Australian Outlook

In this section

Book Review: Lessons from History: Leading Historians Tackle Australia’s Greatest Challenges

02 Mar 2023
Reviewed by Dr Francine McKenzie

This book recenters the role of historians in the debate on foreign policy and political significance. To address the challenges the nation faces, historical context matters. 

Periodically, people criticize historians and history as irrelevant. The reasons behind this dismissal vary, but a few recurring reasons are that historians are engrossed in details and can’t see the bigger picture, the subjects they study have no obvious application today, and they write exclusively for an academic audience. A few years ago, The Economist lambasted the historical profession for its disengagement from important political questions: “For the most part today’s historians remain isolated in their professional cocoons, spending more time fiddling with their footnotes than bringing the past to light for a broader audience.” The rebuke was stinging, sharpened by the belief that Britain needed historical information and guidance as it prepared to withdraw from the European Union.

Historians have spoken out against such criticisms in public media, twitter campaigns, and petitions. Lessons from History is another response to public and political scepticism of the value of history. In this collection, a group of “citizen historians” who care deeply about the so-called real-world, use their historical knowledge and training to address “Australia’s greatest challenges.” There are few footnotes to fiddle with, the chapters are accessible and to the point, written with an eye to policymakers who are short on time and surrounded by noise.

Lessons from History opens with chapters that explain generally why history matters to public policy. Graeme Davison, Frank Bongiorno, and James Walter discuss some of the ways in which history is relevant today: historical knowledge is needed to correct misrepresentations of the past and to develop a way of thinking that is holistic, complex, and contextualised. They warn against the misuse of history. Lessons from the past are not obvious or readily applicable and understanding the past is not a guide to the future. Their explanations of the usable past, as well as their cautions, are well-known (to historians at least), but it is helpful to explain the thinking behind the bullet points. Although their claims are sound, at times they are also frustratingly vague. What I found most helpful was the reminder that history doesn’t only explain how we got here, it shows that other outcomes have been possible. Remembering that there have been other possible futures should inform public policy by widening its scope: major reforms, meaningful improvement, and new directions cannot be dismissed as unrealistic or unattainable when you understand that there have always been alternatives to the way we live now. As Andrew Leigh put it in his chapter on post-World War Two reconstruction, studying the past “should inspire us in addressing the opportunities of our age.”

The chapters by Yves Rees and Joan Beaumont could have been added to the introductory section on why and how history matters. Rees explains that historians must debunk the entrenched belief in progress, a belief which they describe as “a death sentence.” They suggest that we think of time as a cycle and time as running out in relation to the environmental crisis. Rees draws attention to the power and trap of path dependent thinking that prevents us from changing. As they put it, history teaches us that “other worlds are possible.” Beaumont discusses the utility of sites of memory generally and in particular in relation to the Great Depression of the 1930s, to build support for public policy innovation in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. She makes a startling claim that it does not matter if the parallels between the Depression and the pandemic are valid or “accurate”; it is “not of any real consequence.” Her point is that history is functional, making policy innovation possible and legitimate.

Most of the chapters in Lessons From History are examples of applied history. The authors address specific “how to” questions. How to: ensure that Australians living in cities have enough water, maintain a vibrant trade relationship with China, increase foreign aid, ensure that the activities of foreign multinationals benefit Australia, reduce inequality, manage electricity, improve refugee policy, end anti-Muslim racism, prevent war crimes, stop the far right, support the self-determination of First Nations peoples, achieve gender parity among business leaders, support working mothers, reduce domestic violence, develop Northern Australia, and make Australians care about their democracy.

The historians are subject specialists who situate these challenges in a historical context and explain how they have been addressed in the past. From their analysis, they extract recommendations for today. They do so cautiously. Many recommendations are specific. Specificity is an axiom of the discipline of history that simultaneously guides and limits its contemporary significance. For example, Niro Kandesamy urges governments to talk to refugees to develop a more humane refugee policy; David Lowe concludes that Australia’s values need to be stated explicitly in connection to foreign aid; Evan Smith suggests that building far-reaching coalitions is necessary to combat the rise of far-right views and actions. The collective authors of the chapter on water policy emphasise the need to move away from a growth model, plan for the long-term, and think about resource management and stewardship guided by the way Indigenous peoples have long understood that “water is life.”

Some of the recommendations overlap and reinforce one another. Mahsheed Ansari, Mia Martin Hobbs, and Evan Smith discuss racism and the violence and injustice it begets. Their respective chapters show that specific manifestations of racism are deeply rooted and institutionalised and require a whole-of-society approach. This kind of historical thinking shows that some challenges need to be reconceptualised and this has clear implications for policymakers.

A lot of the recommendations are directed toward government: be more consultative and listen to communities with first-hand knowledge (development of Northern Australia); adopt a bipartisan approach to policy questions (relations with China, managing electricity, curbing domestic violence); offer support, but do not take the lead (First Nations’ self-government), except for when strong political leadership is essential (combatting anti-Muslim prejudice); don’t politicise all issues (foreign aid, foreign investment, and multinationals). The conception of government that lies behind these recommendations is deeply democratic and won’t appeal to all politicians and policymakers.

Finally, some of the recommendations are common sense. Some might even seem banal: balance the pros and cons, don’t think narrowly, create new narratives. Although the contributors address “how to” questions, the lessons of history do not always come in the form of a “how to” guide.

In the conclusion, the editors ask an important question: should historians recommend policies independently or should they work alongside policymakers? They claim not to have a definite answer. And yet, the volume makes a strong if implicit case for historians to be independent actors in the policymaking process. They address challenges with a clear idea of the desired outcome: to advance social justice; to protect the natural environment; to eradicate violence; to develop foreign policies that make Australia and the world more secure and cooperative; to rethink the commitment to progress and growth. These results might seem unobjectionable, but they have yet to be realised. By owning their ideological leanings, these admirable citizen historians will be better positioned to influence the public and policymakers.

This is a review of Carolyn Holbrook, Lyndon Megarrity, David Lowe (eds.) Lessons from History: Leading Historians Tackle Australia’s Greatest Challenges (New South Publishing, 2022) ISBN: 9781742237473  (paperback)

Francine McKenzie is a Professor of History at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada. Her most recent book is Rebuilding the Postwar Order: Peace, Security and the UN-System, 1941-1948 (Bloomsbury, 2023). 

This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.