No longer stuck on repeat

May 20, 2010

"The historical present", Richard Overy's discussion of the future for academic history under the "impact" agenda (29 April), argues that the subject survives only because students want to study it, not because it has any utilitarian value. The 250 academic historians involved in the History and Policy initiative - which long predates the impact agenda and is wholly independent of "government pressure" - believe that scholarly history is both a good in itself and immensely useful in the field of public policy. They demonstrate this through their contributions to our activities.

Far from corrupting their academic research - which we insist must be of the highest quality and not "dictated" by short-term public-policy priorities - H&P makes its fruits accessible and relevant to a policy audience. Our 100th policy paper, "Today's toughest policy problems: how history can help", demonstrates that historians have valuable ideas and knowledge to contribute to debate ("Rookie ministers steered away from 'bad history'", 13 May).

It is precisely because history is a "critical discipline" asking "awkward questions" that it can engage effectively with policy ideas. This does not require historians to bend their research or opinions to a political agenda, but it does require them to put their heads above the parapet and engage with the issues of the day. We know from experience that if they don't, others (including politicians) with minimal or faulty knowledge will fill the historical vacuum with myth.

This is not the only contribution that excellent academic history can make to our culture: we should seek all possible ways to contribute, including those suggested by Overy. But it is hard to see why academics should not be willing and able to explain their work to policymakers.

Pat Thane, co-manager of History and Policy, Institute of Historical Research, University of London; Simon Szreter, reader in history and public policy, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge; Alastair Reid, director of studies in history, Girton College, Cambridge; Virginia Berridge, director of the Centre for History in Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

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