By Séveric Yersin |
Hey PhD candidate : have you ever been asked about the purpose of your research, or the utility of your field? I – just like every historian – have. 2020, however, might give us an opportunity to shine : let’s think about that.
In the Sociological Imagination (1959), the American sociologist Charles Wright Mills stated that: “men do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change and institutional contradiction.” (p. 3) That may have been true before Spring 2020 – however, since the Covid-19 pandemic, this doesn’t apply anymore. People have been quick to note that we are living a very rare moment – a crisis that affects the whole planet in one way or another, that fuels pre-existing social conflicts and marks the beginning, as Ben Rhodes convincingly proposed in The Atlantic, of a new era. In other words, as the feeling of experiencing a historical turning-point spread, a new kind of “need for history” (as the French put it) emerged.
Historical expertise has never been as solicited as this year, or so it seems. In the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine of April 2020, just a few pages after an article of Bill Gates qualifying the Covid-19 of “Once-in-a-Century Pandemic”, the Harvard historian of medicine David S. Jones reaffirmed the importance of historical expertise: “Historians, who never lost interest in epidemics, have much to offer.” But what do historians have to offer?
Considering the many overnight experts of the (very underresearched) influenza pandemic of 1918, and the countless “lessons” one may learn from it, now may be a good time to reflect on the historical profession and the value of historical expertise. Many historians were suddenly asked to comment past responses to epidemics, at a moment where state officials were looking for sources of legitimization and public health experts desperately trying to find ways to convey complex information to a sceptical population. Few historians were qualified enough to answer these calls, but it is difficult to reject media exposure or the long-sought recognition for the historical expertise, let alone turn down a friendly journalist.
Now that the first shock has passed, and that we understood that Covid-19 will be a part of our lives for the next few years, historians should think more deeply about the way they intervene in the public debate. What strikes me the most is the absence of media-training in most of the academic curriculums, as if this were something that historians should learn by doing (granted: this is the case for a lot of skills in academia), as well as the fact that the only question being discussed among historians is: does the study of history teach us anything valuable for present interrogations? It could be argued, as Thomas Piketty did in his last book Capital and Ideology (2020), that historians should get more directly involved in public debates and engage on a more personal level.
Historians are not bound to limit themselves to answering questions about the past, they can set the terms of the conversation. Historical expertise is not confined to fact checking, nor should it be used only as a repository of anecdotes or experiences. Historians can use their knowledge and skills to identify challenges and problems faced by present societies: this is where historians are needed.
With regard to the Covid-19 pandemic and the “need for history”, this has many implications. One of them is that historians must refrain from answering questions such as: “did school closing help contain the influenza pandemic in 1918?” Questions of this kind are impossible to answer by scientific means. Instead, historians should reframe the debate, per example by discussing possible outcomes, or present the experience from the perspective of contemporaries (and when possible, include those who did not survive it). Moreover, historians should try to outline the debates inside the profession, present the impossibility to reach complete certainty about the interpretation of historical developments, and talk about the necessary bias that come with social sciences.
By so doing, historians can contribute to a dynamic debate, a debate focused on the search for the meaning of the experience, a debate that embraces complexity and doesn’t reject it.
Séveric Yersin is a PhD candidate at the University of Basel and at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. His research focuses on the History of Public Health in Switzerland between the 19th and 20th Century, in particular on the institutionalization of the fight against epidemics.
Image © Wikimedia Commons