How does a student of history write his or her essays? Typically I gather information and evidence, recommended by lecturers in lectures and seminars or presented on a long reading list, to inform a potential answer to an essay question. Reviewing the primary sources as well as the many books and journal articles written by today's historians, I put together an argument in response to the question.
This, I admit, is lazy history. Here I am, like many other students, cramming in the hard research of a number of renowned scholars into a few thousands words of argument. The long books, the products of weeks and months of an academic's labour, are plundered for a few pages of relevant detail, then cast aside.
R. G. Collingwood calls this scissors-and-paste history: the process of reading the arguments and ideas of respected past historians in order to compose an argument of your own. There is no creativity, no individual interpretation of each source, but the restatement of established norms and thoughts about the past. We are cutting out the ideas of Carr, Hobsbawm, Figes, Taylor and so on and pasting them into our own essays.
"Many people, even some historians, believe that this is a fair description of history," Collingwood writes in The Idea of History. "They think that historical writing means copying out selected passages from trustworthy authorities, and that to be a good historian means remembering a great many things that you have read in such books." A little bit of this kind of "blind reliance on authority" is acceptable: if historians went around disputing the basic claims, they would be wasting a lot of time. Many historians use others' work as a starting point and build on it. But this isn't real history. "The real business of history," Collingwood goes on, "begins when this dogmatic stage is left behind and historical thought becomes critical." Historians start making active contributions to the discipline when they stop happily nodding to accepted theories or recycling old ideas and make their own judgments about sources.
But, for the moment at least, I cannot accept Collingwood's argument. What choice do students of history have but to engage in scissors-and-paste history? We enter the study of history as non-experts in our fields; it is natural that we seek guidance in the arguments of previous scholars, who have had the opportunity to study the evidence carefully for a much longer period of time than three years of undergraduate study.
Last year, for one academic term, I studied American history from 1776 - 1877, having never studied American history before besides the American involvement in international politics in the post-war period, ending in the Cuban Missile Crisis. My knowledge of the period came from the tutelage of the lecturer and the seminar leader, both of whom are scholars in American political, urban and cultural history, as well as the works that were recommended during the course. I encountered the scholarship of historians such as Eric Foner, Adam Rothman, Carol Berkin, Gordon S. Wood, Jay Sexton and Don E. Fehrenbacher; and (when examining the economic consequences of the American slave trade) economic historians such as Maldwyn A. Jones, Alfred H. Conrad, John R. Meyer, Eugene D. Genovese, Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch. To an extent I was able to interpret sources myself, gaining extracts from Thomas Paine's writings and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and his electoral opponent Stephen A. Douglas; but for the large part, my knowledge of American history in the period was derived from the work and arguments of the academics I've listed above.
Where I agree with Collingwood concerns how lazy it feels to rely so much on the work of these historians when it comes to making my own arguments and writing my own essays. On the other hand, without the luxuries of time, access to an array of primary sources and the finances to fund my research and travel, do I have much choice? Students do not have the opportunity to critique the work of scholars as Collingwood might like us. I could spend thousands of words scrutinising Eric Foner, for example, but neither would I have the resources and time to do it nor would it be something asked of me. We are asked to participate in a historical debate, having researched the arguments of historians and looked at sources ourselves, but we have access mainly to the books and journals these historians have published, not necessarily the sources they had in front of them.
Of course, I do not blindly accept the authority of anyone who has acquired a doctorate or published a book. There are plenty of scholars whose work is so poor that one questions how they acquired their degrees in the first place. We are encouraged to look at the historian himself and ask what might be affecting his judgment. But, by and large, without the opportunity to adopt the months- or years-long investigations of renowned historians ourselves and come to our own conclusions about the same evidence, ordinary undergraduate students are in some ways condemned to engage in some form of scissors-and-paste history.
Collingwood's philosophy of history would best apply to me if I were an accomplished academic, writing this blog from his office at a university. It would encourage me to go beyond repeating age-old conclusions made by historians who may have judged events very differently in their day in comparison to how I would judge them. It would encourage me also to look at why historians, or indeed the people of the past, believed what they believed and why they thought what they thought. It would encourage me not to dismiss historical accounts if they included something that would be considered irrational today - for example, the diary of a medieval expedition leader who elected to change his route to avoid the demons in the mountains - and ask me to think instead why the expedition leader was worried about the demons.
But, as a student who lacks the fine knowledge of a specific historical period gained through research and rational thinking, it seems impossible for me not to defer to another authority in some way. Collingwood's argument comes over more as inspiration for budding historians - don't blindly accept what you read, don't recycle other people's arguments, think for yourself - than guidance for good historiographical practice.
History students are routinely asked to define the subject that they are studying. Often the debate is dull and difficult, culminating in a number of answers that feel as awkward as the way in which the discussion is fostered. "A study of the past," one might say; "a study of previous events using sources to inform our understanding," is getting better, but far from perfect. This is not the fault of the students, however, and I am not going to spend this post implying that History students aren't up to scratch, nor that somehow I possess the answer and other students don't. We spend three years studying history, both as an academic discipline investigating periods and elements of past societies and nations and as a discipline itself. The more we learn, both about the peoples and cultures that have gone before and about the discipline, the more our answer changes.
(The way we examine the fundamental questions about our discipline does not help. I have suffered many seminars of awkward silence after a seminar leader poses a number of questions about the nature of history. We endure painful moments of looking into each other's eyes, waiting for someone to provide an answer, a sentence or maybe a few words to satisfy the question or at least fill the void. Adding to the confusion is the decision of academics to continue hounding us with these quasi-existential questions as we are simultaneously being briefed and directed to commence our dissertations, the longest pieces of work in our three-year undergraduate degrees; therefore we end up engaging in our largest and most analytic piece of work at the same time that we are instilled with the largest doubts about what we are studying, why we bother and what, if anything, we can learn, both accurately and meaningfully, about a study of previous generations. When working in an archive, historians examine sources and the surrounding factors and context; they are not paralysed in the archive reception by grandiose questions about what an argument is, what a source is and what a society is.
Anyway, this is something for another blog post. The point, when narrowed down, is that we should not be committed to the hardest work and the largest doubt in what we are doing at the same time. There is a time and a place for philosophy of history.)
Take a look at E.H. Carr's lecture on "The Historian and His Facts" and you will be confronted with many more questions than just the question in the lecture, what is history? Not only do we realise that our place in society and time has somewhat determined how we are going to answer the question, but we also discover just how much we rely on the accounts of others to answer questions we should take pride in answering ourselves.
One of the hardest hitting points in Carr's lecture is his examination of facts. The facts that we recall and use in our essays have been called 'facts' by previous historians for one reason or another; there are plenty of other facts that have no place in the study of history. Millions of people have crossed the river known as the Rubicon, something for which historians have almost zero concern; but Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon is well-remembered, as Carr argues. Caesar could have been one of the many millions who stepped across the stream, forgotten by historians both of today and of Caesar's day, but his crossing is a key fact of history. How so? Historians have decided it to be so.
Facts are relative to the investigation at hand, something that a contemporary of Carr's, R.G. Collingwood, mentions in his earlier work on evidence. The fact that I'm writing this blog post in the university library has absolutely no relevance at all to why Napoleon's Russian campaign failed. The fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49BCE has just as little bearing on Napoloen's loss. But the Russian winter is hugely relevant to a historian examining why Napoleon did not succeed in conquering Russia. Evidence, as used in arguments, is not lying around the world, waiting to be scraped off the floor by prowling historians; evidence is relative. The evidence for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is relevant to questions concerning how Lincoln was killed, by whom, when and why, but not to the assassination of Leon Trotsky.
How are facts deemed relevant and irrelevant? Facts and evidence are totally worthless on their own. It's a fact that the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. So what? Without any questions about it, it's simply an event in history - something that happened. It tells us nothing about Germany and Poland in 1939, the international context, who the National Socialists were and for what they stood, why the invasion of Poland was a bad thing and whether it led to any larger consequences (e.g. the breakout of a large international conflict). We must "not make a fetish out of [facts]. They do not themselves constitute history; they provide in themselves no ready-made answer to this tiresome question, What Is History?" wrote Carr. Facts are useless if they are not cited in relation to something. Without asking anything about the context of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the invasion of Poland is, historically, as irrelevant as my choice of breakfast last Tuesday.
For clarity, I do not mean to suggest that the invasion of Poland and the subsequent horrors and evil of the Second World War are irrelevant or tedious; but events in history, individual facts or occurrences, do not tell the story of history themselves. "The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context," as Carr writes. We remember the events of the Second World War, both as a period of history and as a social, political and moral event, due to the opinions of the historians of the day and the scholars of today. Perhaps in a hundred or a thousand years there will be a world war twice, thrice or even ten times as destructive as the Second World War, dwarfing all conflict that had preceded it. In that era we might consider the Second World War to have been, in comparison, a minor skirmish between European nations. Alternatively, perhaps in a hundred or a thousand years, historians of the future will take a hugely different view of the Second World War. Future historians might perceive the Nazis to have been the forces of good, and describe the Second World War as a great defeat of a noble cause.
At the end of his lecture, Carr answers the question: "... it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past." Carr's answer highlights the fluid nature of our study of history. Generations judge the same thing in different ways. For example, atheism has in previous eras been a crime punishable by death in Europe, whereas now it is a respected and perhaps trendy position. The dialogue, as Carr writes, is "unending" because historians never cease to discover new things about the past which inform our understanding of our ancestors' ways of life, nor do they cease to approach the discipline with their own original ideas and mentalities.
History is also subject to constant revision and reform. Before reaching the end of his lecture, Carr rejects a primitive version of the historian's job: spending a long time gathering facts and reading old books and then composing another book based on what he has read. In fact, the historian is always reading and writing. Separating reading, or learning about the past and researching old ways, and writing leads to two fallacies: "Either you write scissors-and-paste history without meaning or significance; or you write propaganda or historical fiction, and merely use facts of the past to embroider a kind of writing which has nothing to do with history."
I have my own doubts about the inherent incompetence of scissors-and-paste history, a concept investigated greatly by Collingwood, which stem from my own beliefs on the possible objectivity of rationality. However, Carr's principle should surely be a guide for all historians and students of history: the study of history should be fluid and unending, always informed by new discoveries. The historian should always be prepared to argue from a new perspective on the basis of new evidence and should never settle for facts that have been crowned as important and unforgettable by past scholars.
If you were born in the Deep South of the United States, chances are that you're holding the same opinions as a conservative Christian. If you were born to socialist parents, it's likely that you will emerge a socialist too. But the pattern continues past beliefs: a person's feelings toward something, by which I mean how they emotionally react to particular concepts or events, are easily influenced by parental instruction and societal upbringing. My feeling of discomfort when sharing a room with someone who is smoking are likely the result of an upbringing in a family of non-smokers.
Historical determinism affects far more than feelings and beliefs. Influenced greatly by Marxism, historical determinism suggests that the life of a person, including their thoughts, education, health and opportunities, is heavily defined by their place in history. A woman born in a Middle Eastern country is likely to have little access to education, to become a mother and be treated as the property of her husband until her death. She may well believe what she has been told, that her sex is weaker and should remain in the house, raising the children and looking after the family, submitting to her husband at his command. Similarly, a boy born to a poor working family in the era of the Industrial Revolution would likely find work in a factory or a workhouse, labouring in dismal conditions and living in a small, overpopulated home, supporting a large family who would be unlikely to do anything different to him. He would be politically illiterate, unaware of his country's affairs on a grand scale, unwelcoming to immigrants and foreign visitors.
All of this can make us wonder whether the beliefs that we hold, or rather we have inherited, are rational, and whether we are rational to continue holding them if we are aware that they may have been given to us.