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The Uses of History?

historyskillsNowadays we are all being encouraged to think about our students, their future, and employability in our degree courses. In fact, we often address the question of the usefulness, or otherwise, of History to audiences at Open Days and other events, and we lay a great deal of emphasis on the skills required/acquired to be good historians. I have often argued that it is these transferable skills rather than subject content itself that provides employability – no one if likely to be asked who caused the First World War in a job interview. However, I admit this is a rather simplistic approach intended to appease anxious parents and the powers that be in universities, so I was very pleased to see a lengthy piece in The Guardian yesterday extolling the importance of the content History – at least for policy makers.

The article’s author, David Armitage, is a History Professor at Harvard, and he draws attention to the importance of historians in influencing policy – the Foreign and Commonwealth Office actually has its own history section; former Foreign Secretary William Hague is himself a historian. Professor Armitage points out that “for centuries”, historians were advisers to rulers, governments, and policy-makers. History at university was meant not just to equip one for life, but to provide essential training for statesmen and diplomats. Several British prime ministers have been historians, most famously Winston Churchill. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson both had “resident” historians among their advisers. However, those two examples point out the limitations of the role of historians in policy making – if there were lessons of history, Johnson particularly applied them badly in Vietnam, often using the experience of “appeasement” in the past to justify US policy in South-east Asia in the 1960s.

Nonetheless, as Armitage suggests history is or should be vitally important in questioning short-term views, offering alternative perspectives, and challenging the accepted consensus – always, of course, bearing in mind that historians disagree among themselves and that knowledge of the past does not necessarily mean we can avoid the mistakes of the past. For example, while history – and as Armitage suggests, a longer historical view rather than just the most recent past – helps us to understand the origins of the latest crisis in the Middle East and our involvement in the region, it does not provide us with any easy solutions. But at least it might make us question what seem to be easy solutions when they are proposed by our leaders.

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