History Beyond the Walls of the Academy

As Adrian Bingham points out in his recent post, Is anyone listening? History and public policy, historians have not been terribly successful in contributing their expertise to debates beyond the walls of the academy. The recent overhaul of the history curriculum in England illustrates this point, as do the new science curriculum standards in the U.S. that trivialize history of science. The problem reciprocal: On the one hand, for various, sometimes defensible reasons, the “real world” doesn’t often seek the opinions of academic historians (I doubt the situation differs much in other humanities disciplines). Widely held prejudices discourage the public from seeking academic input. On the other hand, academics don’t seem all that interested in talking to the “real world.” I suspect strong cultural forces within the academy dissuade academic historians from public engagement.[1]

Bingham is a senior editor at History & Policy, which seeks to connect historians, policy makers, and journalists. They hope to demonstrate the relevance of history to contemporary policy and to get people to listen:

Too often policy reflects unexamined historical assumptions and clichés. History is incorrectly assumed to be less relevant to current policy than the social and natural sciences. At best, policy without history fails to learn past lessons and, at worst, repeats past mistakes. Given the opportunity, historians can shed light on the causes of current problems – and suggest innovative solutions. History & Policy is committed to overcoming a reluctance among some policy makers to ‘let historians in’.

While there are two historians of medicine among the founding members and senior editors at History & Policy, I don’t see any historians of science listed (historians of science might have contributed articles to History & Policy, I haven’t yet had the time to look). Surely historians of science could participate in such an endeavor and have something important to add—think about Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s book, Merchants of Doubt. I am convinced that historians of science have something meaningful to contribute to broader discussions. History matters for more than just the skills it teaches students. History matters because it is a political activity that people used to justify current policy choices and guide future decisions (a point I’ve tried to make before).

  1. For various reasons, faculty in the sciences do not seem to suffer the same fate. Neither does the public disregard their input, at least not to the same degree, nor do they seem as hesitant to speak to the public.  ↩