Thanks to Newt Gingrich, people are talking about how much a historian is worth.
In a recent GOP presidential debate in which Gingrich was asked to explain why he earned $300,000 from Freddie Mac, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives claimed that he had given the mortgage company advice in his capacity as a historian. Later it was revealed that Gingrich had actually received between $1.6 and $1.8 million for his supposed work as a historical consultant.
By one definition, Gingrich is a historian. He has a Ph.D. from Tulane University where he wrote a doctoral dissertation entitled "Belgian Education Policy in the Congo, 1945-1960." He taught history at West Georgia College (now University of West Georgia) and, believe it or not, was influential in starting an environmental studies program there. When he did not receive tenure at West Georgia he set off on a political career.
Gingrich has written several books of a historical nature. Most of his work has focused on the Civil War and World War II. Some of his books are novels. None of them has been embraced by the scholarly community of historians, but I am sure they sell a lot of copies. As far as I can tell, Gingrich has absolutely no experience or scholarly knowledge of the American housing system.
Gingrich's work for Freddie Mac can thus be explained in one of two ways. Either the executives at Freddie Mac were dumb enough to pay over $1 million to a "historian" with virtually no expertise in the history of housing, or Newt Gingrich is not telling the truth about the nature of his consulting work with the organization.
Is it really possible that the leadership of Freddie Mac wanted a historical consultant to help them think about the way in which the past, in this case the history of housing in America, informs the present? If so, why wouldn't they hire someone who knows something about this field?
It is more likely that Gingrich is not telling the truth. I would like to hear, specifically, how Newt used events or ideas from the past to help Freddie Mac improve its business plan. Until Newt reveals how his "strategic advice" was historical in nature, I am going to have to agree with the conservative columnist George Will, who said this weekend that Gingrich was little more than a "classic rental politician" who was only hired to use his connections within the Republican Party to get conservatives to support the Freddie Mac agenda.
Gingrich gives historians a bad name. Many of us serve as consultants and offer our clients sound and useful historical advice. There are many businesses, government agencies, and civic organizations that could learn a lot from a consultation with a professional historian.
Last year I received a letter from a CEO of a large finance company. He wrote to tell me that companies like his should have historians on the payroll because "history is singularly the best discipline for success in business." He went to say that "In history, you learn and become immersed in why people and groups do things over an extended period of time. History validates that people and organizations act in clear, recognizable patterns . . . behavior becomes very predictable, which is vital to understand in business because you have to be able to anticipate how people will behave . . ."
I am also aware of a Louisiana State University historian who is documenting the cultural impact of the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the people living in Louisiana's coastal communities. I would think this kind of research might be very useful to both the state of Louisiana and British Petroleum (BP).
The director of finance for the largest educational textbook company in the world recently told me that he regularly hires historians because they can take data or "facts" and weave them into a story or narrative that can be used to make strategic decisions for his company.
Leaders of churches need historians to help them to connect with the religious and theological roots of their congregations. Earlier this year I was in a historic church in downtown Minneapolis where the pastor used the history of the congregation and its time-worn mission to bridge the gap between young church members and those whose families had worshipped in the congregation for generations.
We need historians. Our advice and expertise may not always be worth $1.6 million, but it is worth a lot more than most people think.