Relevant History


Are the humanities sinking in time?

One feature found on the oozy landscape left behind as the Great Recession receded has been persistent questioning about the value and purpose of the humanities. This has ranged from reflective/angry to downright idiotic.1

This whole discussion is a subset of much larger passel of issues – political power, people’s expected return on their investment in higher education, and the lobbying for seemingly novel forms of instruction such as massive open on-line courses (MOOCs). In response, new groups and forums – my favorite is 4Humanities – have organized to advocate for the value of the humanities. In my own department, focus has shifted to discussions about reinvigorating public history as well as more activities centered around the rubric of the public humanities.

I believe histories of science and technologies can connect with wider audiences by engaging with and contributing to contributing to policy discussions. My faith has been animated by two works in my field. The first, a chestnut, is the opening essay from 1965 that explored the historical analogies between the federally-funded space program of the 1960s and the building of railroads in the 19th century.2 The author, Bruce Mazlish, argued for the utility of historical analogies – carefully applied – to understanding contemporary events. The other was a 2011 piece in Technology and Culture by Richard Hirsh on the “pursuit of policy-oriented history.”3  History has the potential to help decision makers become better aware of the context of their choices as well as potential outcomes. The classic in the “uses of history” vein is Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May. The problem of course, as Hirsh points out, is that even when historians want to engage policy makers, few of them “draw directly from this work or seek our assistance.” Why? Failure to present our work in a format that is accessible and engaging in too much “well, it’s just more complicated than that” reasoning.

Recently, two U.K. colleagues have taken a crack at reconsidering how history can contribute to science policy. In their 11 April post, Rebekah Higgitt and James Wilsdon make the persuasive case that the humanities can contribute to science policy alongside evidence from the natural and social sciences. As they report, “the case for historical advisers in government departments received a high-profile endorsement from Lord Butler, the former cabinet secretary” who likened those making “major policy decisions in ignorance of relevant history” to a driver “who commits to some maneuver in the road without looking into the rear mirror.” Shades of Neustadt and May here to be sure…

Higgitt and Wilsdon consider several cases in which histories of science/technology could inform policy. Dispelling myths is one genre. Although I completely disagree with his conclusions, David Edgerton’s reexamination of the linear model of innovation speaks to today’s uncritical boosterism of innovation and entrepreneurship. Coupled to this is the fascination with prizes as spurs for innovation and creative R&D, another topic Higgitt and Wilsdon say benefits from greater historical understanding. Consider the classic case of James Harrison and his 18th century instruments for determining longitude – “Familiar stories of geniuses who work alone to produce products that solve problems, more or less at a stroke, could hardly be less useful,” they say, “Harrison was remarkable, but he and the successful longitude solutions required the skills of others and long-term support.”

Higgitt and Wilsdon rightly note that historians will be unwanted (and uninvited) guests at the table if adding more niggling detail is their only contribution. Instead, historians’ skills – something we stress to students, funding agencies, and deans as to why to the humanities matter – are broader. We can bring “nuance and complexity in evidence, and how perspective changes its interpretation” to the table, not just griping about how “it’s more complicated that.” For example, they draw attention to work by Geoff Mulgan on how historians can contribute to the field of “evidence about evidence.” We’re supposed to experts in how knowledge gets produced, how it is contested, and how it circulates. We constantly try to unpack for our students how we know what we know (and the fact that “we” is shifting audience). Why can’t we do this for policy makers? Besides offering analogies and complicating standard, familiar, and often mythical, stories, helping policy makers better understand and instantiate how knowledge is made would be one step toward some reinvigorated relevance.

  1. Earlier this year, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, governor of North Carolina, bashed fields like gender studies and said state funds for higher education should be “not based on how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.” Apparently getting liberal arts education was sufficient to allow this ass to get his ass in NC’s guvner’s mansion though. []
  2. Bruce Mazlish, ed. The Railroad and the Space Program: An Exploration in Historical Analogy (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1965). There is also a great piece that unpacks the circumstances that led to the Mazlish volume…it’s essential reading for anyone idealistic enough to believe that historical/sociological work sponsored by a patron will actually be heeded: Jonathan Coopersmith, “Great (Unfulfilled) Expectations: To Boldly Go Where No Social Scientist or Historian Has Gone Before,” in Remembering the Space Age,  edited by Steven J. Dick  (Washington, DC: NASA, 2008), 135-56. []
  3. Richard F. Hirsh, “Historians of Technology in the Real World: Reflections on the Pursuit of Policy-Oriented History,” Technology and Culture, 2011, 52, 1: 6-20. []