Historical Sensibility and Civil Society

James Grossman, December 2011

Although the offices of the AHA stand but a few blocks from the Capitol, our newsmagazine is not the place to find either contemporary political analysis or a menu of suggestions to cure the ills that afflict American political culture. But as pessimism mounts about the federal budget stalemate, and as a counter to my own dismay at the headlines in this morning's newspapers, I want to suggest one route to that elusive common ground required for productive political discourse: historical thinking, and the values of historical work.

I do not make this suggestion as a lark; nor out of mere professional ego or disciplinary pride. If we ask ourselves what has broken down—what has either disappeared or been obscured in national (and to some extent state) political discourse over the past decade—a series of words and phrases spring to mind: civility, evidence-based analysis, respect for expertise, open-mindedness, understanding of context, and the ability to exchange ideas with people who disagree on fundamentals.

Take a look at the AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. It's all there. Our work "links evidence with arguments to build fair-minded, nuanced, and responsible interpretations of the past." Historians "believe in vigorous debate but they also believe in civility." We begin with questions rather than answers; indeed, we teach our students that asking a good historical question is often more difficult than finding the answer. We appreciate good scholarship that clashes with our own interpretive perspective. And we recognize that "flip flopping" is perfectly reasonable: new information, new questions, new ways of thinking should cause us to reconsider our understanding of the past—and the present.

It is not only the way that historians go about their work—our principles and methods—but also the content of that work that could help to improve the quality and civility of policy discourse. Not the so-called lessons of history: nostalgia for an imagined past does more to obscure than to illuminate it; so does what E. P. Thompson has called the "tremendous condescension of posterity." Santayana's maxim that we remember the past so as not to repeat it has become a cliché concealing one of the great reasons for historical thinking in public culture: the importance of context. We have a Congress that debates immigration policy seemingly with scarce awareness that the door was closed for nearly two generations, or at least an awareness of the implications of exclusion. Debates banking policy without regard for the reasons that the pillars of regulation were adopted. Debates government regulation without reflection on why and how a law was created in the first place. When evidence and context disappear from debate, we are left only with opinion.

Most important is the very idea of common ground. Millions of Americans read history. Is it possible that their engagement with the past, even by way of books that professional historians consider less than definitive, could provide a basis for civility and conversation? Lee Hamilton, former chair of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, vice chair of the "9-11 Commission," and member of Congress for 34 years, thinks it might. In an interview last year, Hamilton argued that a historical perspective not only helps a legislator to think more broadly, but also that "people that have a historical bent" tend to be the "institutionalists," those who feel a "responsibility as a member of Congress, when in the majority or in the minority, to make it work."

Could a shared interest in history and hence, perhaps, a commitment to the value of verifiable evidence, a coherent argument, sustained narrative, and the often-contrary layers of context—contribute to a more constructive civic culture? I don't know. But imagine thousands of historians across the country, seeking out the history readers among their community's leaders in politics, as well as in business, cultural, civic, and religious institutions, to ask this very question.

James Grossman is the executive director of the AHA.