For some time, the majority of academic historians have tended to shy away from questions of contemporary interest, especially to policy-makers, but also of interest to students interested in policy issues.
Previous generations were less shy of such questions. Writing in 1939, the great Oxford philosopher of historian R. G. Collingwood made the case for applied history succinctly. “True historical problems arise out of practical problems,” he argued. “We study history in order to see more clearly into the situation in which we are called upon to act. Hence the plane on which, ultimately, all problems arise is the plane of ‘real’ life: that to which they are referred for their solution is history.”
If historians decline to address current issues, then those making policy will be denied the benefit of historical perspective. Writing in the Atlantic in 2016, Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson made the case for establishing a White House council of historical advisers, analogous to the council of economic advisers. Their argument was that decision-making in Washington (and not only there) would be improved by a more systematic effort to take the lessons of history into account.
In the hope that other historians share the view that there is more to be learned from history than merely “how to make new mistakes” (in A.J.P. Taylor’s phrase), we are holding what we hope will be a series of conferences devoted to applied history.
What sort of questions will the conference address? The following are the ones to be addressed by speakers and commentators:
- What lessons can a modern democracy learn from the fall of Roman Republic?
- Are recent developments in American politics unprecedented, or is Trump merely populism revisited?
- Is deep economic or political reform possible in the People's Republic of China?
- Did the United States learn the right lessons from defeat in Vietnam?
- How far are major historical discontinuities explicable in terms of climatic change?
- Are cryptocurrencies likely to replace fiat currencies in the foreseeable future?
- How much of a Potemkin superpower is Putin’s Russia?
- What can we learn from past attempts to learn from the past?
- Can we learn anything of the Cold War that is relevant to the world in 2018?
- How might 20th-century globalization unfold?
- Does rising inequality matter?
- What does history suggest will come of the recent upsurge in Islamist-inspired violence?
- How can a country fight an ideology?
In each case, the paper’s author will seek to answer the question with the help of historical evidence, and in particular the use of analogies and comparisons.
The conference is a joint venture between the Hoover Institution, the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, and the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The conference papers will subsequently be published in a book with the title Applied History.