Friday, June 13, 2008

Thoughts on the Role of Historians in the Public Discourse

Historians are the original "cold case investigators" studying and uncovering the truth about events in the distant and not so distant past in an effort to understand what, why and how something occurred. Their work has always been subject to review, revision and rebuttal.

Occasionally a post catches my eye in such a way that the best way to share it is to post it in it's full content. Mark, the zen master of Zenpundit posted the following at Progressive Historians;

The Virtues and Vices of Historians as Public Intellectuals."

Mark writes;

Jeremy's post on the political commentary of Princeton historian Sean Wilentz caught my attention with this argument:

There is nothing in this statement that prohibits historians from making mistakes in public. There is nothing that says they shouldn't be partisan, or even that they shouldn't lose their objectivity and engage in "sloppy political forecasting." And there is nothing that says they have to be right.What it does suggest is that historians' opinions on the questions of the day are more than just opinions. They are opinions backed up by knowledge, by information and analytical skills that are not available to the average person. And it suggests that historians have not only a right, but a duty to publish these historically-informed opinions in a public place, where they can enlighten and edify lay readers.

I will second Jeremy's call for historians to take a more active role as public intellectuals and shapers of policy and opinion. I will also offer a gentle caution because historians, even as we clearly see the analytical shortcomings of journalists, political scientists, economists and others, have blind spots of our own.

Historians have a great deal to offer as analysts because of their command of informational context and practiced experience evaluating the credibility of new evidence within their disciplinary subfields. Ideally, historians approach a question with skepticism and attempt to explain causation within an accurate context by working backwards toward the point of origin. “Primary source” documents are privileged as evidence by which historians mean certain kinds of documents, preferably government records and memoranda, alongside private papers, These are scrutinized with great care and are supplemented by authoritative secondary material that helps the historian understand the primary sources within the accurate context of the time rather than anachronistically.

Again, ideally, these discrete facts and clues are then reinterpreted by the historian in the form of a comprehensible narrative that does not deviate from the evidentiary trail and clearly separates fact from speculation. Historians not only attack the evidence analytically - breaking down and deconstructing specific events - they also synthesize and construct analogies to elucidate larger, general, patterns of human conduct and it is here that historians are most often helpful to policy makers or in educating the general public.

Ironically, this is also where we as historians are most apt to go astray.

As a profession, historians develop a methodological outlook that can make us prone to particular distortions of perception. The first is our obvious preference for the authority of the written word which means we tend to focus on an evidentiary trail that is a) far more incomplete than we tend to realize and b) less reliable than we would like to imagine.

Of the records we use, we give greater weight to official documents than did the bureaucrats, statesmen and various officials who wrote them at the time with different motivations, not least of which could be to say as little as possible or to advance the career of the author. Some bureaucracies are less than meticulous as institutional record keepers and some regimes lie with Orwellian abandon or attempt to bury records forever behind secrecy laws.

Then there is the problem of what risk theorist Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls the " silent evidence" of the larger picture that does not attract our attention. For example, for decades, historians discounted the veracity of oral tradition until recently discovering that this method of communication could often be more reliable than the official record. Artifacts other than written documents such as art, physical spaces, machinery and personal effects tell powerful stories of their own. Alternatives not taken were often avoided for important but unrecorded reasons that drove the choices that people and groups did make but these are not always readily discernable. Statesmen seldom - Richard Nixon excepted - record their most revealing thoughts. It is all too easy for historians, in other words, to mistake what we know for the general parameters of what is important to know.

By all means, historians should be robust participants in public debate and can be confident that their knowledge and analytical skills are a useful contribution. But some humility is also in order; our methodological tools have their limitations.

Jeremy adds to the debate with his rebuttal comment available on his site. His comment ends with;

Historians are the kind of experts who know where everything is on the shelf, and who put it there, and why. That's a kind of experience I'll willingly ascribe to us, and it is very valuable both to us and to our readers. We owe it to the public to share our knowledge with them, not because we're any smarter than they are, but because we've been given a great gift of knowledge that it's our duty and obligation to share with others.

And Mark, rebutts in a masterful quote;

An old prof I had, who was a psychologist as well as a historian, used to say that historians had bigger "cognitive maps" than other fields. That we carried around more of the puzzle pieces in our heads to fit the seeming anomalies into place.

Historians, remain the preeminent "cold case investigators" our input, however carefully culled for objectivity is subject to our perceptions and prejudices. What we add to the pubic discourse on any issue is ultimately left to the listener or reader to accept or deny, based on their own conceived notions. We can only hope that our efforts can craft a clearer platform from which to make that choice.

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