At our first summer Congressional Briefing at the end of June, Beatrix Hoffman (Northern Illinois University) and Nancy Tomes (Stony Brook University) traced the history of health care and insurance in the U.S. in light of present debates. Moderated by Alan Kraut (American University), the briefing reviewed the ways that the federal government has considered and intervened in the provision of health care and insurance since the early 20th century; how these systems have developed with the help of federal funding; and what congressional legislators can do in the present and near future about the broader health care system in the US.
When’s the last
time you heard a historian give expert testimony to Congress? Plenty of economists, political scientists,
and other experts do so, but historians—not so much. Yet it seems self-evident that our legislators
would benefit from historical perspectives on the problems they face. It would help them to know, for example, how
those problems arose and whether previous measures eased or exacerbated them. In short, legislators can learn from the past.
This is the reason
the National History Center launched its congressional briefing program. It believes that Congressional policy-makers
benefit from the professional expertise of historians. The early briefings were unfunded and
irregular, but participants included renowned historians like John Hope
Franklin and Eric Foner. In 2014, the
Center received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to hold four
briefings per year. A renewal of the
grant a year and a half ago has allowed us to expand the program to six
briefings a year.
How do the
briefings work? First, we identify a
topic that is timely and relevant to the concerns of Congress. Then we find two or three historians who are specialists
in the history of the topic and ask them to work together on a briefing
presentation. Once the briefing date is
set, we engage in extensive outreach to Congressional staffers, especially
those who serve on relevant committees: they are our target audience. We hold the briefings in a House meeting room,
booked for us by the staff of a Congressman who shares our belief in the
importance of history. The briefing
lasts an hour, with our historians giving formal remarks for the first 30
minutes, followed by another half hour of questions and answers. C-SPAN regularly films and broadcasts the
briefings, ensuring they reach a wider audience.
Drawing upon the model of the Congressional Briefing series and some of the examples from the History and Policy Education Program, Corey M. Brooks, Associate Professor of History at York College of Pennsylvania, developed a new course, “Policy and History in York” for the Spring 2019 semester. His full reflections can be found here.
On a May night in downtown York, Pennsylvania, two blocks from city hall, I sat quietly as seven of my York College undergraduates expounded to politicians and community leaders on the histories of poverty in our community and of policy responses that had in years past attempted (and often failed) to meaningfully alleviate this deep-rooted problem. Speaking for 90 minutes on subtopics they had selected themselves and researched over the course of a semester, these students together unfolded several key facets of the history of poverty policy in York. The audience responded with rapt attention, as student research informed and energized attendees, including the city’s mayor, the city council president, the local constituent services director for the area’s U. S. Representative, and the CEO of York County’s official Community Action Agency. After concluding their prepared remarks, students handled difficult, thought-provoking audience questions with comfort and skill. Each student stood a little taller later that night as they mingled with local policymakers and college faculty. In the process, they celebrated their hard work—work that might tangibly contribute to a community in which they now felt increasingly invested.
The group had traveled quite a distance from our first
class meeting in January. At the outset,
the students had little idea where they would direct their energies and widely
varying experiences with history research, policy analysis, and local community
engagement. Guiding these students from that
starting point to the final briefing event was perhaps the most demanding and
most fulfilling teaching experience of my nine years at York College of
Pennsylvania. In this new “Policy and
History in York” course, modeled on the National History Center’s congressional
briefings, I challenged students to conduct the research necessary to become experts
on the local history of policies that concern our community. They then would have to work as a team to
build and present a shared briefing for local decision makers.
I conceived of this course for two main reasons. The first was in response to the all too ubiquitous questioning, including (especially) in higher education itself, of the relevance of historical research. Here was a course in which students would show peers, faculty, and the broader community how historical research could be brought to bear to contextualize current challenges.