My recommendation for this week is below, but Griffith Review Great Reads is very much worth subscribing to. Four pieces each week from across the web (and it’s free!).

The rise of the thought leaderNew Republic
Taking up Daniel W Drezner’s The Ideas Industry, which examines the rise of thought leaders, David Sessions makes political what Drezner was content to describe. Citing the growing influence of think-tanks and big philanthropic dollars, Sessions reveals a world in which ‘the super-rich actively seek to sabotage institutions [such as universities] that have formed the backbone of consensus and public trust for a large part of the twentieth century’. As depressing as this is, he finds hope in a generation of young writers and academics who argue for a richer and more complex society that prioritises human flourishing over private profit.
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Impact is not just coming, it is already here. Rant and rage, it’s a fact of academic life. In my view that’s (mostly) not such a bad thing. As a researcher I want my work to reach broad audiences, though I recognise that attempting to measure the impact of research is a fraught exercise with potential perverse effects. Our physicist friends tell us that observing a phenomenon changes it, and even “quality metrics” are pretty bad at capturing the kinds of value produced by culture. Scholarly work not only has intrinsic merit, but its “real world” effects or applications can take decades to manifest.

Yet like it or not, impact assessment is upon us. This means that historians need to spend a bit of time getting their head around what it means and how it might shape their work. And to my mind, there’s good political and disciplinary reasons for doing so.

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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.