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From the From the President column of the May 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

Breaking Apart, Putting Together

William Cronon, May 2012

Analysis or synthesis: which should we prefer?

Is it better to explore tightly bounded specialized topics by asking small unasked questions that can be answered as rigorously as possible, combining previously unknown primary documents and technical arguments in original ways whether or not they ultimately matter very much? Or is it better to range widely across the historical landscape, borrowing insights from secondary sources to make large claims, relying even on documents everyone already knows to pursue big familiar questions which however unanswerable, we all recognize to be undeniably important?

These are false choices, of course. Narrow focus is no guarantee of rigor—and is hardly the only path to originality. Breadth need not entail shallowness—and specialized topics don't have to be trivial. Borrowed ideas can be creatively combined to yield profound new insights. Big claims can easily be hollow. Primary sources can be just as unoriginal as secondary ones. Old familiar questions really can cease being worth asking. And so on and on.

Still, it seems fair to assert that the training of historians as conducted in research universities and embodied in theses, dissertations, and monographs has long displayed a marked bias in favor of analysis over synthesis and depth over breadth. Ever since Leopold von Ranke defined professional history as the close reading of primary documents acquired through original archival research, analysis has been the sine qua non of the discipline. Ranke's legacy is that we're a good deal more comfortable breaking things apart than we are at putting them back together again.

History education typically begins by offering broad syntheses in the form of survey courses, but then moves toward an ever more sophisticated engagement with research and analysis as the sites where "real" history is practiced. Advanced students typically start their professional journeys toward "original research" with reading seminars in which the final paper is a literature review summarizing existing scholarship on a given topic. More often than not, though, the point of this exercise is less to synthesize that literature than to identify a new research question pointing toward new sources and arguments that haven't been explored before. From that point on, the path up the academic ladder through higher degrees, employment, and ultimately tenure is almost always toward ever more specialized analytical displays.

There is nothing inherently wrong in this. Much that is best about professional historical research—its care, its subtlety, its precision—derives quite directly from this commitment to close, tightly bounded analysis of narrowly framed questions. I have no wish in this essay to build a case against analytical rigor or deep research. But I do want to argue for the equal importance of synthesis, which too often gets short shrift in the research academy, much to the consternation of students, parents, taxpayers, politicians, and the public at large. The Big Questions of history are often what members of the public most want historians to discuss. (They also love seemingly small stories with profound implications—which are just as dependent on synthesis to achieve their effect.) Yet Big Questions are precisely what our training has taught us to be wary about tackling—and what the sharp knives of our colleagues make us fear we would be unprofessional even to ask.

Paradoxically, this reluctance to range beyond analytical "specialties" is often greatest among historians in the research universities, whereas colleagues in community colleges, high schools, and some public history institutions are often expected to survey whole continents over many centuries. I can't count the number of times I've been told by community college teachers that doctoral training is worse than useless in preparing historians for work in institutions that expect far greater breadth—and synthesis—of their faculty members. Alas, most of my university colleagues seem blissfully unaware that curricula of which they are otherwise justly proud might nonetheless be legitimately criticized for this systematic failure to synthesize.

Why is that?

The reasons are so numerous that it would take a book to survey (and synthesize!) them all, but among the most important are the normative values that the doctoral dissertation is designed to teach, discipline, and reward. (On this score, William James's provocative 1903 essay, "The PhD Octopus," should still be required reading for all scholars.)

For most historians whose dissertation ultimately appears as a book—the publication of which remains a crucial benchmark for tenure at many institutions—the time traversed from baccalaureate to PhD to ultimate publication is rarely much less than a decade and a half . . . roughly one third of a working career for historians lucky enough to gain lifetime employment in the profession.

For many, this will be the only book they ever publish, which means that the monographic norms of the dissertation will be their only direct experience of what it means to write long-form history. There was a time when historians were at least theoretically expected to produce a second book that was much broader and more ambitious than the dissertation, asking larger and more synthetic questions. But having internalized the narrow analytical norms of the dissertation, even those scholars who do produce a second book often default to a monograph that is not much broader than the first. If we did not rely quite so heavily on the dissertation as our model of what history writing should look like, perhaps there would be more room for more ambitious or essayistic engagements with historical questions that wouldn't require such ponderous analytical apparatus with its attendant anxieties. In an era when digital communication seems to be inviting briefer, bolder, more sprightly communication, we would do well to ask whether the analytical models of the 19th-century German university are still the best path to the kind of history that the world now seeks. How best to do that without losing the rigor we cherish is among the unanswered questions we all need to ponder.

The Elizabethan literary scholar G. B. Harrison once argued in a book entitled The Profession of English that at the end of a doctoral defense all copies of a dissertation should be gathered and set afire, whereupon the successful candidate would be presented with the ashes in a box with a statue of a phoenix on top. The real work of scholarship, Harrison said, should arise, phoenix-like, from those ashes. However impractical it may be, I've always rather liked this notion, maybe because I'm someone who as a student produced two big research theses running to many hundreds of pages out of which I never published a word. But the deeper wisdom of Harrison's provocative suggestion, it seems to me, is that true scholarship lies not in the formal apparatus of the dissertation, not in the cautious running to ground of every last document that might somehow be relevant to a narrowly focused question, and not in rigorous analysis alone, but rather in the pursuit of truly exciting questions that send us soaring above the intellectual horizon to glimpse the wider contexts that give our scholarly work its larger meanings.

It is just here, I think, that the need for synthesis becomes most urgent. Without making sure always to balance analytical depth with synthetic breadth, without striving to situate our narrow research questions in a far-reaching web of relationships that renders them significant, we run the risk of losing not just our students and readers—but even each other. All of us are called upon to do this work when we enter the classroom or speak with members of the public, especially when we teach undergraduates or high school students. But such activities have never carried anything like the status that monographic publication does, especially in research universities. The writing of textbooks or comparably synthetic historical works has likewise rarely brought the same fame or recognition as do scholarly monographs (however remunerative it can be). A better appreciation of history's relationship to its many publics would surely strive for better balance between analysis and synthesis in the work we honor and celebrate.

As Samuel Eliot Morison remarked in his AHA presidential address in 1950, "Too rigid specialization is almost as bad for a historian's mind . . . as too early an indulgence in broad generalization and synthesis." We need both—and, in truth, the finest scholarship combines analytical rigor with synthetic breadth to an exhilarating degree. In my own field of U.S. history, I think of James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, Elliott West's Contested Plains, Anne Hyde's Empires, Nations, and Families, Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom, Barbara Novak's Nature and Culture, Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, Mark Fiege's Republic of Nature, and so many others. In such works, we see just how false the choice I offered at the beginning of this essay truly is. Without analytical rigor, synthesis remains shallow, hollow, and trivial. Without synthetic context, analysis remains isolated, insignificant . . . and equally trivial. The very best histories take flight on both wings equally.

William Cronon (Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison) is the president of the AHA.