13 May 2003

We've descended into Scholasticism

Yesterday I attended a fascinating event at the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, that bastion of antiquarianism and male chauvinism inhabiting a Bulfinch mansion in Beacon Hill. The Society, in an attempt to not seem so antiquarian anymore (and thereby cease to be ridiculed by people like me), hosts an annual graduate student forum for students in the early stages of their dissertations. A friend was giving a paper so I came along for moral support.

The highlight of the day was almost certainly the presence of Professor Bernard Bailyn, the dean of historians of early America. Professor Bailyn brought his considerable knowledge and expertise to bear on practically every paper while periodically cracking hysterically funny jokes, including one about guns and probate inventories that would be funny only to those who have been following the Bellesiles controversy. But his concluding remarks were truly interesting. His take on the historical profession currently is that because of the volume of publishing, our professional dialogues are now carried on in the context of a sort of scholasticism. Meaning, we cannot write anything without having to master a lengthy bibliography. He pointed out that when he wrote his dissertation there was only a handful of books dealing with New England in the seventeenth century. My own topic, dealing with religion and race in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake, would thirty years ago have only encompassed a handful of books as well. Now my bibliography is stabilizing at three hundred items but I scarcely feel like I have fully researched all the secondary literature. Our debates are now predicated on a knowledge of secondary work that takes years to master and significant amounts of time to keep up with, as demonstrated by the proliferation of journals.

Professor Bailyn did not have a solution to this problem, beyond suggesting that the rising generation of scholars would no doubt find a way. But I also feel I am contributing to the problem--I am publishing an article that should appear early in 2004. While it was fun to write, and I daresay it is an interesting and entertaining read, it isn't going to significantly shape the conversation in my field. I am overjoyed to be publishing at least for the sake of my CV, but am I also contributing to the scholarly cacaphony that makes academic history so inaccesible to anyone who hasn't been reading in the field for years?

I think this relates back to recent conversations about the death of conversation in the humanities begun by Timothy Burke and continued by Invisible Adjunct.I wanted to respond to these but unfortunately I have been swarmed under by term papers and final exams that require grading. But Professor Bailyn's comments put me in mind of some of the troubles now facing those who work in history. I think scholasticism might be just the word for what we do. And that disturbs me.


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