The Writing of History (1926)
The Influence of Graduate Instruction on Historical Writing
By Wilbur C. Abbott, professor of history at Harvard University
Some fifteen years ago one of the leading historical scholars of the United States, in an address to a learned society, bewailed the fact that “in looking about for writers of history in this country at the present moment, the seeker is met with greater discouragement than would befall him in almost any other path of original research.” “The American people,” he goes on to say, “are in the midst of a cycle of commercialism. There has not been a time, for many years, at any rate, when scholarship has been so lightly valued in the United States as it is at the present moment. . . . Nowadays the size of the output and not the quality of the production is what attracts attention. The standardization of education, not the making of scholars, is the cry. Let any one turn the matter over in his mind and see if he cannot count the really first-class works of American historical writers within the last twenty-five years, on his fingers; and yet conceive of the number of persons engaged in historical pursuits and the number of books constantly published under the guise of history! Some day the wheel will turn around; scholarship will again be valued as a national asset, and a new Parkman will arise! Possibly he may produce only one volume, but if that volume shall be of the quality of the ‘Pioneers of France,’ it will do more for the cause of educating the plain people and the building up of his own reputation than the printing of documents by the ton or the publication of monographs by the dozen.”
Nearly a decade and a half has passed since those words were written, and a new Parkman has not yet appeared. Indeed, if any tendency has developed more than another, it would seem to the pessimist to be rather the printing of documents by the ton and the publication of monographs by the score; the insistence on education instead of scholarship and the neglect of history as a form of literature. It is true that within the past few years we have experienced a revival of universal, if not cosmic, history from the pens of untrained or half-trained historians; we have had a tremendous amount of attention paid to the history of the progress of the human mind from philosophic historians or historical philosophers; we have had an increase in the number and content of textbooks, taken by publishers, by the public, and perhaps even by their authors, as serious “history.” But the number of fingers required to count the really notable writers of history has not increased.
What is the reason for this; and what can be done about it? There are other explanations than the development of education at the expense of scholarship; reasons beyond even commercialism. They lie in perhaps two directions —the authors and the public—as well as in the nature of history as it was and is conceived. Incredible as it may appear to this generation, there was a time, and not so long ago, when history offered a field for an author’s ambitions not only for fame but for fortune. Not even the efforts of Mr. Wells, backed by his enormous reputation in another branch of fiction, were as amply rewarded as those of Macaulay. Parkman—whom Professor Channing singles out—and his contemporaries, Prescott and Motley, to say nothing of Bancroft, actually made money out of history, and good history. Few if any historians proper make money out of history in that measure to-day—only the writers of text-books can pretend to such rewards. Hence men write text-books.
This is a fertile theme, but it does not avail to stress the fact that of the first volume of Gardiner’s great work some one hundred and seventy-five copies were sold. It was not without truth that Carl Schurz is reported to have said to an aspiring historian: “ Ah, you write history. You must have a patrimony.” But the result is obvious. If a man is to write history he must have an income independent of his writing, either private or professional. In consequence, since the historical muse cannot offer her less fortunate votaries a living, they teach, and in that teaching, or its accompaniment, exhaust the energies which some of them might otherwise have devoted to scholarship instead of education.
This, indeed, is not all the story. There remains the altered character of history, upon which the modern critics, who denounce much they do not understand or appreciate, pour out the vials of their wrath. Some—indeed much— of their criticism is valid. “If economics is the dismal science,” observed one of the last generation of scholars, “history is and ought to be the dull science.” And, apart from that dictum, with which most of us would doubtless disagree, the root of the matter lies in the word science, and the development that it indicates. Historical science, so-called, has succeeded or replaced historical literature. And while one may admit that in its method history should and must be scientific, this need not and ought not prevent its being literary on the side of presentation. Unless it is, it will not be read. If it is not read, it will lose much or most of its value as a guide to thought and action.
How, then, is it possible, or is it possible at all, to bring historical writing again into the field of literature without taking it out of the field of science? How is it possible to make it more readable than, let us say, chemistry or physics?
It may be premised at once that there is no recipe for literary skill. The true historian, like the poet, is born, not made. For those who are “called” to write history, and find that the call is justified by its fruits, there is no recipe needed. On the other hand, one cannot stimulate genius in those who have no genius; and in so far the riddle seems insoluble.
Yet something may be done to encourage the writing of history which, if not the result of natural inspiration, shall at least be intelligible and interesting to the average reader. One of the ways is this. Ever since the influence of the German school of higher education fell upon this country, for good and ill, it has been apparent that manner has been sacrificed to matter, form to substance. The deadening effect of the dissertation has been obvious in nearly every field which relates to literature, or to clear and logical expression, human interest, or any of those qualities which make an appeal to audiences beyond the bounds of specialists and technical experts.
It may be said that this is no more the concern of history than of biology, that the purpose of history, as that of the other sciences, is to arrive at truth, that there is no more reason why a historical work should be “interesting” than a study in pathology. Yet it is obvious that this begs the question. If history is to be divorced from all connection with public interest, save by the medium of text-books, it will die, or at least fail of its purpose to inform and instruct. That argument need not detain us.
Briefly, then, it seems that a beginning may be made among those younger votaries of history who fill our ranks of graduate students; that their work should be directed not merely to the accumulation of facts, but to the arrangement of those facts in at least reasonably readable form; that their “ theses “ should be so constructed as to appeal not only to the specialists who pass upon their merits, but to a wider public. It is not certain that even the professional readers of these would not welcome a change from the incredible dreariness of some of these productions, many of which should never be permitted to see the light of print until they are humanized. For it is idle to contend that it is not possible to tell the truth in more agreeable form than some of these productions reveal.
This is no plea for less “scholarly,” less “scientific,” or less “exhaustive” treatment, still less for “popular” presentation; least of all for relaxation of the investigation, the analysis, and criticism necessary for contribution to truth. It is not an appeal for literary “style,” though style is not to be despised as much as it has been by some of our more Dryasdust scholars. It is only that we shall have some insistence on—and perhaps training in—form as well as in method and substance.
To this suggestion as to the direction of our graduate work on slightly different lines, many others can and doubtless will be offered. It is too much to hope that it will produce a Macaulay or a Gibbon, even were that desired. But it may do something to make the writing of a thesis more than a mere perfunctory task useful only as a means of getting a degree. It may even do something to correct the situation which now exists—that only a very small fraction of those who write theses ever write anything else.
To this there is one method of approach so necessary, so obvious, so absolutely essential that it would scarcely seem worth while to mention it were it not so largely, or even in many cases so completely, ignored by graduate teacher and student alike. It is reading history. How many times one hears the question asked in doctor’s examinations: “ What have you read in this field?” How many times the answer is reeled off—a list of titles, books “consulted,” “referred to,” “looked into,” but not, obviously, read, much less inwardly digested. It is the exception rather than the rule to find that a candidate has read all of the work of even one great historian. “I suppose some one has actually read Gibbon and Macaulay through,” once observed a professor of history of some note, “but for my part I have never had time.”
In that remark lie the two principal indictments of the system. The one is the relatively slight emphasis placed on reading, the other the confession of a life so busy with details that reading seems impossible for its own sake. “If we can only teach men to read and write,” observed a famous Oxford tutor, “we are satisfied.” It seems a simple formula, but it involves the elements of education—and much more.
The practical difficulty in our scheme of graduate education is that of time. It is generally reckoned that it takes four to five years for one to achieve the degree of doctor of philosophy in any first-rate university, a period as great as that demanded in medicine, and greater than that usually demanded in law, or theology, or engineering, or other professions. To take enough “courses,” to prepare for the dreaded examination, to do the investigation and the writing on a dissertation, even this seems almost too little to the average candidate, who is almost invariably in a state of nervous hurry from at least the beginning of his second year. He has no time for mere reading. He must “get up” “bibliography.” He must do the “required reading” in his courses. He must take examinations in them. He must, in too many cases, do a certain amount of teaching or “paper work”—reading the periodical tests in undergraduate courses. He is continually too busy.
Part of this is doubtless good for him; from his work as an assistant, corresponding more or less to clinical work in medicine, he learns part of his trade, the mechanics of teaching, the method of conducting classes, of handling the students and the problems which he must later face. He even acquires a considerable amount of actual information of great value to him in his later work. Part of it is, equally without doubt, weariness to the flesh; it is the price he pays for means to go on with his work. But there is beyond this a measure of nervous hurry, common perhaps to American life, which prevents serious reading, contemplation, thought, reflection—all the things which education is supposed to give as a ripening process.
It is this quality which is partly responsible for his failure later to go on with his “scholarly” work. It is partly this which prevents his “producing.” Not all; for it is obvious that a considerable proportion of graduate students have no other goal before them than teaching. With them the economic motive, like that in law and medicine and engineering, is supreme. Nor can one find fault with this, as some have done, if we are to make education a real profession, not a mere form of charity or social service, or whatever it may be called, in the endeavor to find a fine name to cover its low financial rewards.
Beside this, there is the demand from every educational institution for services which are but little if at all related to education in the sense of mental training. These which may be grouped under the common name of “administration,” whether of committees on educational policy or athletics or social conditions, or discipline, are necessary, if exaggerated, accompaniments of higher mass-education, intermediate education, and even, it would seem nowadays, of elementary education in the United States. Joined to family cares incident to limited means, to the nervous energy used up in the profession most destructive of nervous energy, there seems little time to read, much less to investigate, least of all to publish. It is not so true in science, but it is eminently true in history. Hence it is little wonder that eighty-five per cent or so of our doctors of philosophy never write anything even as substantial as their doctoral dissertations during the rest of their lives.
In a certain sense this result is one which might reasonably be expected. Relatively few persons have the urge to write; still fewer the spirit of investigation; and even in a selected body like the graduate students in history, it must be evident that many have neither the talents nor the desire to produce history. The greater proportion are content with the extremely useful and honorable work of instruction.
Yet, even so, it would seem that, if these things are true, there ought to be some reform in the method of graduate instruction in history. This should be done not merely for the sake of training writers, who will produce something that the public can and will read, but to insure an outlook not bounded by the comparatively narrow limits of the present requirements for the degree, or even by that of history regarded from a purely scientific and informatory point of view, much less from a pedagogic standpoint of material and method of instruction. There should be room for a broader and deeper conception of the whole matter; and if there is no room, room should be made.
The fundamental difficulty seems to be that while there are plenty of courses in “historical method,” in “analysis and criticism,” in “problems,” in all the scientific side of historical work, there are to be found few or none on the side of presentation. Worse than this, perhaps, even in the seminary work which forms so large a part of the best side of historical instruction, little or no attention is paid to the form of the reports there submitted. All the stress is on the matter, little or none on the manner. Reports are frequently, if not in many cases generally, made “orally”; that is, by often long, diffuse, and rambling discussion of the question set for investigation, not a clear, brief, concise, written statement of the problem, the method of investigation, the materials, and the results obtained.
The whole stress has been laid too much on information and on methods of investigation, too little on presentation. Too little attention has been paid to choice of subject even. Looking over the products of some schools of instruction, it would almost seem that the subject was of little or no importance, its only object being the training of men in methods of investigation, irrespective of the interest, the importance, the possibility of future development, the wider bearing, the real importance of the work done. It seems to be enough to have a man go through the process of investigation, to learn how to do it, and to prove to the satisfaction of his instructors that he can do it with a certain mechanical skill. If it is published, as it too often is, it is read by the proof-reader and perhaps an unfortunate reviewer or two, and sinks into the oblivion of a “series.”
It is easy to defend this system on two grounds. The one is that it is “scientific”; that it makes no pretense to human interest; that it is enough to clear up a dark way or a disputed point in history in the interests of pure truth; that it is no part of the business of science to be either “human” or “interesting”; that its only concern is with the extension of knowledge. The other is that the number of graduate students is so large, the time available for each is so small that this wholesale method is the only one possible to meet the demands of the situation. To this there might be added a third: that few of these are capable of anything else; that the most one can hope for is the respectable training of respectable scholars and teachers; and that no system can produce genius or even talent. That must come, if at all, by nature.
To these may be added another argument. It is that the graduate student should do his reading himself; that it is no part of the business of the graduate school to direct what should be a natural impulse on his part; that if he has the proper stuff in him he would do it without a “course” in reading. It may be answered that all our work is arranged—for good and ill—in “courses”; that students naturally follow the system which they find; and that the great historians who have not had the advantages of “courses” in a graduate school have not only done their reading themselves, but they have developed their own system of “analysis and criticism,” their own methods of investigation, even acquired their own information and bibliography independently of “courses.” The argument against a course of historical reading is, in fact, no stronger than that against all other courses.
It would seem, then, that, our system being what it is, there should be introduced into every graduate school of history, where it does not now exist, a course in historiography required of every candidate for a degree. That course should include a survey of leading English, American, French, and German historical writers, not by lectures but by actual reading from week to week of parts of each of the principal writers, with discussion of their work in the class. It should include also a study of their method of handling materials as illustrated by particular passages and treatment of particular subjects throughout their work, preferably by a prepared term report or year report carefully written out. It should certainly include the reading of a whole work of at least one representative historian. It should stress not so much the method of investigation as that of presentation. It should compare the work of several men in the same field or on the same point or problem, the materials they used, the way in which they handled those materials, even the methods they employed to get the effects which they wished to produce. In short, it should treat of history not as pure science but as literature.
No one could pretend that such a course, however diligently taught and studied, would produce great historical writers. But it would do two things—in practice it has done two things—it would provide the student with a far wider and deeper knowledge and understanding of historical writing than he now possesses, and models for his own efforts; and, even though he never wrote a line of history, it would greatly enrich his teaching. It is no panacea for the shortcomings of present historical instruction. It would, however, unquestionably serve as a simple, practical, and highly useful corrective to the present unbalanced system of graduate instruction. That it would be highly appreciated by the students, the experience of those who have tried it fully confirms. That it would enrich the intellectual equipment of both teachers and taught, there is every reason to know. That it might serve as a stimulus and an inspiration to write history, there is reason to hope; for we learn much by imitation.
This is no plea for “style” in the ordinary sense. It has little in common with those courses in English composition which so disturb some of our colleagues. It has nothing to do with rhetoric. It has only two things in mind. The one is the emphasis on the actual writing of history, which is, after all, the only way in which the truths accumulated by investigation can be brought before the world. The other is that it may serve to humanize what is the most human of all “sciences,” if not of the “humanities.” And to these may be added the great conclusion: that it is not worth while to write what no one will ever read, that if history is to fulfil its mission it must be read, that if it is to be read it must be readable, and if it is to be readable it must be written for the reader in a form which attracts him. Otherwise history will be divorced from life; and while the establishment of courses in historiography in our graduate schools may not avert this catastrophe; while it may seem a small remedy against a great evil; if the habit of reading and writing can be firmly fixed in the mass of graduate students—to say nothing of undergraduates—it will be one step toward the humanizing of the whole field.
For that, after all, has been the root of the whole matter. History in the hands of ultra-specialists has been too largely dehumanized. The danger lies not on the side of investigation; there the scientific spirit cannot be too strongly urged. But there has been a powerful tendency to inject the scientific method into presentation. There is no essential or fundamental truth in dulness; there is no reason why truth should not be interesting. There is no reason why it cannot be made interesting without ceasing to be true.
Finally, there is one curious phenomenon which, were there no other argument for this point of view, seems to prove it true. It is the fact that outside the realm of historical instruction and scholarship in the usual sense there have arisen so many well-known, widely read histories written by all sorts of men who find in history their medium of expression. And more—they have received from historical scholars themselves that meed of attention, even of praise, which these same scholars are apt to deny to the duller men of their own craft. They criticise—but they read! Is it not time they applied this lesson to their own circle of influence, and tried, in so far as possible, to infuse their own students with some of the qualities they approve in these writers of history outside the pale of “trained historians”?
It is these books which they put in the hands of their students—at least, their undergraduate students—rather than the learned monographs. The same is true of the world in general. The history it reads is for the most part not written by historical scholars proper, trained in “schools” of historical instruction. It is not the kind where “furious footnotes growl ‘neath every page.” Scholars write for each other, not for the public. They are afraid of each other; for they have, what the nonprofessional “historian” has not, a professional reputation as historical scientists at stake, and to them the most minute discrepancy in fact is of far more importance than unreadability.
It may be urged again that this is no mere matter of a “brilliant style.” It is merely telling the story which they have to tell in clear, straightforward language, so that it may be read and understood by any one without too great extinction of boredom. It is a matter of logical arrangement—so often lacking in those masses of undigested material called theses. It is a matter of thinking things out, of selection and arrangement, which, after all, can be taught. It is a matter of time. For to many a graduate student the time spent on presentation bears no relation to that spent on investigation. One must not expect Macaulays and Gibbons to grow on every graduate-school bush; but it is worth while to read the story of how the former sought the right word or expression to clothe his thought, as it is written in Trevelyan, or to reflect that the latter rewrote the first chapter of the Decline and Fall six times. One may consider as well the observation of Thucydides that his great history was not written as a prize essay.
This is no plea that the time spent on the investigation of the facts shall be in any measure minimized, only that the time spent on presentation shall not be scamped, or even eliminated, as it too often is. It is no insistence on “style” as style, nor any argument for the subordination of matter to manner. But in the eternal triangle of history, science, and literature, the historic muse has spent too much time with the former and too little with the latter. One hates to think—viewing many of the reports and theses which pass before his eyes—that the style is the man himself. That is too depressing for the future of historical scholarship in America. He prefers to believe that were more attention paid to form, the whole of historical scholarship would be benefited. For history is no mere accumulation of facts; it is not masses of notes and information; it is not the product of a “lifetime of horrid industry” alone. It requires more than the ability to read endless volumes and manuscripts and make endless references. It requires thought. It needs the mind as well as the eye and hand. Without thought it is but sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, out of tune and harsh. Without informing ideas it becomes a chaos without form and void.
So that, if this is to be avoided, it is necessary to train the mind as well as the eye and memory, to emphasize ideas as well as facts, clearness as well as accuracy, logic as well as industry. It is necessary, above all, to recognize that manner has some place, not as literary style but as the expression of mentality, that quality rather than quantity is the test of ability, and intelligence as well as patience an element of history. We may not, and we must not, expect that the “penetration of genius” shall take the place of scientific investigation. But we have a right to expect that imagination and—it has been urged—even hypothesis shall have the place in history which they have in great science. We have a duty to encourage originality as well as profundity; even, perhaps, to give generalization a place beside minute particularization. There is danger in this, as in everything worth while; but it is the risk which everything worth while must run. Finally, it is important that the most human and in some ways the most interesting of all subjects shall not have its humanity and its interest crushed out by the weight of pseudoscientific elimination of all human interest. For, after all, it was men who made history, and the greatest of historians have been the most human.
Finally, it is obvious that there are two dangers in such a plan as this. The first is that it may be interpreted in terms of lectures on the work of different historians, a formal exercise illuminated, if at all, only by “prescribed reading.” The second is that it may give rise to a mistaken belief, that mere reading makes a historian, that, as in so many other departments of life and learning, dilettante dallying over the work of others, “appreciation,” criticism, and their attendant sprites may take the place of investigation, that words may be regarded as work. For it is necessary to be doers of the word, not hearers only; and it is so much easier to point out where Macaulay falls short, and the method of Thucydides is inadequate, where Motley is out of date, and Taine was prejudiced, than it is to write anything worth while one’s self. If there is anything good in historical training in our universities, it is not making models of universal superficiality or even mere critics. It is first to see that one shall know as much about a little piece of history as any one else in the world—or more; that he can himself, on occasion, actually produce something worth while; and that he shall have as sound a knowledge and judgment about the rest as time and Providence vouchsafe him. Somewhere between the minute dulness of the confirmed historical microscopist and the glittering generalities of the confirmed historical smatterer there lies a golden mean; somewhere between the rhetorician and the scholiast lies a safe road. For the first requisite of writing history is knowing some history to write, not merely having some agreeable ideas on it; and the second is actually writing it, not throwing it together.
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