If you define erudition as encyclopedic knowledge about a body of discrete facts, then welcome to the age of distributed erudition. It’s still a very good thing to have those facts in your head rather than to pop up on the screen at the end of a search query, but that’s like saying it’s a good thing to have a poem memorized rather than to have to read it over and over again on the page. A good thing, but not necessary.
So a scholar had better be more than erudite in that sense if there is any usefully distinctive future for scholarship. Look at the series of open questions I posted about modern African history, all of them scholarly questions with (I hope) important implications not just for understanding Africa but for understanding many other issues of continuing importance: state failure, nationalism, imperial rule, global capitalism and so on. None of them are questions that can be resolved just by searching Wikipedia alone.
Some of them are issues which a smart searcher could fairly quickly triangulate upon using online databases and catalogs. Look for “the Scramble for Africa” and not only will you find a pretty decent Wikipedia entry, but you’ll also find in library catalogs a few books that are very clearly directly concerned with that event. Look at those and you’ll pretty quickly understand not only what happened in narrative terms, but you’ll become acquainted with a long-standing debate about the causes of the Scramble that goes right back to the event itself. You’ll still need to read some of the more detailed material, but arguably you could do without an expert scholar to explain it to you. (In the end, asking the expert might be more efficient, though.)
But take the question, “how did Africans think about or understand colonialism? How important was it to them? What social and political developments in African societies were primarily a response to or critique of colonial authority?” It’s a question that runs across the whole of modern Africanist historiography, but good luck just searching for compressed, focused treatments of it using either web-wide or authoritative catalogs.
Some of the clearest scholarly conversations about the question aren’t even directly about Africa (Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere debating about Captain Cook and Hawaii, for one). There are almost no texts that deal exclusively with this issue as such (Jennifer Cole’s excellent Forget Colonialism? is one of the few, and even that deals with the memory of colonialism in the present rather than the past consciousness of colonial subjects). However, a concern with these questions is strongly distributed throughout the historiography.
The issue is obviously a crucial one. What do most Iraqis really feel about the U.S. occupation? Important to know, hard to know. Were any of the attacks on occupying troops motivated primarily by anger at the fact of occupation? Or were they reactions to specific mistakes or errors in the administration of occupation in its first two years? Or did they have little to do with occupation per se and more to do with pre-existing conflicts between factions in Iraq? Those were important questions at the height of the occupation and they’re still important. There is no simple way to answer them. Even with access to extensive polling data and a wealth of information about what ordinary people are supposedly thinking in the U.S. or Western Europe, these kinds of questions are extremely difficult to answer satisfactorily.
My understanding of African history of a scholar gives me tools for helping others to answer those questions.
The first step is settling on a model for how people think, and how (or whether) what they think informs how they act. There are a number of arguments out there which claim that if consciousness doesn’t inform concrete, visible action in the world, it doesn’t really matter as far as the historian or anthropologist is concerned. From that perspective, in fact, consciousness doesn’t matter at all: just study visible action.
But on the other hand, there are plenty of arguments that what people say about why they did something and the actual reasons they did it don’t always or even often align. Moreover, what people believe about the motivations of the actions taken by others is a more powerful influence on their response, whether or not their belief is warranted.
Many historians, especially those dealing with colonialism and slavery, do not want to settle for just dealing with visible action, precisely because they’re studying circumstances where people are kept from acting in ways that they might wish to act. If, for example, the question of whether Africans objected violently to colonial rule in the 1930s rests on “did they carry out violent resistance?”, the answer might be, “Only in a few places or circumstances did they object enough to sustain violent resistance.” Similarly, you might conclude that slaves in the antebellum United States did not object to slavery with sufficient force to engage in slave rebellions. For a long time, historians have been very unsatisfied with those conclusions, and have sought to demonstrate how a host of other, smaller kinds of resistance were a better guide to the consciousness of colonial subjects or slaves.
For me, one strong concrete example for exploring these issues in modern Africa are the episodes of religious unrest and rebellion across central and southern Africa connected with the Watchtower movement (and similar movements like the Kimbanguists in the Belgian Congo). Karen Fields wrote a useful book (with a useful theoretical introduction) on this subject in 1985, and there’s other readings out there (primary and scholarly) that can extend the discussion from Fields’ analysis. What did the adherents think they were doing? Does it matter whether they intended to resist colonial rule if colonial administrators thought that they intended to resist and acted accordingly? What does it mean that movements with similar organizational structure and character in this region have persisted since the colonial era and arguably also predate it?
There are lots of other clusters or nodes of scholarly and primary material that help to get at these questions. But until we have real artificial intelligence of some kind, this is the kind of knowledge that a Google-driven world still can’t readily provide merely for the asking.