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Writing Usable Histories in Moments of Crisis (Blog)

Critical Applied History: A Methodology

By Audra A. Diptee

The discipline of History is currently in a state of crisis.

The challenges facing historians are overwhelming:  Historical literacy seems to be at a record low; the internet and social media have facilitated the spread of misinformation in a fashion that is unprecedented; the very utility of history is being called into question; history departments across the globe are faced with declining student enrollments; and, very disturbingly, there is also a lack of awareness that historical production is guided by a disciplinary methodology.  It seems that for a very high percentage of non-historians, the discipline of history requires little more than stringing together dates, names and places in a sentence that uses the past tense.

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This has created fertile ground for a particular set of flourishing but unfortunate circumstances.  We now have the increasing popularity of extreme right organizations across the globe that are proudly embracing the rhetoric and symbolism used by Nazi Germany.  There have been efforts to minimize, if not altogether deny, the social and economic legacy of Atlantic slavery (see for example the remarkable case of Brazil); and narratives around human rights and refugee issues are continually grounded in historically misinformed assumptions about the Global South.  The list could easily go on …

There is evidently a desperate need to write and teach ‘usable histories’ that tackle these issues head on.

Narrative history and public history, both of which are undeniably important, inform how we imagine the past.  This is where historians invest most of their intellectual energy – in producing books, articles, and other tangibles that help others get a more accurate understanding of particular historical moments.

But what does ‘usable history’ really look like?

In a recent History Watch podcast, the celebrated Palestinian author and poet Mourid Barghouti discussed the ways in which history has been ‘weaponized’ to serve political interests in Israel.  In part of our conversation, which was not included in the podcast, we discussed the work of the historian Ilan Pappé at the University of Exeter.  Pappé has taken on the task of writing both academic and popular histories and has authored books such as:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


These works, though clearly written for popular audiences, are without question ‘usable histories.’  They actively engage with the way history has been used to create a particular perception of the present and influence the way in which the future can be imagined.  Note the emphasis here is on actively engage, as any historian worth his salt knows that ideas of the past are in no way disconnected from ideas of the present and future.  Pappé has used his skill as a historian to directly address an ongoing relevant 21st century issue – something too few historians actually do.

Some might refer to Pappé’s approach as ‘applied history.’  In his book Why History Matters, John Tosh defines applied history as ‘historical knowledge that has been built up in pursuit of academic ends but which also has a bearing on current public concerns.’  In other words, a rigorous use of historical methodology can be used to shed insights on present-day concerns.  Few historians would disagree with this statement, but rarely is this put into practice (except perhaps in the occasional op-ed).

Of course, the idea of applied history is by no means new.  Both Harvard University and Carnegie Mellon University had applied history programs in the 1970s which explored the relationship between history and policy.  More recently, as history departments are trying to demonstrate their relevance, there is an increasing number of university programs that offer ‘applied history.’  Most of them, however, have used the term interchangeably with ‘public history.’

Even so, applied history (using Tosh’s definition) is not without its problems.  As Michel-Rolph Trouillot cautions us in his book Silencing the Past, it is important to expose the role of power in shaping historical production.  Trouillot’s work seems almost prophetic now that the world knows about Operation Legacy – the British Government’s policy of destroying colonial documents that were considered an ‘embarrassment’ to the British Government.  This policy was a deliberate attempt to shape how Britain’s colonial past would be remembered (see Ian Cobain’s book The History Thieves)

Critical Applied History:  Hence, any attempt to write a ‘usable history’ must confront the issue of power and its influence on historical production in all its fora.  To address this issue, in my previous blog and recent article in the journal Slavery & Abolition, I have advanced the notion of Critical Applied History as a means for historians to bring their tool box to matters of contemporary relevance.  In my article, in particular, I outlined a methodology that is grounded in a ‘triad well known to historians: power, historicity, and memory.’

Critical Applied History is about making history accessible to the people making 21st century decisions.  Keep in mind that accessible history does not simply mean putting more information on the internet, using social media, and writing in a fashion that uses less esoteric jargon (though all three of these help!).  Greater accessibility also means using our expertise to produce ‘usable histories’ that speak directly to the issues at hand so that it has greater influence on politicians, economists, law and policy makers and, of course, the general public whose opinions matter to the these groups.  It means writing about The Uses and Abuses of History (thank you Margaret Macmillan!) in the various operative discourses that serve to shape perceptions of the present and imagination about the future.

I will elaborate more on these ideas in an upcoming blog …

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