Why do we consult scholarship?

Why do we consult scholarship?

I have been working with four students on their senior theses.  Two are graduate students completing master’s degrees; two are undergraduates completing bachelor’s theses.  These are the culminating experiences of their programs in history and theology which demonstrate the students’ abilities to develop a comprehensive project, sort through the debates about the interpretation of movements, historical actors, or ideas. In the process they must review and respond to the scholarship on their topic, sometimes an extensive scholarship, sometimes more limited, sometimes more-or-less consistent with general agreement or consensus, sometimes with varied and divergent positions taken, often with different methodologies and attention to differing kinds of evidence. In the process they develop and demonstrate their ability to think historically and become critical in understanding of history.

It is often not exactly clear why a student of history (and historians generally) work through the arguments of scholars on the topics they study. Most people do not read the writings in which this happens; popular works of history that are reliable and illuminating often reflect the outcomes of those debates and arguments about evidence, interpretation and meaning.  But there are reasons why this work is required for a thesis and why it produces reliable and interesting results.  Here are a few explanations.  A couple of these are not my own, though where exactly they came from, I cannot now tell. Others are my own formulations, though no doubt deepened through discussion with colleagues over the years. I can not claim them as my own.

Entering an Ongoing Discussion. Whatever topic a student or scholar picks up, it is more than likely been treated, discussed, and developed by others who came before us. History is an ongoing dialogue.  It we are not aware of that dialogue between scholars, writers, readers, and those who acted in the events we study, we miss the insights of creative people.  To miss that discussion impoverishes our understanding and imagination. Reading the scholarship on a topic allows us to enter the dialogue, use what others have developed, and hope to add something to it.

Originality or Derivation? When we have some familiarity with the scholarship on a particular topic, we are less likely to claim originality for our interpretation, and more likely to develop something to contribute to the discussion. We can all imagine the condescending responses we might get if we claim to have developed something original, only to find out that others have written extensively along the same lines. We may indeed have come up with the idea ourselves, but others have been there before and had the same idea. We ought to be aware of this before developing the argument to establish an interpretation that is already well established.

Blind Alley. Imagine working on a problem, like a detective might, only to find out that following a trail of evidence leads nowhere.  There is no more evidence, and the pieces we have cannot be fit together because too much is missing.  It would be helpful to know this before embarking on the investigation.  Reading the scholarship can save us lots of time.

Context. Events, ideas, and actions people take, are embedded in historical contexts, or larger historical events, sequences, ways of thinking, problems, geographies, environments, ways of governing, etc.  Getting the context right, or at least determining the probable context for what we study gets us started on a productive track. The failure to understand the historical context of a topic is one the chief failings of popular histories.

Similarity and Differences. Many of the works and topics we study are developed by deeply thoughtful people and contain complicated arguments that we must struggle with just to understand. It is often not immediately evident exactly what they are like or not like, similar too, or different from. Scholars debate this very question. Sometimes the only way to know what a work is similar to or different from is to ready many, many other works to see what kinds of works were around for an historical author to absorb and respond to before we can make a reliable judgment. A student working on a thesis simply does not have the time to do this, and in fact neither do seasoned scholars. They rely on each other to develop a broad understanding of the patterns of writings or actions in any given period and place, and to identify what is similar and different. We need each other for this. Reading the scholarship on our topics helps us recognize the new, and unique, and the usual and expected. Most works and events are combinations of each. Scholarship helps us to recognize them for what they are. 

Anachronism. This is the cardinal sin of historians.  It is the one we have to avoid. It ruins careers, but it also sells books.  Anachronism means getting the time wrong, or construing an historical problem, event, or idea without and understanding of the times in which it developed.  Anachronism results in, for instance, interpreting an ancient or medieval political problem in the terms of our current political issues and polarizations.  We can read anachronistic works because they appeal to our current understanding.  We do not have to think very deeply or critically to understand them. This sells books. But it over-simplifies history by avoiding it. But people in the past had their own issues and polarizations, as well as their own agreements and common understandings. And they were not our own. For the medieval person democracy was almost unthinkable.  For the modern American reverence for monarchs and the idea of kingship is a form of superstition.  If we treat the medieval world as silly because it was not democratic, we miss understanding how our current representative governmental forms developed (the roots of our constitutional arrangements are in medieval England).  If we think that the modern world has all of the right answers, we will not see the deeply troubling problems we currently face.

Well, these are six reasons for entering into the discussion that contributes to our historical understanding. It is the dialogue we ask our students to enter. When done well it adds to and it illuminates our understanding. It takes work, effort, and energy, but offers rewards and develops students ready to enter the professional world. Each discipline has its own ways of developing this kind of professionalism. Even when we focus on the freeing and maturing purposes of studies in the classical liberal arts and sciences, we need to enter the discussion of scholars that helps us see the meaning of those works.   

Educated State
Steve Varvis

Steve Varvis