The plenary session of the 2011 annual meeting of the American Historical Association, held in Boston last month, featured a panel on “History and the Public: A Session in Honor of Arnita Jones’ Commitment to the Public Work of Historians.” The panelists debated the proper role of historians in public life. The AHA’s Executive Secretary James Grossman called on historians to become more outspoken on issues of public concern. C-Span covered the event. Here is a link to coverage of the event.
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.
But Franklin nonetheless encouraged historians to engage the issues of the day, as had he on many occasions (by serving as an expert for the team of NAACP lawyers in Brown v. Board of Education, for example). Because of the time and context in which he lived, Franklin concluded, he “could not have avoided being a social activist even if [he] had wanted to.” He continually experienced race-based discrimination, and at the same time, he possessed the professional skills to shed needed light on race-related controversies. Franklin could not stand by idly while others, including other historians, deployed evidence from history to defend segregation. Under the circumstances, Franklin felt obliged to participate in policy and legal debates.
Historical arguments are quite attractive and will be made. For example, historical claims are prominent in two high-profile litigation campaigns at present: the cases challenging the Obama administration’s health care law and the litigation challenging the continued necessity of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
When history is featured in policy battles or litigation, partisans much less inclined than professional historians to tell the truest story possible, given the available evidence, often are the first to trumpet historical arguments. Or, the partisan in question might be a professional historian, one who clings to the virtue of "objectivity" while engaging in partiality—excluding certain actors, viewpoints, events, interpretations, and analytical tools.
In these situations and others, perhaps it is irresponsible to disengage from public conversation. And one can appreciate the request to "say something historical!" and oblige. Context is everything.