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Dean_Rusk_testifying_before_the_Senate_Foreign_Relations_Committee,_1968

Can historians influence the public policy-making process? Having recently seen one of my articles cited in the Leveson report, I’d like to say yes. But there are many good reasons to be sceptical. After all, historians don’t seem to have been very successful in shaping the draft history curriculum put forward by Michael Gove’s Department of Education. Professor Sir David Cannadine, to name just one of the most prominent critics of the new curriculum, has written of his frustration at the way the consultation with professional historians and schoolteachers seems largely to have been ignored. The relationship between Mr Gove and the history profession was further damaged by his much-publicised criticisms of primary school history teaching (supposedly encouraging children to compare historical figures to Mr Men, or to learn about the past by watching Disney films). I was one of 54 historians who signed a letter to The Times defending the Historical Association from Mr Gove’s accusations of ‘dumbing down’ history teaching. But Mr Gove seems unruffled by the hostility of academics and teachers. 1 If historians can’t even win over the government to their ideas about the history curriculum and the best ways of delivering it, surely there isn’t much hope of having an impact on any other policies?

Another story in the news offers a different perspective. As my colleague Esme Cleall noted in her recent blog post, historians played an important role in the High Court case that led to the awarding of compensation to victims of torture and sexual abuse inflicted by the British colonial administration in 1950s Kenya. In their court testimony, Catherine Elkins and David Anderson, experts on the British response to the Mau Mau insurgency, drew attention to gaps in the official records, and helped to secure the release of a secret archive of information on which the victims’ case came to rest. Learning about the construction, organisation and limitations of archives is a central part of historical training, and in this case this knowledge had a real public impact.

Few historians will ever be involved in something as dramatic and far-reaching as the Mau Mau case, but there are all sorts of ways in which historical knowledge and expertise can help inform the public policy-making process. As a senior editor of History & Policy, I encourage historians to think about how their work might be relevant for contemporary issues. In this role I have been struck by two things. First is the sheer appetite of historians to get involved and share their thoughts.  Almost 400 historians have joined the History & Policy network; the website showcases over 140 policy papers and over 100 opinion pieces. Historians are not just preoccupied with the past, and many think creatively and incisively about the present and future. Second, and perhaps more surprising, is that there are many people involved in policy-making – politicians, civil servants, public officials – who are genuinely interested in hearing these historical perspectives. Historians involved with History& Policy have given evidence to Select Committees, public consultations and official enquiries, and their expertise has been valued and respected. It is very difficult to quantify the ‘impact’ of this evidence – History & Policy does not claim any spectacular interventions like in the Mau Mau case – but it is reasonable to assume that some of it has hit home with people making decisions.

Historians have to be realistic about the public role. They are rarely going to have a decisive, or even major, impact on policy formation. There will be plenty of times, as with the school curriculum, when their views are largely ignored. But those who do believe that they have something to contribute to public debate should be aware that there are many colleagues standing behind them, and many people ready to listen.

Adrian Bingham is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. His research was quoted in volume 1 of the Leveson Report and he is the author of Family Newspapers? Sex, Private Life, and the British Popular Press 1918-1978 (Oxford, 2009).

You can find other History Matters blogs on public history here, including Adrian’s blog on the Leveson Report.

Image (used, we confess, largely for effect rather than substance): Secretary of State Dean Rusk testifying about Vietnam War before Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 1968 [Wikicommons]

Notes:

  1. Since I wrote this blog, Mr Gove has agreed to scale down his proposals – which reinforces the point that it is worth us trying to influence policy: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/jun/21/michael-gove-history-curriculum
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Adrian Bingham

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