On Moving Beyond “Context”

Perhaps it is because I teach in a medical school, rather than a traditional academic history department, but over the past two years I have become increasingly interested in thinking about how historical scholarship can directly contribute to solving current problems. When people discover where I teach they often ask me, in a somewhat quizzical way, what I actually do. How do I spend my time? What do I contribute? Why have a historian at a medical school at all?

It’s a good set of questions. I typically respond with something about “context”  – how history helps us understand the present, or raises interesting questions about the direction we are going, or some other such formulation. This is all true, of course, and its important. I wouldn’t be a historian if I didn’t think in these terms. But I have also started to wonder if historians can do more – and, if we can, whether or not we should. So, I’ve started to ask myself: what can historical scholarship contribute to the design and implementation of health interventions? To the crafting of public health policy? To the definition and measurement of quantifiable problems and outcomes? To the generation of grant money? Can historians do more than talk about the past in order to provide “context” for the labor of others? And should we?

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