Some facts are bigger than others

By Juliana Adelman

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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.

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2 Responses to “Some facts are bigger than others”

  1. puesoccurrences Says:

    Irish history has done a bit more of the bottom-up history in recent times, but I think we need to move away from seeing bottom-up and top-down histories as necessarily exclusive. It has something to do with the age-old desire to categorise everything. If something is not easily boxed, then historians – never mind booksellers and commentators – don’t quite know what to do with it. I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable about the continuation of niche histories. To take your example of women’s history – although the genre may have needed to establish its own voice at first, it is surely to its own detriment to continue to project itself exclusively in those terms. The next step is to write these niche narratives into the broader histories, giving women the role they deserve (or don’t, as the case may be) alongside their male counterparts.

    Diplomatic history is important, but also has a complicated path of development. It has recently been quite visibly influenced by current international events as writing in the field responds to events like 9/11 and the Iraq war to focus on particular subject areas or to draw those not previously interested in the area (whether from different ethnic backgrounds or subject backgrounds) to the subject. But there’s also a new wave of writers of diplomatic history – in the US, some in the Nordic states and elsewhere – where the blurred lines between closed-door diplomacy and public activism are becoming more evident. This is, of course, particularly true of post-WWII history, with the rise of interest groups and NGOs that have had an increasingly important influence on policy-making at the higher level; both indirectly (through changing the political culture) and directly (through a direct consultative process).

    So the kind of histories I think we should aim for are those that blur the lines, recognising that some facts are, indeed, bigger than others (and, Morrissey might add, some facts’ mothers are bigger than other facts’ mothers), that some histories are more important, while simultaneously recognising the interconnectivity of life, that actors and actions in one sphere are not limited to that sphere but have a perceivable impact (however small – and the tricky bit will be presenting that) in lots of areas of human existence.

    Nobody said it was going to be easy.

    Kevin

  2. Patrick Maume Says:

    The big problem with Irish history is that wherever you turn you find a great deal of the basic spadework has not been done at all. It’s too easy to assume we have a clear view of the framework and it’s only a question of filling in the dots. How recently were the archives of the post-independence state opened?

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