History and Public Policy Symposium

By Dr Tom Cutterham

What do historians have to do with public policy? Most historians acknowledge that politics is an inescapable element of human life, and therefore of studying the past. Politics is everywhere—including, whether we like it or not, in our own decisions as scholars and teachers. But policy? Seen as a sphere of technical political conduct involving a specific professional elite, policy isn’t something historians habitually engage with. At the same time, the policy-making process often seems to exhibit a paucity of explicit, nuanced historical thinking. Sometimes it feels like there is little overlap between the people trying to understand the past, and those trying to change the future.

Considering that disconnection was the aim of a symposium held here at Birmingham last week, with financial support from the Teaching Development Fund at the College of Arts and Law, which enabled some thirty historians and policy professionals to assemble for a day of discussion and debate. I’m immensely grateful for their contributions, and I can’t even attempt to summarise all that discussion here. Instead I’ll try to draw out a few of the themes, and some of the conclusions that I personally took away. Of course, my hope is that this will be one starting-point for an ongoing conversation, both here at Birmingham and beyond.

1. History as process, not content

Ask anyone what a historian does, and you’ll probably hear something along the lines of, “she knows stuff about the past.” But if you’ve ever had to deal with your friends’ frustration as you fail to get a single answer in the pub quiz “history” round, you might recognise the notion that being a historian is less about what you know than how you think. As Alix Green pointed out in her keynote talk, and explores at more length in her book, history is a process of gathering and analysing evidence about the human past - sometimes wildly different types of evidence - and forming it into something more or less coherent: a narrative, an argument, or even a metaphor.

Moreover, Green argues, that bears some similarity with the process policy-makers go through themselves. If we reframe what it is we do as historians, to place process rather than content in the foreground, that might help us see what we bring to the table for public policy.

2. Historians as consultants, not experts

Taking that idea further, maybe we should reconsider how we pitch ourselves. The language of “impact” in the Research Excellence Framework is a language of “knowledge transfer.” Knowledge, something that we have as experts, which can be transferred to policy-makers (or whoever), who lack it. Adopting that framework, the next question is always going to be something like, “what does my knowledge of eleventh-century saints’ cults have to do with policy around religion and identity today?” The answer to that might well be “a lot!” But the range of applications will quickly hit its limits.

The alternative is to adopt the stance of the consultant - someone who is valued not for what they know, but for how they approach a given problem. Think about how you read a history book. I’d wager that it’s not so much about gaining new knowledge as about changing the way you see the world.

3. We need humility, but also confidence

Benjamin Franklin told himself to “be humble, like Jesus and Socrates.” Historians who want to work with others need to bear in mind the specific needs and constraints of others, as well as their knowledge and ideas. That was a point Jon Wilson made when discussing the Historians in Residence project based at King’s College London - being part of policy-related projects can and should change us as historians, just as much as it changes the policy professionals we work with. If we want to engage, we should hold ourselves open to new ways of thinking and collaborating.

On the other hand, working to help change public policy requires confidence, not just in ourselves but in the capacity of historical thinking. Engaging history in this kind of work requires that we see it not just as a repository of facts or symbolic stories, but as a powerful way of understanding the world in order to change it.

Where will we go from here? One of the ideas that I’m eager to follow up will involve setting up placements for Birmingham historians - from undergraduate level up - in local government policy units. We ought to remember that public policy doesn’t only happen in Westminster. I’ll also be looking to set up more discussions, leading towards larger policy-impacting research and dissemination projects. And a Masters course in History & Public Policy may be on the horizon. If you have ideas and want to get involved, please get in touch!

Tom Cutterham is lecturer in United States History. He is founding member and regular contributor to The Junto, a blog about early American history.