synthesizing the past

It was arranged for me to see Charles Beard, who was attending the American Historical Association’s 1935 convention in New York. Perched on the bed in his overheated room in the Hotel Pennsylvania, Beard poured forth his scorn for the pusillanimity and triviality of a historical scholarship that had lost all sense of its critical function in the civic realm. He gave me a formula for a fine scholarly career: “Choose a commodity, like tin, in some African colony. Write your first seminar paper on it. Write your thesis on it. Broaden it to another country or two and write a book on it. As you sink your mental life into it, your livelihood and an esteemed place in the halls of learning will be assured.”

-Carl Schorske, “A Life of Learning [pdf]” (the 1987 Charles Homer Haskins lecture)

Concerns about overspecialization in history are probably about as old as specialization itself. It would be easy to point to Carl Schorske’s 1935 conversation with Charles Beard quoted above and then to William Cronon’s recent column on the importance of synthetic, bigger picture history, then say something along the lines of “same as it ever was”, and then leave it at that. But just because overspecialization seems to be a persistent problem doesn’t mean that nothing can be done about it, and just because it seems to be a recurring problem doesn’t mean that it’s always of the same magnitude.

I could be mistaken, but I take Cronon’s title, “Breaking Apart, Putting Together” to be an implicit reference to the title of Thomas Bender’s “Wholes and Parts: The Need for Synthesis in American History” [JSTOR – paywalled] which was published just about 25 years ago. Writing after a couple of decades during which social history – which often involved intensive research on particular communities or social groups – had grown to become quite possibly the dominant form of American historical research, Bender urged historians to begin to synthesize this work into broader interpretations. For those historians who continued to write monographs – and Bender was not opposed to the monograph – Bender hoped that more of them would carry out their research with the possibility of future synthesis in mind: there’s not really a standard way of combining individual works of history, but it stands to reason that some works are more amenable to synthesis than others.

Bender’s article generated quite a bit of discussion at the time, not all of it positive:  some objected to the idea of synthesis, some objected to the particular kinds of synthesis Bender preferred. About a year after the article appeared, the Journal of American History published a special forum on synthesis, in which Bender defended his ideas against some of his critics [table of contents; articles paywalled].

Despite the criticism, the impression I got when I was reading up on this a few years ago was that Bender was not alone in his concerns, that other historians – and not just those who specialized in the United States – felt that there was a need to broaden the scope of individual historical works. Sometimes this was expressed more as a concern with fragmentation rather than with synthesis, per se, but I think those are two sides of the same coin.

In the intervening years, there does seem to have been an increase in the amount of synthetic work being produced, at least in American history. While you probably still will have a problem finding a recent, academic-ish survey of all of American history that is not actually a textbook – textbooks are a kind of synthesis, but not the kind Bender was writing about – there are now a fair number of surveys that cover particular periods of American history that build on recent research.

And course general surveys are not the only kind of synthesis there is. As Andrew Hartman has pointed out over on the U.S. Intellectual History blog, many works that focus on a particular topic or question also involve synthesizing other historians’ research on the same or related areas. Hartman’s examples are from intellectual history, but I can think of relatively recent works in political or social history, such as the history of voting or the history of marriage, that seem to qualify as both original and synthetic.

All of that said, I don’t really disagree with Cronon. I’m not a fan of setting up stark dichotomies as a rhetorical device and I don’t think, for reasons I’ve outlined above, that the situation is as bad for synthesis as it was in the mid-1980s, but I’m also a big fan of synthesis (and survey courses, for that matter). Since I think there could still be more of it I don’t really see a problem with arguing in favor of it.*

What I do wonder, though, is what relationship academic synthesis has to public interest in history, but that’s a subject for another post.

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*Even though I think I’m personally still more comfortable doing close-to-the-sources monograph-style research.

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