for these developments.
Indeed, if historians were as removed from the process of policy-making as this rhetoric suggests, then their culpability would be minimal at best. The lion’s share of blame would rest on elected officials, political parties, pundits, corporations, CEOs, activists, provocateurs and a disinterested citizenry. Historians have not set the policies that have led to America’s current state of affairs; they have not even been in the room where the policies were made. Yet it is precisely the not being in the room that has become the line of criticism.
Even if historians were not responsible for creating these problems, the prevailing narrative seems to be that historians have a role in solving them.
Indeed, that has been the impetus behind a spate of new initiatives such as the Lepage Center for History and the Public Interest at Villanova University (for which I am the inaugural director), the Luskin Center for History and Policy at UCLA, the National History Center of the American Historical Association, History & Policy in the United Kingdom, the Australian Policy and History Network, and many others.
One thing the authors correctly diagnose: today’s historians are offering a different kind of expertise than their predecessors.
History today is not a validation of the concerns of the media-political elite. Today’s historians are asking harder, more uncomfortable questions: At what cost has our national progress come? On whose backs has the wealth and power of our nation been built? Have we always acquitted ourselves ethically and equitably on the world stage? Who has fought for freedom and democracy, and who or what has eroded it? Have we lived up to the lofty ideals emblazoned in our nation’s founding documents?
These are uneasy questions for some historians and citizens, but pursuing them will lead us to greater understanding, empathy and recognition that our democracy remains very much a work-in-progress.
In this respect, historians may be ahead of the curve, preparing society for the hard questions it must ask itself in the 21st century, particularly about what divides us. It is those divisions that have fueled the rise of populists and demagogues, and no amount of historical perspective alone can cure it. The fundamental question facing America and Great Britain in the 21st century is not how do we maintain what we have, but how do we become better than we are. To do that, we must know ourselves fully and honestly.
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Today’s historians are helping us do that, and I encourage those who are passionate about history and its place in public life to help amplify the voices of the thousands of historians engaged in this work at institutions large and small.
After all, what question could be more important to a democracy than asking who we really are as a nation – and who we want to become?