Guest blog: Historical Advice for Policy Making – “Lessons from History” or Historical Knowledge?

Guest blog: Historical Advice for Policy Making – “Lessons from History” or Historical Knowledge?


In 1996, Arthur Schlesinger, a famous American historian and public intellectual, criticized the idea of “history as therapy” in his op-ed in the New York Times. Describing the growing engagement of the public with questions of history’s official and less official uses and abuses, he concluded that modern historians inhabit an embattled and dangerous terrain. Choosing to take this militaristic metaphor one step further, one could add that this terrain is constantly at a danger of attack by ideologues and politicians who seek to impose their own interpretations of historical events on the wider public sphere. “Lessons from history”, formulated in the spirit of the old Ciceronian historia magistra vitae est, are often mere slogans supposed to serve particular interests with little concern about scientific method or objectivity. As such “lessons” generally describe rather broad, large-scale observations, e.g. about the conditions of possibility for warfare, patterns of social unrest etc., it is hard to claim any objectivity in their analysis anyway. Each “lesson” is inescapably coloured by political, epistemological and other assumptions of the “learner”.

Personal histories have a clearly therapeutic function if verbalized and reworked within a therapeutic setting – we know this since the inception of Freud’s psychoanalysis. However, can “general history” – a collection of events, trajectories and decisions – have a therapeutic role for the problems of modern societies? Can it become an “applied history” that would inform today’s policy making, both domestic and international, as postulated by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson and analyzed by Emma Hakala in a blog entry on our website?

It is my intuition that ideas of setting up “applied history”, which is supposed to materialize itself in official (state-financed?) bodies such as specialized councils of historians advising policy makers can, if materialized, do more bad than good. They are predicated on the idea that knowledge of past events actually equips us to make informed decisions about the present. Undoubtedly, this idea seems quite reasonable. However, the question appears as to which events shall be selected as “lessons” and who actually gets to select them? Who appoints the councils? How do we categorize a past event as a “lesson to be learnt”? Looking only at dramatic events – wars, uprisings, social unrest – although it can be justified in the concern of preventing them from happening in the future, necessarily obscures other important social developments, those less dramatic or spectacular. Moreover, by wanting to prevent “bad things from happening”, applied history enters the realm of morality, good and evil. How do we define what is best prevented by using our historical knowledge? Here, the councils of applied historians would work not only with the material historical knowledge they are supposed to possess, but would undoubtedly base their recommendations on moral grounds.

Or rather, what is prevented and what is not is actually decided by actors with enough political power. They might, for various reasons, be willing to listen to and consider historical advice. They might even be historians themselves. History and historians are to be found everywhere, incidentally.

Advising policy makers is a risky business, as one easily gets equated with the political establishment he or she is aiding with their historical expertise. Councils of applied historians would easily run the risk of transforming into political think-tanks concerned with success of particular policies over others. This danger is, in my opinion, aided also by the rhetoric that highlights “lessons” and “learning” – it instantly reminds of the conventional section entitled “lessons learned” which appears in corporate reports and has by now been adopted by many other institutions, including NGOs, universities etc. This rhetoric is part and parcel of what Foucault termed “governmentality” – the engineering of social consent by making individuals govern their behavior and ideas in accordance with decision-maker’s stated and/or unstated goals.

The picture painted here is rather grim, suggesting that historical advice for policy making runs risks of becoming a political tool in power struggles that have little to do with the welfare of societies. However, I believe that changing the angle a little bit and looking beyond the rhetoric of “lessons” can actually help integrate history into the palette of tools that can help bring about positive social change. Sometimes, there is no lesson to be learned. Sometimes, knowledge is enough – it does not have to be framed as a lesson. Historical knowledge has a breadth and depth that no one lesson can incorporate – and it is precisely knowledge, and not lessons that organizations like HBW would do best to popularize. I believe that engaging with knowledge and research benefits people – not only policy makers, and not only historians, but everybody – more than picking lessons and societal issues in need of solving.

Consequently, maybe it is not historians who should be “used” as tools for better policies, but policy makers who understand the importance of historical knowledge and education to be used as channels of spreading them?

Justyna Pierzynska

Pierzynska researches mediated representations of the Caucasus and Russia in Central and Eastern European media at the University of Helsinki. Her research interests include popular understandings of geopolitics and geopolitical knowledge production in CEE and she will lecture on “The Uses of History in Poland and ex-Yugoslavia” in the spring of 2017.

Picture: Library and Archives Canada