Chris Hill, ‘Long-term thinking and short-term practice: the historian’s dilemma’

Chris Hill

Chris Hill

Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s articulation of a role for history in policy-making is beset from the beginning by a painfully simplistic interpretation of the relationship between the past, present and future.  ‘Thinking about the past in order to see the future is not actually so difficult’, they claim.  ‘Nimble people, whether activists or entrepreneurs … depend on an instinctual sense of change from past to present to future as they navigate through their day-to-day activities.’  In seeking to show the utility of the model historian for the policy-making process, they endow him or her with almost mystical capabilities of foresight: ‘Historians have special powers at destabilising received knowledge’ is a typical phrase.  Such characterisations are almost as laughable as they are pompous (as one undergraduate remarked, not even politicians would refer to ‘special powers’ so often without feeling queasy).  These characterisations are likely to alienate historians from the audiences which they really should be attempting to engage: their specialist public within the academy and their wider public beyond it.  Through these publics, it is possible to continue to have an indirect impact on the policy-making process without compromising on professional integrity.  On the one hand, a citizenry engaged with and informed on historical issues is more likely to challenge and participate meaningfully in the policy-making process.  On the other, a history produced for the pluralistic demands and interests of this citizenry is likely to be far more multi-faceted and vibrant than one which is produced for the more singular demands of the political classes.

Guldi and Armitage also interpret ‘short-termism’ as an established fact of corporate or political culture without ever questioning how this culture emerged.  When we comprehend short-termism as a product of changes in communications, economies and institutions, it is far more difficult to see why the historian is ‘special’ or so invaluable to the policy-making process.  The instantaneity of digital communications, the flexibility of labour markets and the pressure of research cycles arguably make the historian as vulnerable to short-termism as any other professional.  It takes a historian of particular genius to transcend these underlying forces of knowledge production and construct long-term histories which are also conducive to policy-makers.  If such a species of historian exists, then my guess is that they would have too much respect for the infinite variety of past and present societies to draw simple ‘lessons of history’ between them.

While the Manifesto has succeeded in making historians question their role in society and why they write history, the answers it has provided to these questions are largely unhelpful.  A dedicated historian could never be as ‘nimble’ as Guldi and Armitage suggest – he or she is encumbered with the weight of the past and the responsibility of transmitting it as meaningfully and as faithfully as possible.  If Guldi and Armitage were to take a long durée view of their own subject – the relationship between history and policy-making – then they would realise that historians have been far more effective as the educators of citizens rather than the mandarins of policy-makers.








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