ONE OF THE MOST common forms of reasoning about major public policy choices in government and elsewhere is historical. Whether it’s America’s reaction to China’s exponential growth or engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement, to understand something, many people reach past the scientific, economic, sociological, or ethical explanations and try to follow the roots of a problem into the past.

But how to reason historically? What historical analogy to reach for? What are the right lessons to draw? And how does the discipline fit into a school like HKS, where so much of the preparation revolves around leadership skills and quantitative acumen? These are the questions that a cohort of historians, many of them recent arrivals at the Kennedy School, are answering as they try new ways to bring the past into the school’s present.

“There’s a tremendous amount of interest in the roots of contemporary issues,” says Leah Wright Rigueur, assistant professor of public policy whose focus is on the history of political movements. “We want to know how we got to where we are today in a way that can’t be explained away in hot takes on the immediate. Instead we see that these are long-term trends, things that have been building or simmering, so history helps us wrestle with where we are at the present moment.”

 

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IN THE BEGINNING

History wasn’t a part of the mix when the Kennedy School relaunched at the end of the 1960s. The public policy experts the school was preparing were forged in a fire of economics, statistics, decision-making, and political science.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Ernest May, former chairman of Harvard’s history department, was enticed to the Kennedy School by Graham Allison, then the dean, that history started to get a seat at the table.

Working with the political scientist and presidential expert Richard Neustadt, a founder of the modern HKS, May began a course designed to give students skills to look back on in order to better manage going forward.

It may seem straightforward and obvious that it is important to understand history to grasp an issue firmly. But it has also always been obvious to historians that the grasp is rather shaky.

“The thrust of the course was to make people conscious of that and conscious of the pitfalls; it was about how to avoid being led astray by a mistaken analogy,” says Alex Keyssar, Stirling Professor of History and Social Policy, who taught with May after he arrived at the Kennedy School from Duke in the early 2000s. “Another thrust was to get people to think about problems over time—to be mindful that the problem you are trying to solve might have been created by someone solving another problem.”

The class, Uses of History, became a Kennedy School legend, and the 1986 book that grew out of May’s and Neustadt’s teaching, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, a classic.

Thinking historically was a reflex, May and Neustadt reasoned. A policymaker or manager would inevitably reach back to the Vietnam War or the Great Depression to understand a present problem. But given that most people had only a limited body of historical knowledge to draw from, the point was to make them aware of that reflex and try to control it through the use of some analytic principles, such as how a historical example was similar to or different from what it was being applied to. It was history for managers of public and private enterprise.

But history was still a small outpost at the Kennedy School. Its importance was never denied, but the focus was on building other knowledge and other skills. After May’s death, Keyssar was the only trained senior historian on staff at one point.

“We want to know how we got to where we are today in a way that can’t be explained away in hot takes on the immediate.”

Leah Wright Rigueur

That changed in recent years. In part, it was serendipity. In part, it was a growing focus on a multi-disciplinary approach at the school. In part, it was that history was building up a head of steam.

Moshik Temkin, an associate professor of public policy and a historian who joined the faculty in 2008, says that the impact history can have has become more evident in recent years. He cites the example of Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose book Capital in the Twenty-First Century was very influential on public understanding of inequality. “There was a traditionally trained economist, writing what is essentially a work of history, and making a big impact,” Temkin says.

“More historians are aware of the contributions they can make,” says Temkin, whose own work on the Sacco and Vanzetti case thrust him into the debates on the death penalty, immigration, and America’s relationship with the wider world. “We in history, just like many other academic disciplines, we have had a tendency to retreat somewhat into our specializations, without much regard for what’s happening in the world. In history, it’s particularly problematic because many historians are wary of working while thinking explicitly about the present and about the future. Traditionally we shy away from that. And now I’ve noticed a lot more historians embrace their involvement in public issues.”

“At some point, people started to realize that having tremendous technical expertise, having the latest data, was not enough to move the political needle in order to actually compel people to think about policy in different ways,” says Khalil Muhammad, Professor of History, Race, and Public Policy, who was previously the lone historian at the Vera Institute of Justice.

“People have come to say, ‘Maybe there’s more to this than what we’ve been focused on, and maybe we need people who can help us see that what we’re doing today we tried doing 30 years ago, and it didn’t work, and here’s why it didn’t work.’”

That awareness of the impact history could have, combined with a focus in some history departments on very narrow areas of study, helped draw some historians toward the Kennedy School’s multidisciplinary environment.

“It’s just a stimulating environment in which we can practice our discipline and then reach beyond it,” says Fred Logevall, Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs, who in the past has sometimes felt obliged to justify his work on power and on elite decision making in foreign policy. Logevall also holds a joint appointment in the history department at Harvard College.

“Part of what attracted me to HKS is that I would be interacting with faculty and students who are not historians and who don’t aspire to be academics but who are about to get a degree in public policy and then go out into the world. The idea of teaching in that kind of environment, and working alongside political scientists, economists, sociologists, is just exciting for me at this point in my career.”

The hiring in the past couple of years of Wright Rigueur, Muhammad, Logevall, and Arne Westad, S.T. Lee Professor of U.S.–Asia Relations, was the result of multidisciplinary searches, says Keyssar, now the longest serving historian at the school: “It turned out the best person for the job each time was a historian. It wasn’t a decision by the school to build up history.”

 

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SIFT THROUGH THE ARCHIVES

Inserting history into the mix at a policy school requires offering both a new base of knowledge and new skill sets.

“Policy students are interested in seeing and doing the work that historians do for a living, but also in the immediate practical implications,” says Wright Rigueur. “When I go to the archives and sift through the 60,000 documents, I can take that back to the classroom and talk to them about the significance of that history but also the immediate implications for the present.”

Sometimes that means helping to draw lines between the past and the present. Wright Rigueur, for example, can help connect the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, so effective in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, to the Black Lives Matter movement, or help students understand the evolution of the political right from the Republican Party’s Contract with America in 1994 to the explosion of the Tea Party in 2010.

“Understanding why the relationship between China and its neighbors is so bad is something that you can understand only if you understand the past,” says Westad, who uses history to help inform students about international relations. “I’m not saying that history is determining what is happening today, but it certainly influences it.”

Logevall says he found more hunger for history than he expected: He skewed more toward the contemporary in his class on the past 100 years of foreign policy. But students were just as interested in the history as in the examination of the contemporary scene.

“As a historian in a school like this, you can’t teach history the way you would in a liberal arts environment,” he says. “But the appetite for history is there, no question.”

“I’m not saying that history is determining what is happening today, but it certainly influences it.”

Arne Westad

Muhammad says he saw an appetite among the faculty too. “I knew that there was an openness and a desire to teach students here’s why history is important in their overall development as future leaders, to push beyond data that’s right in front of them, and to be well-rounded, thoughtful humanists in a world where we need creative thinking, where we need deep thought.”

Historians and their allies are pushing for history to occupy a more important and formal role not only in the formation of policymakers, but in the conduct of policy itself.

Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, who first pushed for the inclusion of history in the curriculum when he was dean, has also pushed for reform in the government of what he likes to call “the United States of Amnesia.” Blind to the complicated histories of the Middle East or of Russia and its neighbors, policymakers have found themselves stumbling into terrible mistakes, for example, in not recognizing the depth of the tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims before toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003. He is calling for the establishment of a new sub-discipline of “applied history”—“the explicit attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing precedents and historical analogues”—both in government and in the academy.

Together with Niall Ferguson, a former Harvard historian now at the Hoover Institute, Allison has issued a manifesto of sorts calling for the creation of a Council of Historical Advisors that would play a role similar to that of national security and economic advisors.

It would train history on problem solving and policy advice, rather than advocate learning history “for its own sake.” It could help policymakers see the difference between al-Qaeda and isis by searching for historical analogues in similarly brutal, fanatical groups, and help those policymakers better calibrate their response.

And, importantly, it could steer them away from getting history wrong. Reaching for easy precedents, such as Pearl Harbor for the 9/11 attacks, or focusing on the similarities without being sensitive to the differences, can be just as problematic as not reaching at all.

“Applied history sounds pedestrian to some mainstream historians, like engineering is to theoretical physicists, or medicine is to biochemists,” Allison says. “But ‘Applied’ is a good word for us here at a policy school.”

WATCH THE TRAP

“The present, while never repeating the past exactly, must inevitably resemble it. Hence, so must the future.” So said Thucydides, the Athenian historian and general.

Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, an account of the long war between Sparta and Athens that is widely regarded as the first great scholarly work of history, showed what could happen when one power, Sparta, reacted fearfully to the rise of another, Athens. Today, Graham Allison argues, it provides a lens through which to see another great historical rivalry in the making. “The defining question about global order for this generation is whether China and the United States can escape Thucydides’s Trap,” Allison writes.

Using applied history, Allison and a team of researchers at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs examined the historical record and provided reason for concern and hope. They looked at 16 cases in which a structural stress was caused by a sudden tilt in the axis of power between two rivals. These cases range from the Hapsburgs’ conflict with the expanding Ottoman empire in the 16th and 17th centuries to the war between the United States and the rapidly rising Japanese Empire in the 20th century. In 12 of the cases, the result was war.

But despite the long odds, there are reasons for optimism. When the United States found itself facing an antagonistic and suddenly powerful Soviet Union after the Second World War, the result could easily have been a devastating, apocalyptic conflict. “But American diplomats and strategists envisioned a war that was cold rather than hot,” Allison says. “There was a great surge of strategic imagination that helped both sides.”

The United States and the Soviet Union created a “web of mutual constraints” through arms control and other means. And the United States had a clear strategy involving containment, deterrence, and anti-communism. These historical lessons are vital to those managing the relationship today, and to the hope that this conflict, too, may resolve itself with a whimper rather than a bang.