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Trump, Brexit, and a New Era for British Studies Scholars Part II: What do we do now? -- by Stephen Jackson

Published: March 6, 2017

Trump, Brexit, and a New Era for British Studies Scholars Part II: What do we do now?

By: Stephen Jackson

This is Part II of our series on the changing political climate in the United States and Britain. You can read Part I here. Over the past year historians on the blogosphere have been writing about teaching and researching in the current political climate.[1] Numerous academic institutions, including the North American Conference on British Studies (NACBS), have released statements regarding the Trump administration’s Executive Order (EO) on immigration. You can see the NACBS statement here. In light of these discussions, I sent out questions to the NACBS Council (and a few former Council members) regarding how the events of the past year, particularly Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, are affecting the field of British Studies.[2] Part II examines a question many of us are asking right now: what role do we have in this new political atmosphere? 

A recent AHA panel and subsequent blog post discussed the role of historians in public life. In particular, they responded to the argument of Stanley Fish, who said in a New York Times article that “the profession of history shouldn’t be making political pronouncements of any kind.”[3] I asked our respondents to address this question: how can and should historians engage in the contemporary political climate?

All of the respondents rejected Fish’s argument. Amy Harris put it most succinctly: “Is he for real!?!?”  But while Philippa Levine disagreed strongly with Fish’s argument, she was skeptical of the impact historians can have. “I think we’re kidding ourselves if we really think that statements and teach-ins and the rest will affect how Bannon and his thugs go about things. To me, it’s sheer hubris to imagine we have any effect there, and it’s this sort of attitude that lies at the base of a lot of anti-intellectual hostility in the current climate.” Despite this bleak assessment, she continued by noting that “what we can do, however, is to model civil exchange, historical accuracy, and honesty in our classes and our scholarship. We can be part of a larger protest voice. But I think we need to be very careful not to consider ourselves special or better qualified than others to lead, comment, and advise. A lack of humility is part of how we got where we are.” 

Simon Devereaux argued that historians can and should have an important role in public discourse, but have all too frequently abdicated this responsibility in recent years. In fact, he suggested, academics are in part to blame for the current anti-intellectual trends. “I’m with the late great Tony Judt in wondering how real the adherence of many of us academics to active and meaningful left-wing values really has been since the 1980s. Remember when most of us professed to believe that this was one of government’s main jobs: to restrain the excesses of capitalism, rather than facilitate them?” Moving forward, Deveraux suggested that scholars need to develop “our own capacity to express outrage in a productive fashion,” which must “build real bridges of common identity back towards people of whom we have, in practical terms, thought relatively little of for a long time now. Building that bridge will, I think, mean devising a common identity that is far larger than the one which ‘identity politics’ currently has to offer. Historians can do so much to advance that cause, by helping us to recover our lost legacies of radicalism. Will we do so? Or will we remain content inside our Ivory Towers, standing upon ever-shrinking islands of civility and security?”

Amy Harris and Jason Kelly contended that historians provide critical context and quality information for educators and the general public. Harris suggested that a pivotal role for historians is working with public school teachers. “They are on the frontlines of educating about the past in ways that make for better, less divisive citizens. They need the best we can give them and they need us to advocate along with them at the local and state level.” Jason Kelly argued simply that “we should do what we do best: provide context — show how every statement and every action exists within a historical context. One of the recurring themes that I have seen this past six months is a denial of history — a pretense that everything exists in the present. That is why politicians can say one thing on Tuesday and completely contradict themselves on Wednesday. This ahistorical stance allows them to pretend that the ‘dog whistle’ phrases they utter don’t actually have or racist or xenophobic connotations. We can do this in many forms, but the key is to reach beyond where we feel the most comfortable and engage with other communities.” 

Dane Kennedy suggests that historians should respond “in the same way any responsible citizen who respects facts and evidence and justice should respond: protest, resist, obstruct, critique, etc…” Though Amy Harris also questioned the extent to which historians could make a difference, she said that “we must continue to argue for history’s importance to society. We need to push back about the crucial necessity of history and the liberal arts more generally to create well-informed, thoughtful citizens able to live in a multi-cultural and tolerant society.” 

What do you think should be the primary role and responsibility of historians in the Age of Trump? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Stephen Jackson is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Sioux Falls, and serves as the Media Director for the NACBS. If you’d like to contribute a blog post, contact him at [email protected]

[1] For some examples of this, see: Tyler Anbinder on immigration; Denver Brunsman and John Donoghue or Mary Myung-Ok Lee on teaching; Sarah Fenton of the AHA on the limitations of expertise; Dane Kennedy, Philippa Levine, or Susan Pederson on Brexit; or Paul Kramer on the role of the historian.

[2] The responding scholars were: Simon Devereaux, University of Victoria; Amy Harris, Brigham Young University; Jason Kelly, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis; Dane Kennedy, The George Washington University; Philippa Levine, University of Texas at Austin; Sandra den Otter, Queen’s University.

[3] Stanley Fish, “Professors, Stop Opining About Trump,” New York Times, July 15, 2016. 


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