The Usefulness of Scholarship

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.

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5 Responses to The Usefulness of Scholarship

  1. hestal says:

    On other blogs I frequently encounter modern apologists for the antebellum South who say that it is unfair of us to judge people of that time by the standards of today. They say that slavery was widely regarded as normal. I think the evidence shows something different.

    Not everyone bought into slavery, Washington, Jefferson, and especially Franklin, didn’t. Washington and Jefferson did what they could, I presume. Jefferson wrote the “all men are created equal” paragraph in the Declaration of Independence. Washington was president of the Constitutional Convention which made the three horrible compromises to keep the slaveholding South in the union. But he said, in a letter to his nephew, Bushrod, that there were “imperfections” in the Constitution and that “evils” would flow from them, and that future generations would have to correct them.

    Franklin, in his last public act in 1790, submitted a petition to Congress calling for the abolition of slavery. A furor was set off which led to particularly reactionary speeches from congressmen from GA and SC. These two gentlemen uttered the most offensive remarks imaginable on the floor of Congress in which they set out the reasons, as they saw them, that the slaves could never be, should never be, freed.

    In 1850, I think, John C. Calhoun gave his last public act in which he wrote a speech for presentation in the Senate. He was to ill to read it himself, so it was read for him. In it he called for changes to the Constitution which would make the slaveholding South free from congressional acts that might keep slavers from doing as they pleased, he called for slavery to be permitted in half the new states and territories and he called for vigorous enforcement of the fugitive slave law. In effect, he and his southern brothers were intransigent. The Constitution could not reconcile good and evil, what government can? They insisted on being freer than those they enslaved and freer than the rest of the nation’s citizens.

    The pace quickened as other slavers, sensing that the end was near, Great Britain has abolished slavery, sought to fight off any real or imagined threats to their institution. But the words of Jefferson, “all men are created equal,” could not be denied. People knew, and they always knew, what was right. Circumstances prevented action, or at least transformative action.

    All any of us can do is the best we can do, no matter the age. But that does not mean that we don’t know how to do better than we do.

    My friend, Buddy, majored in agriculture at Texas A&M many years ago. One day I was having lunch with Buddy and his dad in a local cafe in our small agricultural town. It was the Thanksgiving holiday and Buddy was peppering his father with questions and ideas. For a time the old man would respond with his reasons for not being able to comply. But Buddy kept on. Finally the old man barked, “Dammit, Buddy, I’m not farming as good as I know how even now!” He had a point.

  2. nord says:

    only a tangential comment Tim, but have you seen/read Mich?ÃŽ?le Lamont’s “How Professors Think”? I haven’t read it, but from the description it looks like it covers some of your inter and intra-department relationships…

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Good discussion at Crooked Timber of the Lamont book. I keep meaning to finish an entry on it. I was actually one of her “informants” (she observed a grant meeting where I was on the awarding committee). I think her observations on consensus among historians rings pretty right to me, in particular–historians may disagree about theories, etc., but they do tend to have a shared sensibility about what makes “good research”.

  4. Western Dave says:

    The AP World DBQ was on this very subject. Do you mind if I send a link to the AP world listserv?

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Sure, go ahead!

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