This post originally ran at The Way of Improvement Leads Home on December 14, 2014–JF
(Princeton University) and James Grossman
(American Historical Association), the authors of the “No More Plan B
” proposal that challenged graduate programs in history to think about training Ph.D students for careers outside of the academy, have now turned to the pages of the prestigious American Scholar
to extol the value of undergraduate historical research.
I think I will just let them explain. But before I do, I am proud to say that Grafton and Grossman use the Messiah College History Department as an example of a department in which students are engaged in extensive student research. We are indeed a department that uses the study of the past to help students build “a self and a soul and a mind” that they can take with them wherever they go.
Here is a taste of their article, “Habits of the Mind“:
Students of history learn how to do research in institutions of many kinds…Go, for example, to the webpage of the history department at Messiah College, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and you’ll read about students doing every kind of research you can imagine, from working with a museum professional to excavate and restore a historic cemetery, to pursuing the family histories of African Americans in the documents at the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library, to developing a digital archive on the history of Harrisburg. Go to the webpage of the history department at the University of California, Berkeley and you’ll find a student-edited journal, Clio’s Scroll, showcasing detailed and imaginative historical research—often drawn from senior theses—on subjects such as drama, landscape, and political thought.
Why do we teach these students—fresh, bright young undergraduates—to do research? Why take people who are forming themselves, who should be thinking about life, death, and the universe, and send them off to an archive full of dusty documents and ask them to tell us something new about the impact of the Civil War in a country town in Pennsylvania or Virginia, or the formation of Anglo-Norman kingship, or the situation of slaves in the Old South?
The answer is so simple that we sometimes forget to give it, but it matters. We teach students to do research because it’s one powerful way to teach them to understand and appreciate the past on its own terms, while at the same time finding meaning in the past that is rooted in the student’s own intellect and perspective. Classrooms and assigned readings are necessary to provide context: everyone needs to have an outline in mind, if only to have something to take apart; and everyone needs to know how to create those outlines and query them constructively. Reading monographs and articles is vital, too. To get past the big, generalized stories, you have to see how professional scholars have formed arguments, debated one another, and refined theories in light of the evidence.
But the most direct and powerful way to grasp the value of historical thinking is through engagement with the archive—or its equivalent in an era when oral history and documentary photography can create new sources, and digital databases can make them available to anyone with a computer. The nature of archives varies as widely as the world itself. They can be collections of documents or data sets, maps or charts, books with marginal notes scrawled in them that let you look over the shoulders of dead readers, or a diary that lets you look over the shoulder of a dead midwife. What matters is that the student develops a question and then identifies the particular archive, the set of sources, where it can be answered.
Why do this? Partly because it’s the only way for a student to get past being a passive consumer and critic and to become a creator, someone who reads other historians in the light of having tried to do what they do. Partly because it’s the way that historians help students master skills that are not specific to history. When students do research, they learn to think through problems, weigh evidence, construct arguments, and then criticize those arguments and strip them down and make them better—and finally to write them up in cogent, forceful prose, using the evidence deftly and economically to make their arguments and push them home.
The best defense for research, however, is that it’s in the archive where one forms a scholarly self—a self that, when all goes well, is intolerant of weak arguments and loose citation and all other forms of shoddy craftsmanship; a self that doesn’t accept a thesis without asking what assumptions and evidence it rests on; a self that doesn’t have a lot of patience with simpleminded formulas and knows an observation from an opinion and an opinion from an argument.
This self, moreover, is the student’s own construction. Supervision matters: people new to historical work need advice in framing questions, finding sources, and shaping arguments. In the end, though, historical research is always, and should always be, a bungee jump, a leap into space that hasn’t been mapped or measured. The faculty supervisor straps on the harness and sees to the rope. But the student takes the risk and reaps the rewards. This isn’t just student-centered learning, in which the student’s interests are put first; it’s student defined and student executed, the work of a self-reliant, observant, and creative person.
A self like this can seem unworldly, especially if the “real world” resembles a political culture that dismisses complexity and context as “academic.” But in a deeper sense, this is a worldly education, in the traditional way that humanistic education has always embodied. A good humanities education combines training in complex analysis with clear communication skills. Someone who becomes a historian becomes a scholar—not in the sense of choosing a profession, but in the broader meaning of developing the scholarly habits of mind that value evidence, logic, and reflection over ideology, emotion, and reflex. A student of history learns that empathy, rather than sympathy, stands at the heart of understanding not only the past but also the complex present.
That is because in the archive the historian has the opportunity and the obligation to listen. A good historian enters the archive not to prove a hypothesis, not to gather evidence to support a position that assumptions and theories have already formed. But to answer a question. It’s an amazing experience to see and talk with and learn from the dead. As Machiavelli said so well, you ask them questions about what they did and why, and in their humanity, they answer you, and you learn what you can’t learn any other way.
History has many mansions nowadays. Historians work on every period of human history, every continent, and every imaginable form of human life. But they all listen to the dead (and yes, in some cases, the living as well): that’s the common thread that connects every part of history’s elaborate tapestry of methods. All historians muster the best evidence they can to answer their questions. They offer respect and admiration to those who show the greatest ingenuity in raising new questions, bringing new characters onto the stage of history, and finding new evidence with which to do so.
As for talking with people who don’t work in universities—a student who writes a good history paper has learned how to communicate knowledge to anyone. History has been a form of narrative art, as well as of inquiry into the past, since the first millennium BCE, when Jewish and Greek and Chinese writers began to produce it. That’s why Herodotus could read his history of the Persian Wars aloud at the Olympic Games—a performance for which he received the large sum of 10 talents. Historians care about clear speech and vigorous prose, and believe that even complex and technical forms of inquiry into the past can be conveyed in accessible and attractive language. Accordingly, we don’t separate research from writing. Just ask the students whose papers and chapters we send back, adorned with marginalia in blue pen or the colors of Track Changes.
When a student does research in this way—when she attacks a problem that matters to her by identifying and mastering the sources, posing a big question, and answering it in a clear and cogent way, in the company of a trained professional to whom she and her work matter—she’s not becoming a pedant or a producer of useless knowledge. She’s doing what students of the humanities have always done: building a self and a soul and a mind that she can take with her wherever she goes, and that will make her an independent, analytical thinker and a reflective, self-critical person. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?