Archives for category: politics

In the Griffith Review Great Reads newsletter this week I give my hearty endorsement to a piece by historian Paul Kramer in the The Chronicle of Higher Education.

What use is history at a time like this? In this beautifully written and tightly argued piece, Paul Kramer of Vanderbilt University reveals that history is not only in political discourse and accounts of causation, but also in the ways individuals narrate their own lives. Kramer outlines what historians are especially good at: showing how current distributions of power emerge from past alignments, helping identify alternative paths, and cultivating empathy for others both past and present. However, talking about the ‘lessons of history’ is elitist and technocratic, so Kramer encourages historians to carry out their work in public and in collaboration with all kinds of citizens.

Neoliberalism works by disconnecting us from our past, from the natural world that sustains us and from each other. History can and should do the opposite. That’s why it matters so much at the moment. In the face of disconnection, it traces lines of connection and forges bonds of solidarity.

The Chronicle piece is behind a pay wall but here’s an open access link to it on Kramer’s own blog.

screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-23-47-38Towards the end of last year the Times Higher Education magazine asked me what my new year’s resolution was (requires subscription for access), and this is what I told them:

I’m not usually one for new year’s resolutions (if it’s worth doing, do it now), but, this year, the new global politics has launched me into action. Although I do not have children, I have resolved to join the parents, teachers and friends association of my local state primary school. One of the big issues facing higher education is the gulf emerging between those who trust expertise and those who do not. Getting actively involved in my local state school is a way of strengthening the ties between the lowest and the highest levels of our education system. It is a way of building personal relationships with teachers and children and giving a human face to expertise. It is these public institutions that play such a big role in constituting the strength of our shared civil society.

I could equally have said the local public library or community organisation. What I wanted to emphasise was achievable ways to strengthen the ties between the highest level of our education system and those knowledge institutions that are freely accessible to the public. These are places where you don’t have to buy a coffee, or pay for an internet subscription, or be dressed a certain way, to sit down out of the elements and have access to the world of ideas and the human relationships that go with them. They are places with open thresholds and wide doors; places that, in the uncertain era of the new politics, we are desperately going to need.

(You can read Zadie’s Smith’s brilliant essay on the importance of the public library here.)

tardis2

The TARDIS can transport its occupants to any point in time and space.

Historians too often get a bad rap for being out of touch. Stuck in the ivory tower, so the story goes, neck deep in dusty archives and lost in their contemplation of dead white men and forgotten pasts. Where’s the relevance? is frequently the refrain.

Yet my Facebook feed tells a different story. The number of articles I see written by colleagues for public audiences seems to increase all the time.

Thinking temporally in public has got to be one of the most important things we can do as historians in a period of uncertainty and change. This means going beyond the ‘Historians Politely Remind Nation To Check What’s Happened In Past Before Making Any Big Decisions’ version of public commentary (although let’s be frank, sometimes the temptation to do that is just overwhelming) and instead thinking in public about time, its politics and its effects.

The uneven and unequal legacies of empire and capitalism are all around us, but so too – if we know how to look – are the tangible reminders that as a society we once thought social change possible and were prepared to back up our dreams with money and action. I can’t help thinking that the destruction of these reminders, as Oliver Watts points out in in his piece listed below, is part of a larger project of alienating us both from our history and the possibility of a different kind of future.

Because although not a template, history can be a inspiration, showing us that, through collective action, inherited structures can be changed. Institutionalised slavery can be abolisheduniversal public health free at the point of delivery can be establishedthe Franklin River can be saved. The long-term ramifications of our own society’s policies and actions are, therefore, also a matter for critical temporal thinking.

Time is not just an axis on which processes play out, it is political in itself. In this world of distributed digital processes and the marketisation of our everyday life we increasingly ‘spend’ our leisure time shopping for essential services – deciding which financial, educational or health ‘product’ to buy, and ferrying ourselves and family members across town to access them. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of people work on low-paid ‘zero hours’ contracts that leave them desperately insecure.

Universities are repositories of time in all of these senses. Produced by uneven structural processes (have you every wondered where the wealth that funded the bequests of Australia’s early universities came from?) they increasingly rely on casualised labour and the mortgaged futures of their debt-laden students.

But for all their faults, universities do still work with an understanding of time and human capacity that stretches beyond the frames of annual reports, funding cycles, government elections or even of individual careers. They draw the future into them with each new intake of students; they mix up the generations, and bring the living into contact with those long dead. They are places where deep and slow thinking is still possible. Not everyone wants or needs to live like this, but now, more than ever, as a society we need people who do.

If historians don’t think temporally, who will?

So Yay! to temporal thinking in the public domain. Yay! to the dexterity of the historical mind (cough). Yay! to a critical eye and longer view on questions that would otherwise appear to be of this moment only.

Here is this week’s haul of recent #PublicHist pieces by people wot I know, writing about stuff not always entirely within their field. If you can, give them the time (and the retweet) they deserve.

PS. I foresee a regular series on this #PublicHist friend-puff business, so please alert me to anything you have published that is directed at a public audience and I’ll add it to the next instalment.

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