Should historians write about current events? Maybe not. But when they do, they shouldn’t do it like this.
First, about Medicaid. It’s a great program, especially its expansions through CHIP and the ACA. It assists in the births of around half the babies born in the U.S. My family has benefited from it directly, and it’s opened up some professional opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Yay, Medicaid.
Does the church support the use of Medicaid? Yes, it does. As it states in the church’s current welfare manual:
Question: Is it appropriate if an individual is receiving governmental welfare assistance to use Church welfare assistance as well?
Response: Members may choose to use resources in the community, including government resources, to meet their basic needs. The bishop should become familiar with these resources. Resources that are often used include…Hospitals, physicians, or other sources of medical aid.
Now, back to historians. The Washington Post today published a guest column by Allison Kelley, PhD candidate in history at the University of Virginia. In her column, she references the recent—is fiasco too strong a word?—at BYU-Idaho about student insurance and Medicaid. She provides a wealth of interesting information about welfare history in Utah from 1929 to 1945. And she mentions Mitt Romney, cites the welfare manual’s discussion of self-reliance, and notes that the church did not condemn the G.I. Bill or other tax breaks. Kelley concludes, “Though it is not entirely clear why BYU-Idaho removed Medicaid temporarily from its list of ‘acceptable’ health insurance options before relenting, the church’s selective history of maligning certain government-funded programs — while enjoying the spoils of others — offers clues.”
So now let’s mark up that paper.
Speculation isn’t evidence. As Kelley notes, “some have speculated” that church leaders do not want BYU students to be on Medicaid. Further online research will no doubt reveal many additional interesting speculations about church leaders. Mining online speculation is not a good way to generate a thesis.
Don’t pontificate. Kelley asserts that students using Medicaid is “antithetical to the church’s commitment to individual ‘self-reliance.’” It is? Since when? Who said so? Kelley is making an assertion about the concrete interpretation of a particular principle, but that interpretation isn’t self-evident, and Kelley doesn’t offer any evidence for her reading. The discourse of “self-reliance” is complicated and at times highly irritating. It is nevertheless an important concept and its complications need to be understood if using the term is going to be useful; the church teaches civic engagement rather than isolation from society.
Don’t omit relevant evidence (I). BYU-Idaho and the church’s public affairs office both released statements, but Kelley doesn’t mention them. Why cite online speculation but ignore the direct statements of the people you’re writing about? Well, one reason is that the official statements stray from the confines of one’s academic expertise. But ignoring the obvious isn’t going to strengthen an argument.
Now, BYU-Idaho’s response was a case study in how not to conduct public communication, and the decision itself was a case study in how not to conduct institutional governance. But the most likely explanation for anything is usually to give credence to what people say. Does it make sense that the administration would respond to the concerns of the local medical community in a way that overlooked the needs of its students and that left the university holding the bag and dangling in the wind when everything went sideways? Yes, actually, that sounds quite plausible. If the university had actually had concerns about Medicaid, I have no doubt that it would have stated them, loud and clear.
Don’t omit relevant evidence (II). Kelley links to the online welfare manual, but overlooked the question and answer I quoted above. It seems like something that should have been mentioned.
Is your evidence relevant? Kelley offers quite a detailed discussion of events from 1929 to 1945. But 75 years is a long time. A number of things have changed, including in the church and among its membership in a number of relevant ways, in the intervening time. What Mitt Romney, millionaire and Republican presidential candidate, said about Medicare is not relevant to what the church teaches about Medicaid. The sad truth is that events are more contingent than we think, and history is never as relevant as we wish it were, and we can rarely draw a straight unbroken line from the areas of our own expertise to current events. (As much as I wish medieval apocalypticism was a key to understanding the current moment, the Last World Emperor legend also does not actually provide useful insight on evangelical support for Trump.)
The absence of evidence, etc. The church’s failure to condemn “federal tax breaks for corporations or homeowners’ mortgage-interest deductions” is not clearly relevant to anything at all because there are unlimited possible reasons why something was not done. (Also, academics really should avoid treating the G.I. Bill as just another bit of pork for the middle class. A lot of those guys died or came back maimed, and if we funded a college education for the survivors and thus set off the one academic hiring spree we got in the last century, that sounds like a good thing to me.)
Cite your sources. Kelley notes “Church leaders’ insistence that members take care of themselves ‘without help from the government of the United States.’” It seems relevant to know who said this and when, but she doesn’t provide a source and I can’t find one online. I know it’s an opinion column, but some context would be helpful here. Does anyone know the source?
Are you using historical insight to promote understanding, or detract from it? Kelley’s conclusion is that the mystery of BYU-Idaho’s decision is illuminated by the “church’s selective history of maligning certain government-funded programs.” The implication is that the church is hypocritical when it comes to self-reliance and government largesse, preaching one thing to the poor and another to the middle class. And these are interesting topics to discuss! But BYU-Idaho’s decision is only unclear if you take online speculation as more reliable than the official statements of the people you’re writing about. Kelley’s column does not use history to add nuance or context to the present moment. Do PhD students need to publish, engage with the public, and show how the discipline of history is relevant? Yes, absolutely. But you can do better than this.