Published Date

January 28, 1932

From Historical Scholarship in America: Needs and Opportunities (1932)


I. Present Trends and Neglected Areas in Research

The conference finds it very difficult to reply specifically to the question whether and to what extent the growth of historical studies depends upon the injection of new ideas from outside the professional guild. It is fairly clear that the historian will always be influenced, with respect to his thinking and interests, by the ideas and problems presented by his own time. In this regard his position is not unlike that of workers in other intellectual fields and especially other workers in the social sciences. The complexity of modern life and the ever growing specialization certainly make it increasingly difficult for students in one field to keep abreast of the advances in allied subjects. Steps have been taken in recent years to facilitate the exchange of ideas and results, and the conference is heartily in sympathy with these efforts. At the same time it feels that the extent to which these opportunities are used will always depend largely upon the individual, upon his competence and interests.

No analysis has been made of the trends in research revealed in the annual lists of doctoral dissertations, but even a cursory examination shows that in the field of modern European history there has been, in the last decade, a very decided emphasis upon the study of diplomatic history and international relations. There are indications of interest in intellectual history, but very little is being done in other fields, notably in the field of social history. The conference feels, however, that this stress upon diplomatic history is natural and that it need cause no uneasiness. Once the unusual interest called forth by the war has been satisfied, students will undoubtedly turn again to other subjects of investigation.

There can be no doubt whatever that American scholarship in the field of modern European history has been considerably influenced and conditioned by the nature of the source material available in this country. Unquestionably the activity in the field of diplomatic history is in part explainable in this way. At the same time the failure of American scholars to do more in the field of social history can be accounted for by the fact that, very little material for study of this type having been made available in printed form, it can be reached only through archival work. The conference is fully aware, however, that there is much material readily accessible in America that has not been taken advantage of, and that studies in intellectual history, for example, could easily be expanded. The conference also recognizes that for most types of scholarly work in the field of modern European history the American student must spend some time in Europe and rely on European, as well as American, libraries.

While the members of the conference would deprecate any effort to draw up a formal list of specific problems to which the attention of historical scholars might be drawn during the next decade, they feel keenly the desirability of expanding the field of research activity, and herewith append a list of typical areas which might profitably be exploited:

European local history, for almost all countries
The history of the 17th century, in almost all phases
Legal history
History of administration, and especially the fiscal history, even of countries like England
The history of commerce, in all its aspects
The industrial revolution on the Continent
The history of railways, with special reference to their political and social effects
The study of state policy towards industry
The export of capital and the effects of foreign investment
The history of particular industries
Mercantilism in Europe, theory and practice
The history of minorities
The effects of emigration upon Europe
The history of education, in its social effects
The history of societies and movements, like Freemasonry, secret revolutionary societies, nationalist organizations, economic leagues, religious associations, etc.
Tariff history
The history of propaganda
Italian history, especially in the 18th century
The development and influence of urban centers
The history of social classes
The changing code of morals and ethics
Scandinavian history
The history of the Slavic East. For this abundant archive material can now be obtained. As typical of the kind of problem that might profitably be attacked in this field may be mentioned: a study of the Russian electoral laws; history of the Russian censorship; the nonorthodox sects in Russia; the history of the Cossacks; the Revolution of 1905.
The history of the Ottoman Empire, an almost untouched field, especially with respect to religious, artistic, intellectual and social history

The conference is of the opinion that it would serve a very useful purpose for the American Historical Association to publish triennially a list of current scientific publications, researches and projects carried on by American scholars (and their students) in the field of modern European history, including the titles of all doctoral dissertations in the field, with indication of the location of the manuscripts of unpublished dissertations. Such a list should be given wide distribution among scholars in the field. In addition to its value as a preventive to duplication and an incentive to cooperation, it would serve to suggest to the profession the fields of historical study which are being neglected. To be of maximum usefulness the proposed list should include studies and monographs in fields cognate to modern European history.

II. Enlargement, Improvement and Preservation of Materials

The conference desires to point out at the start that most of the questions raised in this section are less applicable to the field of modern European history than to some other fields. There is relatively little manuscript material in modern European history in this country, and there is little, so far as the conference can see, to be done for the preservation or organization of such material as there is. Nevertheless, the conference has some suggestions that it would like to put forward.

Students of European history appreciate the work done in some museums, not only in collecting material, but in undertaking special exhibits. The reproduction of early modern rooms in some museums is admirably done, and is of very great benefit to all those interested in social history. This work could be profitably expanded. On the other hand museums show a regrettable tendency in their exhibits to perpetuate myths which, however attractive and flattering, have been exploded by historians. Care in this regard should be urged whenever and wherever possible.

The conference is of the opinion that plans for systematic library development and for the building up of great collections in certain places, however desirable in theory, are not apt to be very successful in practice. The large libraries show a natural and perhaps commendable desire to keep up as well as may be in as many fields as possible. On the other hand, a good purpose would be served if the large research libraries in the central areas could organize union catalogues for their own districts. A union catalogue for the whole country would be a great boon, but as a first step efforts might be made to collate the titles for such obvious centers as Boston-Cambridge, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc. At the same time the conference feels that individual libraries and collections should do their utmost to keep their material catalogued. The Huntington Library is one of the greatest, depositories in the world for manuscript material on modern English history. The absence of a catalogue of this great collection is a very serious matter, and the conference feels that the library should be urged to accelerate the work of cataloguing as much as possible. In many of the libraries of this country there are special collections of manuscripts or printed works dealing with special phases of European history. The existence of these collections is not commonly known, not always even to well-informed scholars. It is highly desirable that the collections of manuscripts, both private and public, should be listed, with descriptive notes and information as to whether such collections are open to competent scholars.

Above all we need a cooperative survey of the libraries in America with a view to acquainting scholars and students with the location of particularly important kinds and collections of materials for research in modern European history, including a check list of European newspaper files kept in America. We urge that a special committee be named as soon as possible to look into the feasibility of undertaking such a survey at an early date.

Finally, we wish to call attention to the fact that American libraries are slow in taking advantage of sales of manuscript material. A great deal of such material is constantly being brought upon the market, frequently at very reasonable prices. It is important that libraries should take advantage of these opportunities whenever possible, and not confine themselves to the purchase of rare mediaeval and ancient manuscripts.

III. Development of Research Personnel

It appears from the discussions of the conference that the larger institutions are not, at the present time, securing an appreciable number of graduate students from the ranks of their own undergraduates. This situation may be due, in part, to the divorce of the undergraduate and graduate instruction prevalent in some institutions, a system under which the undergraduate is sometimes abandoned to young, inexperienced and all too frequently uninspired instructors. The interest in historical study which will determine a student to make of history a life work must be aroused as early as possible in the college course. The conference believes that eminent historians should give some instruction in the lower grades, and that every effort should be made through personal contact to encourage and develop interest where it exists. The attempt to introduce the undergraduate to the methods of research in history through the organization of so-called proseminars does not appear to have been very successful where it has been tried, and not much improvement in present conditions can be looked for so long as the social and financial status of the professional historian is not brought more nearly into line with the position of men in other professions. Something might, however, be done to bring such advantages as there are to the attention of undergraduates. In many institutions a real attempt is made to enlighten the student regarding the requirements and possibilities of the legal, medical or business professions, but so far as this conference knows nothing of this sort has been undertaken in the interests of the historical profession. It is suggested that the American Historical Association call the attention of college administrations to this condition and that it do whatever is possible to remedy it.

It is the sense of the conference that graduate students be encouraged to divide the period of their study between different institutions. Many students hesitate to pursue this course because of unwillingness to sacrifice the contacts or instructional positions they have made for themselves in a given graduate school, and because of the feeling that they will be at a disadvantage in the examination in subjects pursued elsewhere under other teachers. This situation might be remedied if graduate schools were to show a greater readiness to accept credits from other recognized institutions, and to give greater consideration to different systems and viewpoints, as represented in other universities.

While recommending that students divide the time of their graduate study between different institutions, the conference also favors the further development of the practice of exchanging professors. It is believed that an occasional sojourn in another institution will benefit not only a professor’s students, but will serve as a stimulus to the professor himself, will broaden his acquaintance with methods used elsewhere to solve fundamental problems, will bring him into touch with other historians, and in general will counteract narrowing influences. One difficulty in the way of free exchange of professors lies in the disparity of salary scales as between institutions. It is possible that something might be done through one of the large foundations to enable institutions to engage the services of outstanding scholars and teachers for short terms.

While much has been done in recent years to enable young scholars with the doctor’s degree to visit Europe and pursue their studies and researches abroad, one of the crying needs in the field of modern European history is for funds to enable advanced graduate students to acquaint themselves with foreign countries. The conference is unanimously of the strong opinion that every student of modern European history should know Europe at first hand before he begins the teaching of the subject. It is, furthermore, highly desirable that he should have the opportunity to work in European collections. In some of the larger institutions there are fellowships for such students, but in most instances the dearth of funds is lamentable. Every effort should be made to interest the universities and the large foundations in this matter. But in any case the funds devoted to this purpose should be kept rigorously under the administration of graduate-school departments. The teaching staff, and no other agency, should be entrusted with the selection of the students who are to benefit from provisions that may be made. In the opinion of the conference this is one of the most serious and urgent problems that it has been called upon to consider.

IV. Improvement of Research Methods

The conference notes that at the present time there is not available in English any manual of historical method as it applies more particularly to the study of modern history. It would serve a useful purpose if the standard manual of Bernheim (Lehrbuch der historischen Methode) could be published in English. It would also be desirable to have Wolff’s Einfuhrung in das Studium der Neueren Geschichte in English translation, but it would be more important yet to translate and publish the recent manual of Wilhelm Bauer (Einfuhrung in das Studium der Geschichte), which stresses the problems of the historian in the modern field.

It is generally admitted that relatively slight attention is paid to the formal study of historical method in our universities. Some members of the conference feel that the courses that are given, most of which stress the mediaeval side, have a distinct value for the student of modern history because they make him critically minded. It is the general opinion of the conference, however, that modern history presents a great many peculiar problems and that it might be desirable to work out and offer courses in this field. Much may be done, and is done, along this line in the seminars, but the more general problems might be attacked in a special course. In any case, there is a regrettable lack of courses on modern historical handwritings, on the history of books, on the technique of diplomacy, etc. Every effort should be made to remedy these shortcomings. Another need is for some work in the history of the philosophy of history. Some members of the conference believe that so much emphasis is placed upon monographic work of a factual nature that the training of students in larger contents is sadly neglected. So much of this work is being done in Europe that the student should not be left in ignorance of it.

The discussion of seminars brought out the fact that members of the conference feel that courses of this type offer a particular opportunity for the expression of the teacher’s personality and technique. Nothing should be done to mold seminars according to a special type. But in general it is felt that seminars are most useful when they deal with subjects or periods in which the professor has himself done or is doing research work. A compact period or subject lends itself best to such treatment. The members of the conference are agreed that it is well to have all students in the seminar do a certain amount of reading on the general subject, so that they may be able to follow the discussion intelligently. The reports should not much exceed one hour in length, and students should, either before or after reporting, present the results of their research in good literary form.

At the present time students are permitted, and in some cases encouraged, to acquaint themselves with other contributory techniques, but they are seldom obliged to do so. Courses in economics or political science are required in some institutions, but no effort is made to go farther afield. In the opinion of the conference the lack of acquaintance with other techniques has much to do with keeping historical work in traditional channels. We therefore recommend that the history departments in the various universities open negotiations with allied departments and attempt to arrange for courses which will be of direct value to the study of history. Such courses might well be in the following subjects: historical statistics, social psychology, historical geography, European anthropology, philosophy, literature and even natural science. In any event history departments should be more willing to accept courses in allied subjects as fulfilling the requirements for the degree in history, in order not to increase the burden of the student who wishes to develop interests in allied fields.

It is the opinion of the conference that it is just as much the business of the historian to transmit the truth as it is to acquire the truth, and that the rules governing the effective presentation of material are to be regarded as of equal importance with those governing research. Special attention should be paid to this matter in seminar work, and a list of historical classics might well be drawn up as a guide to desirable reading for the student who is anxious to improve his historical style.

By common consent the language problem is one of the most acute of all problems confronting workers in modern European history. Universities should tighten up on their requirements in this respect, and in many instances should be more rigorous in the administration of the requirements. The American Historical Association should do everything in its power to encourage the study of languages in secondary schools and colleges, and particularly to bring about the restoration of German where it has been dropped during the last fifteen years. In the graduate schools the language examinations should be held as early as possible in the first year of the student’s work. The student should have the necessary equipment before he goes far in his historical studies.

But there is another aspect of the language problem which the conference desires to emphasize particularly. The ordinary Western languages are no longer sufficient if the field of historical work is to be extended to neglected areas. In some institutions special courses have been organized by language departments to meet the needs for a reading knowledge in the fields of history and in other subjects. But the student of history may need to know Slavic languages, Arabic, Chinese, etc., which are not commonly taught and which cannot be satisfactorily acquired in the routine courses of the language departments. The conference feels that some of the large foundations should interest themselves in this matter, and should, if possible, make appropriations to advanced students and scholars to enable them to have private instruction in their peculiar needs. Most graduate students are unable to afford an outlay of this kind, yet their progress is greatly hampered by loss of time in acquiring the necessary language equipment. Provisions for private instruction would undoubtedly do very much to enable students to exploit new fields of historical study.

V. Improvement of Research Organization

Although historians have in recent years secured a fair number of fellowships and grants-in-aid from the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies, it is generally felt that the profession has not benefited as much as it might from the opportunities offered by these and kindred foundations. This is particularly true in the case of larger projects. The conference believes that something might be done to improve the situation if lists of projects financed by the foundations could be made more easily obtainable and if the American Historical Review were to give larger publicity to the opportunities provided for the historical scholar.

It is generally agreed that good work is being done by the university research councils and the conference has no suggestions to offer in this matter. The greatest need in the way of more specialized research agencies is for a stronger organization in the American Historical Association itself. We do not mean to criticize the work of the Association in the past. On the contrary we feel that it has been admirable, considering the great limitations and difficulties under which the organization has labored. But if historical work is to be better coordinated and expanded it is necessary that the Association should have, as soon as possible, a permanent secretariat and staff whose sole business should be to take care of historical problems.

VI. Publication Problems

The conference is divided on the question of the desirability of publishing doctoral dissertations. Much seems to depend upon conflicting views as to the nature of the dissertation, that is, upon the question whether it is a university exercise of a very advanced type, or whether it should in all cases represent a contribution to knowledge. In any case we are unanimously opposed to the publication of abstracts of masters’ theses, and doubt the desirability of publishing abstracts of doctoral dissertations. We do feel, however, as aforesaid, that it would be very helpful to have a periodical list of dissertations actually completed, with information as to where unpublished dissertations are deposited.

Apart from the fact that the historical reviews seem to have more dull articles than desirable, the chief shortcoming of the journals is in the reviewing department. The reviews generally do not review the book. They should be more critical and frequently should be longer and, more detailed. This would involve a reduction in the number of reviews, and the conference believes that such a reduction would be a pure gain. At present editors feel that they must review books that are sent to them. If some foundation could be induced to make a small annual appropriation to enable the journals to buy the books which the editors believe ought to be reviewed the situation would be much improved. Reviews would be taken out of the category of advertising material, and could be so selected and so written that they would meet the needs of the profession, not of the publishers.

At the present time the facilities for keeping posted on recent publications seem to be quite adequate. The bibliography in the Journal of Modern History and the Social Science Abstracts have relieved much of the need in this respect.

We favor the establishment of one or more series to provide for the publication of short monographs, though we do not feel that this need is one of the most urgent. Of much greater importance would be a fund or funds to insure the publication by the American Historical Association, or some other agency, of larger works of scientific value. The foundations should make provision for the publication of all research projects which they have sponsored, and should, if possible, expand their facilities for publication. The need here is very real and very pressing.

VII. Financial Needs for the Promotion of Research

Historical research is being supported in many instances from funds in colleges and universities established for that purpose. With respect to larger projects we think that the obstacle in the way of such enterprises is usually the lack of trained or interested personnel. It would be easy to make a list of possible projects, but this would be futile unless there were some prospect of enlisting the aid of qualified scholars. Certain large enterprises of an historical character are already under way, for example, the investigation of the causes of war, at the University of Chicago, and the study of the European background of American immigration. The conference discussed at some length a project for a comparative study of European revolutions, and for a detailed study of European tariff history. The study of revolutions seems to be ripe for treatment, and we should like to see the project developed and funds secured. In this, as in other cases, the aid of European scholars might have to be enlisted.

In the opinion of the conference the arrangements for postdoctoral fellowships and grants-in-aid are at present adequate. The problem, already discussed, is to make the necessary arrangements to have these opportunities brought constantly before the profession, and to provide information frequently as to what is being done, and at the same time to increase the opportunities for the more promising doctoral candidates to travel and pursue research in Europe.

C. J. H. Hayes, Chairman
W. L. Langer, Secretary
L. R. Gottschalk
C. P. Higby
W. L. Linglebach
Conyers Read
G. T. Robinson

Ossining, N. Y.,
November 7-8, 1931.

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