August 10, 2009

Do we need to do any more research?

Professor Mark Bauerlein argues in the Chronicle that no more research into the humanities is needed (thanks Ashok for the link). He raises a question that lots of people have raised to me in the past- what more is there worth doing in history (he mainly comments on literary criticism which I do not know so will not comment about)- the answer is that Bauerlein is wrong and that there is more research to do in history in particular and I'm sure in other humanities. The serious practice of history only began in the early 20th Century. The first modern historians of the English civil war were individuals like Samuel Gardiner and Sir Charles Firth. Gardiner's history of the civil war and his history of the commonwealth and protectorate (finished by Firth)is the place where modern historians start writing. Gardiner and Firth are the places that people start from- there are earlier scholars whose work was important: but none can challenge the power of Gardiner and Firth's narratives. Von Ranke directed historians to look at archival sources- Firth took that lesson to heart producing the first edition of the Clarke Papers, he aided S.C. Lomas to producce a scholarly edition of Cromwell's letters, he also edited Cromwell's letters. Other great collections of sources appeared at the same time: C.S. Terry edited a volume of editorials and letters entitled the Cromwellian union with Scotland, R. Dunlop provided us in 1913 with an edition of letters from the army in Ireland. And those are only the sources I have used myself!

Many sources though remain unexploited. Blair Worden showed that one of the texts that historians for generations had relied on- the memoirs of the MP and soldier Edmund Ludlow- were actually edited in the 18th Century by John Tolland, the religion was expunged from them and what was produced was a Whig republican narrative. Recovering in the Bodleian library a manuscript entitled a Voyce from the Watchtower, Worden demonstrated that Ludlow wrote in a much more apocalyptic tone. There are more discoveries to make as well: the new service EEBO which puts photocopies of all the printed books in English between 1450 and 1700 online facilitates further discoveries. I've heard great papers on subjects as various as the almanacs of Sarah Jinna (someone I'd never heard of) and Tacitean references in histories from the 1590s. Both studies would have been possible before EEBO- both are easier with it and the kind of thing they represent will grow and grow as access to sources grow and grow. The thing is that there is plenty of work to be done and plenty to do.

I'm not sure therefore that Bauerlein realises this- he professes ignorance of anything but literary criticism and he may be right on his own field, I am not going to comment. But there is plenty of research to be done in other areas- particularly of empirical research- I have discussed the seventeenth century only and barely that, you could discuss any of the centuries going backwards. As David Starkey once said the main narrative of English history has not yet been written, not to mention societies in which historians have done less and have less at the moment to work with. Historians won't be out of work for a long time yet!


James Hamilton said...

I couldn't agree more. Within 6 years of my leaving university, young researchers, despite half of them being gateposts, had turned Gerald Harriss's reading lists into wastepaper - and then GH did it himself, with his extraordinary contribution to the new Oxford History series.

Dave Cole said...

Two answers depending on what you see as the purpose of research; they're by no means mutually exclusive. I could make a decent argument that my current book on the commute to and from work - Thucydides' History of the Pelponnesian War - is research as I'm reading it, in part, to improve my understanding of 'the state'. Research can be research even if it's just to improve one's self.

Moving onto the main part, research can also be for the public benefit (public being sometimes rather more narrowly defined than I'd like).

The article to which you refer lists Walt Whitman as having been the subject of 1,986 scholarly articles between 1950 and 1985. Whitman worked on Leaves of Grass, continually through his life, adding and amending as he went, so that it has either six or nine original editions, depending on who you ask. Most modern versions are in thirty-five books with twenty or so poems a piece. When you add in all the cross-cutting themes, his social commentary, politics and life as a soldier in the Civil War, the question should be 'why has so little been written?' As you say, we don't even have all the facts yet, as discoveries keep coming to light in almost every field. Moreover, new technologies allow us to cross-reference, refer and translate with more ease than ever before. That adds more to what can, and should, be done.

Even if, however, endless volumes and been written, each more definitive than the last, there'd still be work to do. History continues being made and the importance of things changes as times change. For instance, Herfried Munkler has published a book, The New Wars (originally published in German as Die Neuen Kriege, that suggests we may be reverting to patterns of warfare more reminiscent of the Thirty Years' War than of the period after the Peace of Westphalia.

Who is to say that the modern state will cease to work as a viable entity and Thucydides' account of war between poleis will not become relevant again?


Ashok said...

I just put this on Stumbleupon, hope it helps some.

Hope all is well - I'm updating, but things are busy here.