Blog: The futility of utility

By Jessica Roitman

It’s grant writing season again. This is a stressful time for all struggling academics. But one of the biggest stresses is that every grant application now demands some sort of obeisance to the Gods of Utility. We must exhaustively document how our proposed projects will contribute to society, how our ideas are ‘socially relevant’, and even how our work might fit into so-called ‘National Research Agendas.’ And, really, what can be said against showing that our work is, in some way, useful to the society that supports it?

Well . . . nothing, really. It’s not a bad thing for academics to think of how we can talk to more people about what we do and how we do it. We are paid with public funds, and it’s not an unreasonable request to ask that we show some accountability to those who pay our salaries. That, at least in the Humanities, this leads to rather monotonous and tired claims of ‘public outreach’ via lectures, meetings with ‘stakeholders’ (generally meant to be some sad groups or associations, generally filled with senior citizens, who are devoted to literature, history, or whatever other topic), museum exhibitions (forget the fact that most professional institutions are at the very least uninterested, at worst, horrified, by the idea of hosting a show based on a half-baked idea by an inexperienced academic with no training in how to exhibit or curate), or, my favorite, the packet of lessons for schools – a claim so transparent in its inadvisability and utterly devoid of either creativity or desire on the part of schools as to render its apparent usefulness useless, seems to be beside the point.

As an historian, especially in these heady days when being ‘on the right side of history’ is thrown about as a banner of (self) righteousness, and the political leaders of the world draw upon the past as a touchstone for their own agendas, I should have no trouble in justifying the utility of my proposed project, right? Surely, the trite dictum that “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.” Should be enough? Well . . . it might be for the funding agencies handing out money, but that doesn’t keep it from being, quite simply, wrong.

To take but one obvious example, a cottage industry comparing populist movements in Europe, Trump’s election in America, and the rise of fascism and totalitarianism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s has sprung up, with the implication that if enough historians talk on enough TV programs about the supposed parallels between then and now, we will somehow veer away from the beckoning abyss and all save ourselves from the horrors of another go-around with whatever isms threaten us at the moment.

As much as I love my profession, I have to decry this belief that we historians are somehow useful because we can help avert looming disasters in the present if we just find the right parallel from the past to convince people. It hasn’t worked yet, despite the talking heads and editorials and essays, and I don’t expect all the combined expertise of all the world’s historians to change one discontented voter, one disillusioned citizen, one zealot’s mind. History’s ultimate utility does not lie in its predictive value, because we can rarely predict with any degree of accuracy. We are not a bunch of Nostradamuses ready to spring to the aid of troubled societies if only we are called upon.  History’s utility doesn’t even lie in its explanatory value, for history can explain much, but leaves many gaps. Instead, what it should teach – its usefulness – lies in its ability to teach humility, to nurture an appreciation of the limits on our capacity to see the past clearly or to know fully the historical determinants of our own brief passage in time.

Is this enough? In the European academic system geared towards tangible outcomes in which Utilitarianism is the dominant belief system, then probably not. Utility is the God of funding organizations and governments, the arbiter of good and bad, desirable and undesirable, even right and wrong.  But, as we might learn from history (!), a blind belief in utility – of people, of institutions, of ideas themselves – is the ultimate futility.

(Jessica Roitman  is a researcher at KITLV working on Caribbean History. Her project, ‘The Dutch Windward Islands: Confronting the Contradictions of Belonging, 1815-2015,’ examines the intersection of migration, governance, and (hybridized) identities on the islands of Saba, St. Maarten, and St. Eustatius. This is part of the NWO-funded ‘Confronting Caribbean Challenges: Hybrid Identities and Governance in Small-scale Island Jurisdictions’ project. Roitman has worked on diverse topics including inter-cultural trade, networks and network failure, comparative migration histories, the construction of identities and ethnicities, trans-nationality, conflict resolution, cross-cultural encounters, and the dynamics of colonial law-making.)

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