Last week, when the Canadian government announced that it had formed a committee of experts to advise on the development of its forthcoming Asia-Pacific Strategy, I tweeted out a rather flustered response:
Not one #historian on this list. Will the political level ever learn? Liberals appoint committee of experts to help build Indo-Pacific strategy https://t.co/HSRkcYGNRa
Since Twitter loves a snark, a number of people joined in my criticism. There were no real Asia experts, or China experts, or diplomats; the government was just looking for an echo chamber, not an advisory board; wasn’t this strategy supposed to be finished by now; the Liberals are always awful, why are you surprised…
In an apparent effort to defend the government’s choices, one member of the minister’s staff tweeted back the names of three advisors, emphasizing their PhD credentials.
Unfortunately, since none of them were historians, the effort not only reinforced my impression that the minister’s team did not recognize the value that a historian could bring to the committee, but that they might well have only included academics at all as a tick-in-the-box. It was the credential that mattered, not the skill-set.
In spite of my disappointment, now that I have calmed down, I’m struggling to blame Ottawa for what is clearly a lack of appreciation of what an understanding of Canada’s international history might do for policymakers. (Empathy, humility, context, the long view…)
Rather, it seems to me that official Ottawa’s attitude is a reflection of the failure of history educators and practitioners to make our case.
Note that I made a similar argument eight years ago in response to the Harper government’s cuts to Library and Archives Canada, so I don’t see it as a partisan issue.
Rather, as I suggested then, it’s much more a failure in how we communicate the value of history in our classrooms and in the public realm.
In 2014, I made a number of recommendations for change that focused on how senior history faculty members had to encourage and reward professional commitments to the scholarship of teaching and learning among their more junior colleagues.
We must celebrate educators who enable students to emerge from their history classes inspired, and convinced that good public policy must be informed by historical thinking.
I’m not convinced we’re there yet.
Nonetheless, with the benefit of nearly a decade of hindsight, I think that there are other efforts that can also be made:
If historians want to effect policy change at the federal level in Canada, we must be able to communicate credibly with elected officials and their staff in the official language of their choosing.
Ideally, that means enforcing a much higher standard of second language literacy in graduate school, but improving one’s language skills can also be done independently.
Historians who seek to effect change at the political level also need a firm understanding of how the Canadian system of government works.
Too many academic historians would struggle to differentiate between the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office, and wouldn’t be sure whether the National Security and Intelligence Advisor to the Prime Minister is a career professional or a partisan appointee.
If you don’t know how the system works, it’s really hard to identify who the key decision-makers will be on a given file.
Finally, we need more historians to enter public life, be that through the public service, as political staff, or through elected office.
Decision-makers are bound to better appreciate historical sensibilities when they are exposed to them on a more consistent basis.
In sum, I don’t regret the tweet, but the blame is on me, too…