chapter  5
16 Pages

Thinking historically

A guide for policy
WithFrancis J. Gavin

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How should we think about and assess efforts to apply the past to contemporary and future policy? How can policy-makers gain from engaging the past, and what might historians contribute to better governance and decision-making? In recent years, historians and policy-makers have not been in conversations with each other. Most academic historians see their role as confronting and challenging power and those that hold it, not providing tools for statecraft. Furthermore, historians have moved with great innovation in recent decades to better reflect and capture the underrepresented voices of those without power. Writing to aid those in policy can be uncomfortable. Yet wrestling with these very dilemmas – how to represent varying perspectives, and challenging the simple use of knowledge to advance power and the powerful – can inject a sensibility into the policy process that can make it not only more effective, but also more just. Social science, despite its other benefits, rarely tackles the ethical dimensions of power that are the stock in trade of historians. This chapter links the past to the present and future by highlighting five tools a historical sensibility can provide to policy-makers trying to make sense of a complex world and uncertain future.