Congressional Interns Should Read History

In a recent letter to AHA members, Tyler Stovall (AHA President) and James Grossman (AHA Executive Director), emphasized the importance of historical context for policymaking.  In their letter, they highlighted the meaningful work of the National History Center’s Congressional Briefings  Program.   A portion of the letter can be read below:

“No matter what your politics, everything has a history. As historians, we often disagree about interpretation, even about which histories matter more in which contexts. But we generally agree with Secretary of Defense James Mattis: “history will show you not all the answers, but it’ll tell you a lot of the questions to ask and furthermore, it will show you how other people have dealt successfully or unsuccessfully with similar type issues.”

Hence we were particularly dismayed this week when another presidential adviser told a group of congressional interns that they should not bother to worry about history or reading books when it comes to important issues like the Middle East.

“Everyone finds an issue, that ‘You have to understand what they did then’ and ‘You have to understand that they did this.’ But how does that help us get peace? Let’s not focus on that. We don’t want a history lesson. We’ve read enough books. Let’s focus on, How do you come up with a conclusion to the situation?”

As historians and leaders of an organization dedicated to the promotion of history, historical work, and historical thinking and understanding, we deplore this cavalier dismissal of our discipline’s relevance to policy decisions. We are troubled that young people, especially those likely to enter public service, should be discouraged from including history in their tool kit. Indeed the reference to “enough books” suggests that related disciplines aren’t worth much time either.

That’s simply not true, and historians know it’s not true.

The AHA’s National History Center convenes Congressional Briefings because we believe just the opposite: that understanding historical context is imperative to thinking about policy. These briefings are nonpartisan and do not advocate any particular legislation. They provide context. Some of the attendees are congressional interns, and we’ve learned that some go back to their colleges and take a history class or two.

The AHA also has been arguing for some time that history, historians, and historical thinking should always be at the table when decisions are made. This is not a partisan divide. The Congressional History Caucus is bipartisan. Senators on both sides of the aisle proudly point to their avid history reading. Senator Ben Sasse opened a major Wall Street Journal essay with “I am a historian” and explained why “the historian’s job is to put things in perspective.”

Letter to AHA Members, August 7, 2017
Tyler Stovall (AHA President)  and James Grossman (AHA Executive Director)