By Juliana Adelman
I’ve been on my holidays in the US (don’t be jealous, we’ve had 8 straight days of drizzle) and so in addition to novels I’ve been reading random things I find on the shelf of the cabin. One such random thing was a collection of essays by Gore Vidal (The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000). Highly recommended: lots of food for thought on the purpose of scholarship, of academia, of literature. At the end of an essay/review from 1997 on the appearance of a new collection of letters written by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) Vidal commented: ‘American scholarship is now a sort of huge make-work program for the conventionally educated. In a case like this, scholar squirrels gather up every scrap of writing they can find and stuff these bits into volume after volume, with metastisizing footnotes.’ Vidal continues: ‘To them, one “fact” is equal to any other’ (p.86). Although these remarks are now more than ten years old, they would hardly be considered less controversial (I imagine) if made today. Being myself ‘conventionally educated’ and essentially a participant in the system which Vidal was condemning, his dismissal of what was surely painstaking labour by ‘scholar squirrels’ stung a bit. But he has a point. Scholarship must be something more than simply gathering up facts without deciding which facts are bigger than others. The problem with this is that one can take the idea to a logical and conventional conclusion and exclude lots of potentially interesting history. By coincidence I also came across a week-old New York Times which included an article on the disappearance of diplomatic history from American university curricula.
The gist of it was that ‘niche’ history such as women’s history is replacing more traditional courses focusing on the history of international politics. Surely we need to know diplomatic history. Surely women’s history hardly counts as ‘niche’ history any more. Must it be one at the expense of the other? Is it possible to develop broad and challenging narratives from new perspectives and using new actors? As a historian of science I’m probably inclined to think that diplomatic history and political history tend to dominate at the expense of other perspectives. I do acknowledge that science often had little bearing on political events which have shaped nations. On the other hand, science has been expressive of the human experience in a different way than politics. Some of the lecturers interviewed for the NYT article tended to see changes in history curricula in a positive light, claiming that students were getting the same essential facts just from a bottom-up perspective. I for one think Irish history could do with a little more bottom-up. On the other hand, those of us looking at different kinds of facts would do well to come up with some compelling narratives of our own if we expect our little nuts to be of interest to future squirrels.