Monday, September 05, 2016

Do presidents need a 'council of historical advisers'?

Graham Ellison and Niall Ferguson, co-directors of Harvard Kennedy School's Applied History Project, make a good argument that our presidents should have a group of trained historians to help in the formulation of policy.

I've always loved the study of history, but I'm not an advocate of the "history for history's sake" school of thought. I study history to learn the lessons it can teach me, as a person and as someone given the precious right to vote. This is what Ellison and Ferguson call "applied history."

History doesn't repeat itself, as some say. But it is true, as King Solomon wrote, that there's nothing new under the sun. Human nature being human nature, there are always analogs in history that can help us navigate the present.

When I was a kid, my parents bought an encyclopedia of United States history for me. It had sixteen volumes, a new volume released each week for four months. Those sixteen volumes became well worn during my elementary school years! President Kennedy wrote the foreword to the whole thing. I was so taken with one line that I memorized the words. I still remember them fifty years later:
A knowledge of the past prepares us for the crisis of the present and the challenge of the future.
That's a truth that has never left me.

As Ellison and Ferguson point out, many policy makers are either completely or partly ignorant of history. The result is that when new challenges arise, they, in essence, "fly blind," oblivious to what history might teach them about the options they're considering. Policy decision-makers become like someone pulling the pin from a hand grenade without knowing that doing so is going to blow them and everything around them to pieces. 

A presidential council of historical advisers, operating like the Council of Economic Advisers we've had for decades, could help presidents in four ways, Ellison and Ferguson say:
  • Were a Council of Historical Advisers in place today, it could consider precedents for numerous strategic problems...
  • The council might study whether a former president’s handling of another crisis could be applied to a current challenge (what would X have done?).
  • A president might also ask the council “what if?” questions. What if some action had not been taken, or a different action had been taken? [In essence, Ellison is here suggesting that the advisers could do after-action reviews that might help in the formulation of future policies.]
  • Finally, the council might consider grand strategic questions... [i.e., Is the United States in decline?]
The ignorance of history, particularly the kind of applied history that Ellison and Ferguson are talking about, has had a destructive impact on our country. Neither American citizens nor American leaders know much about history and, as a result, stupid and often tragic mistakes are made that would otherwise be avoided. I like Ellison's and Ferguson's proposal.

No comments: