HHH column: Policymaking without history is blind by Rina Knoeff

A plea for a fruitful conversation between academic historians and policy makers

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts: on research, current affairs, and anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by another member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contribution here. This month, the floor is for Rina Knoeff, professor of health and humanities at the University of Groningen, Department of Early Modern History.

Rina Knoeff

In his recent blog Why history doesn’t matter for policy making Robert Vonk is very critical about the use of history for policymaking. He argues that history graduates often end up in policy making, not because of their historical knowledge, but because of their historical skills (e.g. their writing skills and their ability to digest and contextualize information). With this he attacks the manifesto Aan de slag! Een manifest voor ‘applied history’, which I have co-authored with Beatrice de Graaf, Lotte Jensen and Catrien Santing. In the manifesto we argue that in tackling ‘wicked problems’, such as COVID-19, we need specialist historical knowledge. Building upon recent historiography of applied history, we plead for involving academic historians in policymaking in an advisory role.

I agree with Vonk that many history students end up working as policymakers, and that their historical skills have great value for their careers. This is not, however, a novel insight. Academic historians keep telling this to their new and prospective students all year, every year. However, when it comes to the specific knowledge historians might contribute, Vonk is dismissive, if not scathing. He argues: ‘You don’t need history to know that health and disease are unequally distributed among populations, nor that there are social and political determinants and social inequalities that explain these disparities.  That is all widely known and studied extensively by economists, sociologists, epidemiologists and others.’

To be honest, this polemic against academic history has saddened me. How can an academically trained historian be so dismissive of his own field of study? Vonk seems to fall into the trap of anxiously separating policymaking from the humanities, and of seeing the arts and the humanities as ‘useless frills’, which Martha Nussbaum warns against in her Not for Profit (2010). Such a view endangers rigorous critical thinking in society and leads to an impoverishment of educational curricula. In the end – so Nussbaum claims – this will lead to a technocratic society with little understanding for people’s sufferings and achievements. 

Luckily, I have met, and worked with, many policymakers who have a way more positive view on the knowledge that the humanities can offer. We, the authors of the Manifesto, have been invited by policymakers at the Dutch ministries as well as the Safety Regions, to speak about historical patterns and long-term perspectives. These were inspiring conversations, enriching the policymakers’ analyses, as well as our own experience.

How is a more positive role for academic history possible? As Willem Drees has recently argued, the humanities offer essential knowledge about the meaning of actions (rather than the causes of behaviour). From this perspective historians have – already before the COVID crisis hit Europe – warned against the pitfalls of a one-sided biomedical approach to understanding and containing the crisis. At an early stage, historians – and not economists, sociologists, or epidemiologists! – have identified the dangers of social unrest and rioting. The point is that thinking with history makes the future a lot less unforeseen.

Vonk argues that history offers no ‘actionable knowledge’ that is needed in ‘real time dilemma’s [sic] which need action now, not tomorrow’. Vonk’s view is premised on a bleak picture of policymaking: policymakers are perennially involved in a trench-warfare to contain this or that urgent crisis, always pressurized, often overwhelmed, they merely respond to crises rather than anticipate and strategically analyse problems and dilemmas before crises materialize in their destructive force. However, this is grotesque distortion of reality. As a society, we have been warned for more than a decade that the question is not whether but when a pandemic will strike. Yet, there seems to have been little strategic, out-of-the trenches thinking about what this would mean for a society such as the Netherlands. In short, I suspect that the self-image of the policy maker as merely reactive crisis manager short-changes Vonk’s own profession and may have been a root cause in the shortcomings of Dutch COVID-19 policies: always too late, lacking both vision and long-term perspective which alone can give a coherent, equitable and publicly acceptable strategy for dealing with this health emergency. Thinking with history helps in steering policymaking away from Vonk’s ‘heat of the moment action’ to a much-needed focus on long-term strategies.

In this sense, it is not academic history’s place to offer concrete suggestions in urgent situations. Academic historians are not policymakers: They have a different job description and no place in incidence rooms. Vice versa, we cannot expect policymakers – even those with a thorough historical training – to be specialists in every period or theme within the historical discipline. Asking academic historians for a refreshing outsider’s perspective on the problem at hand is no different from big companies hiring a business consultant to help solving a tricky problem on the work floor.

To be entirely clear, history does not offer a convenience store of solutions for each and every problem. Failing to appreciate the historical circumstances of past events is a grave historiographical mistake and will at the same time never do in policy advice. However, the kind of historiography that emphasises the uniqueness of the past to such an extent that we cannot use historical knowledge in today’s contexts anymore is in danger of becoming a meaningless exercise. We need academic historians to carefully navigate between these two extremes. Through analysing historical notions, patterns, and solutions they can transcend the issues of the day and offer fresh perspectives. If admitted in this constructive role, historical insights have the potential to significantly enhance the quality of today’s policymaking.