Historical Scholarship in America: Needs and Opportunities (1932)
A Report by the Committee of the American Historical Association on the Planning of Research
Report of the Eastern Conference on American History
I. Present Trends and Neglected Areas in Research
Historians in their effort to recapture the many-sidedness of life in the past cannot afford to ignore the insights and new information developed by more specialized branches of learning concerned with the study of human behavior. We recommend, therefore, that systematic efforts be made to keep historical workers acquainted with the achievements and inquiries going forward in such fields as anthropology, psychology, economics, political science, sociology, literature and the fine arts. As a first step toward this goal, we propose that at the annual meetings of the American Historical Association sessions be regularly devoted to a consideration of the contributions which related subjects can, make to the solution of historical problems, possibly involving invitations to representatives from such other fields to attend and present suggestions. We further urge the cultivation of closer formal association within the various university and college faculties between historians and their colleagues in allied fields.
A scrutiny of the titles of dissertations recently printed or now in progress reveals a deplorable tendency to focus upon historical problems so much worked over as to have reached the point of diminishing returns. Explorations of uncharted zones would enrich our understanding and produce contributions of greater scientific import. To this end we suggest, as profitable but somewhat neglected areas for exploitation, the following general fields, illustrated by sample titles of more specific studies or series of studies:
I. Urban life and urbanization as a factor in the development of American civilization.
a. The effect of urbanization on political constituencies.
b. The history of suburban development.
2. Rural life as a factor in American history.
a. The growth of antipathies between urban and rural populations.
b. The effect of crop pests and blights upon rural life.
3. History of the family in America.
a. The changing status of woman.
b. The frontier family.
4. History of race relations and of race acculturation.
a. The civilizing of the American Indian.
b. The effect of German immigration upon musical development.
5. Interstate migration of people and institutions.
a. The influence of population migration upon state legislation.
b. The influence of population movements upon architecture.
6. History of patriotism and nationalizing tendencies.
a. The history of the G.A.R., the U.C.V., etc.
b. The influence of inventions, and of improvements in communication and transportation, upon political centralization.
7. American legal history.
a. Changing status of the American lawyer.
b. The codification movement in the first half century of the Republic.
8. History of business and business enterprise.
a. The history of the methods of canal commerce and transportation.
b. The development of mail-order business.
9. The social import of technological changes.
a. The history and influence of hydroelectric energy in a given region.
b. The introduction of the use of anthracite coal.
10. The use of increasing leisure.
a. The organization of public recreation.
b. The history of fraternal orders.
11. Changing codes of morality.
a. The history of gambling.
b. The tradition of Southern chivalry.
12. Changing religious folkways.
a. The development of the institutional church.
b. The relation of the church to humanitarian reform.
13. History of book production and consumption.
a. The changing reading habits of Americans. b. The evolution of the circulating library.
14. The life history of individual newspapers.
15. Social conditions and forces as reflected and affected by literature.
a. Social and economic interpretation of the growth of the "success" theme in American fiction.
b. The international copyright problem as affecting the development of American literature.
16. Social conditions and forces as reflected and affected by education.
a. The history of the lecture platform since the Civil War.
b. The development of the American graduate school.
17. Social conditions and forces as reflected and affected by the arts (painting, sculpture, music, the theater, the graphic arts, photography, etc.).
a. The history of amateur arts and crafts.
b. The evolution of town planning.
c. The rise of the vaudeville stage.
d. The history of the training of American painters.
18. History of science and of pseudoscience.
a. The history of geological surveys.
b. The history of health fads in the nineteenth century.
19. History of intellectual attitudes.
a. The history of American optimism.
b. Caricature as social and economic criticism.
20. The international movement of ideas and cultural institutions.
a. The influence of Oriental contacts upon New England life.
b. Christian missionaries in relation to American imperialism.
Limited space has confined us to a very few examples under each of the fields listed, but a wide variety of other illustrations will readily occur to historical scholars. Approaches to the subject matter may, of course, be made in many ways. Biographical studies will reveal social conditions and tendencies in every one of the fields; even studies of undistinguished figures may often illustrate these forces at work. Intensive investigations of societal changes in localities should be made, contributing in the aggregate to an understanding of regional and national civilization; local history may wisely be an active interest of historical scholarship. Likewise general pictures of social conditions in given short periods, valuable as ends in themselves, will reveal new opportunities for research and interpretation.
Though the suggestions outlined above place chief emphasis upon nonpolitical history, it is the judgment of the conference that studies of this type will establish new points of view for a significant reappraisal of American political history. Something is being done, and much more can be done, to vitalize our knowledge of political development by examining it, not as the predominant element in our history but as one phase of a many-sided social evolution. Our political history has not evolved independently of the American environment.
As a further means of stimulating research along the above lines, as well as of avoiding undesirable duplication, we recommend the publication of an inventory of research and editorial enterprises (similar to the list of doctoral dissertations in progress) now actively being carried forward by mature writers. Such a list would be particularly useful if undertaken in coöperation with foreign scholars and should not, of course, be confined to the field of American history. We urge the Council of the American Historical Association to undertake the publication of such an inventory, preferably at regular intervals.
II. Enlargement, Improvement and Preservation of Materials
To exploit properly the new fields of research, it is necessary to reconsider the present programs of preserving historical material. The discovery and preservation of a much more varied mass of sources is necessary and a new and improved technique should be developed. While governmental archives, newspapers and the correspondence of important public figures are likely to be collected, a great variety of business and social data, especially the papers and records of obscure persons and organizations, is lost for want of any interested assembling agency: The amassing of data for social, economic and cultural history, therefore, should be systematized and coördinated; institutional coöperation upon a regional basis should be encouraged; and the American Historical Association should be responsible for leadership and advice in this respect. Bibliographies and guides to local material should be prepared and published in more systematic fashion and the printing of new types of sources should be promoted. The need of augmented funds for these projects is obvious.
Meanwhile an enormous quantity of data is accumulating, to such a degree as to create a serious problem of storage facilities and, in the case of certain classes of sources, to make the problem of plethora menacing to efficient scholarly exploitation. We therefore recommend the appointment of a committee to study the question of what materials, if any, may wisely be neglected by collecting agencies and to study any other possibilities of coping with this problem.
No great advance in the collection of sources in social and economic history can be made without proper museums scientifically managed. The work of such institutions as the Deutsches Museum in Munich, the Rosenwald Museum in Chicago and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, to say nothing of numerous art and historical museums, shows what can be done. There are few greater stimuli to popular interest in matters historical than effective museum exhibits. Unfortunately, however, much work of this character is vitiated because those who have it in charge are untrained. The Association should study the possibility of securing facilities for the better training of museum directors and for the creation of a more adequate museum science. There is, in particular, need for university instruction for curators who will organize collections illustrating the historical development of American culture by periods and regions. A finding list of materials now housed in museums is also much needed; its preparation and publication might conceivably be financed by the coöperation of various tourist agencies.
Archives as well as museums need skilled workers and the proposed national archives building offers an excellent opportunity for preliminary planning in order that the best possible organization and arrangement can be established therein. We strongly urge that the matter of proper and scientific training of archivists be brought to the attention of leading universities as a possible new subject in their curricula.
The conference also heartily indorses the collection of motion-picture films. Many of these are of great historical value and deserve the active attention of historians and librarians. We might well follow such examples of preserving these "living records" as have been commenced by the Dutch government, and are being studied in other countries, notably France. The formation of archives of films might appeal to wealthy individuals in a country which has assumed leadership in the motion-picture industry. We recommend to the Council the appointment of a committee to ascertain what can be done to promote this interest.
Of great value to research, also, is another photographic device. The photographic reproduction of historical records makes it possible to build up at strategic centers large collections of duplicate facsimiles of invaluable manuscript sources. Much less expensive than originals, these copies prove equally as valuable for most historical uses. Regional depositories might be established for duplicate records of this character, thus saving much expense of traveling to distant points. A considerable amount of such material is now available in film form at the Library of Congress and enlarged prints can be obtained at relatively small cost. Duplication in this fashion of rare or inaccessible sources would fruitfully pollenize research all over the land. We suggest that the Council adopt measures to acquaint the proper authorities with the benefits of this new service.
One very important step that might be taken to assist the historical investigator in this country of great distances would be to lay out a national plan for library development, looking towards the building up of great collections along special lines at certain natural centers. Such a scheme is now being studied by the Joint Committee on Materials for Research, created by the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies, and we believe that the endeavor deserves the warm support of the American Historical Association. We suggest further that regional conferences be held on the subject, to be composed of representatives of local historical organizations and other interested agencies.
Research is greatly encouraged by the publication of sources, but such aid could be much more effective if it were more systematic. The work of the Department of Historical Research of the Carnegie Institution at Washington is proof of the value of plan and order. Its carefully thought out and matured projects constitute a monumental aid to American historiography and we deplore the abrupt decline of its activities. We suggest that the American Historical Association consider the possibility of continuing under its guidance the work of publication formerly promoted by the Carnegie Institution and invite a systematic and coördinated publication by regional organizations.
Numerous types of publication ought to be continued or undertaken:
1. Guides to American historical materials in the archives of the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, Portugal and South America are needed.
2. Projects proposed by the State Department or authorized by the government, such as the publication of the territorial papers, and the instructions to diplomatic agents abroad, ought not to lapse. The appropriate committees of the American Historical Association are urged to exert pressure to prevent the abandonment of these projects.
3. In addition to the above matters, the conference recommends:
a. The continuance of Adelaide R. Hasse's Index to United States Documents Relating to Foreign Affairs, 1828-1861, for the period after 1861. The published index for the official series Foreign Relations from 1861 to 1898 is an inadequate guide for the period because much was omitted from that series. Since 1898 there has been issued no index of any kind to diplomatic material.
b. The completion of Adelaide R. Hasse's Index to Economic Material in Documents of the States, and its expansion to include all the states, territories and insular possessions.
c. The publication of a cumulative edition of, or at least a cumulative index to, Grace G. Griffin's Writings on American History, with provision for periodic cumulative editions or indices. We urge this as of primary importance.
d. The preparation of a finding list of selected American newspapers, to continue the valuable work of Brigham beyond 1820.
4. Finally, we feel that the time has come to make a serious study of the proper calendaring, indexing and publishing of collections which will serve as a basis for research in the less well-worked fields of social, economic and intellectual development.
III. Development of Research Personnel
The attraction of minds of large caliber into the historical profession is of ever present concern. Machinery and apparatus are futile without scholars of outstanding ability and genuine interest in research to make use of them. We beg leave to point out that the problem of 'recruiting personnel of the proper quality from the undergraduate bodies is of sufficient importance to warrant the appointment of a committee by the Council to study it.
Our own discussions have led us to feel that individual contact between the scholar and the undergraduate is the chief means of recruiting students of requisite ability and attainments. We would suggest the advisability on proper occasions of explaining to the undergraduate the opportunities of the profession of history. It is easy for him to visualize the implications of a decision on his part to go into law or medicine, but the advantages and attractiveness of the historical profession are not so apparent. As further means of recruitment, we have been impressed by the utility of honors courses, small discussion courses and proseminars. These are not only devices which develop a high order of teaching but are also excellent means for establishing that intimate and informal relation between scholar and student which makes possible the arousing of the student's interest in more advanced study.
A serious lack in most universities is the scarcity of fellowships, for first-year graduate students. An increase in the number of such fellowships, particularly if the stipends are adequate, will undoubtedly save to the guild many desirable individuals who, for financial reasons, are compelled to give up further study upon graduation from college. At best, the financial rewards of the scholar are not commensurate with the rewards for preeminence in some other professions. As a result, the graduate student feels less inclined to involve himself heavily in debt in order to secure a training for research and teaching.
Once students of proper quality have been attracted into graduate work, the instruction should be so organized as to make possible the easy and natural adaptation of the resources of the institution to the particular needs of the individual student. We take high standards in requirements for granted, but deplore regimentation in graduate schools. In order to give the student the best possible training for his particular needs, departments of history should coöperate with other departments of instruction so that the historical student, when his needs require it, may receive appropriate training in such subjects as statistics, political science, anthropology, psychology, literature and a variety of other disciplines. Doctoral examinations should include testing in the subject or subjects which the student has found necessary for his particular problems. In that part of the doctoral examination which deals with history we urge that the examination should not spread over the whole range of human history but be limited to special fields. We suggest that a general knowledge of such fields be required and also an intensive knowledge of prearranged portions. Dissertations should be normally introductory studies in broader fields of investigation, so that the student upon receipt of his degree may, without loss of time or energy, continue his productive work. A serious lack in most graduate centers is the absence of funds, in the form of scholarships or otherwise, for making possible such travel within the United States as may be necessary in the working out of research problems.
We are aware of various situations in the profession which militate against productive scholarship. The importance of teaching we all recognize; it cannot be overemphasized. Too heavy a teaching load, however, hinders productive scholarship which, after all, is the foundation of effective teaching. Experience richly justifies the policy of relieving scholars of promise and achievement from administrative work so that their energies may be devoted exclusively to research and teaching. In some institutions schedule devices have made it possible for the scholar to secure an unusual amount of consecutive time free from the routine of teaching without additional cost to the university administration. We recommend for study such plans as the divided week at Smith College, according to which three-hour courses meet the first three days or the last three days of the week. We commend the practice of giving sabbatical leave with full pay for an entire academic year to scholars actively producing; and we view with approval the policy of an increasing number of universities and colleges in making grants-in-aid for research work carried on by members of the faculty in residence.
While most of the above comments refer to matters outside of the corporate jurisdiction of the American Historical Association, they are matters of the utmost immediate concern to the individuals who compose the Association. We believe that, by appropriate and energetic action, they can do much in their respective colleges and universities to improve conditions. Whether conditions are worse now than earlier it would be difficult to say; but never before has the profession been placed so on its mettle.
IV. Improvement of Research Methods
Historical method, while governed by certain well-established principles, cannot operate in a vacuum. We believe that the most fruitful results are attained when the student derives his knowledge of historical procedures through constant practice in research under the critical guidance of an experienced scholar. Elsewhere in this report we have recorded our indorsement of adequate training, when needful, in such contributory techniques as statistics and anthropology.
In American history the language problem presents certain features that differ from those in English or European history. As two languages other than English are generally prescribed, it is our opinion that the requirements should be flexible and fitted to the particular needs of the student. (Mr. Bemis dissents, holding that all candidates for the Ph.D. in American history should be able to use both French and German.)
We are convinced that improvement is possible and desirable in the presentation of the products of research. History, , being the result of investigations carried on by rigid scientific methods, is related to the so-called social sciences. But it is also a branch of literature and in this respect differs from the other social sciences. The historical student must, in our opinion, perfect himself as nearly as possible in the literary art. We suggest emphasis on style in the work of seminars. We would point out to the student that the effectiveness of his scholarship will depend in no small measure upon his literary skill.
V. Improvement of Research Organization
The membership of the American Historical Association in the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies has been of great benefit to the profession. It has stimulated historical research and has enabled scholars to carry on research projects of great value which, without such aid, would have been, in many cases, impossible. We feel, however, that these benefits should be increased by the development of more projects for which such aid may properly be given.
Many of the leading universities of the country have set up local, research councils for the social sciences. It is our opinion that these councils have done a large amount of excellent work. The fields of research are so large and so numerous, however, that other such local councils with ample funds are much needed.
It is our strong conviction that the professional historian and historical societies would both be benefited by the cultivation of a closer relationship. Historical societies need, and in most instances would welcome, the guidance of the trained historian. Membership in such societies is composed chiefly of persons deeply interested in history but often without the special training needed for a correct understanding of historical problems. The professional historian can bring to such organizations the results of scientific research, stimulate interest in scholarly work, correct popular errors and offer advice and guidance in the collection of historical materials, in the preservation of historical monuments and buildings and in the marking of important historical sites. The scholar himself has much to gain from such relationship. It will not only develop for him a desirable constituency but, through this constituency, enable him to reach a still larger public. In just so far as it is important that the general public should have correct ideas of historical events, persons and movements, it is important that the professional historian should make proper use of such agencies as may produce these results. Historical societies are among the most important of such agencies.
From the point of view of functions there are two types of state-bound historical commissions, societies, etc.: (1) those which undertake research programs; (2) those which are primarily concerned with the collection, preservation and publication of historical materials. In many cases it would add to the value of both types of activities if such organizations were to coöperate with one another so as to give their work a regional, or perhaps even a national, unity. We have in mind, for instance, coöperation in such a project as that which Dr. J. F. Jameson has long had in contemplation, namely, a collection of documents illustrative of the extensive changes in the system of landholding, which formed so important a phase of the American Revolution during the years 1774-1800. The conference heartily approves of the suggestion and advises, as perhaps the best plan for carrying it into execution, that the proper historical agency in each of the original thirteen states be requested to prepare for publication the material bearing on its own part in this movement, in coöperation with the other states. A general guide might be prepared for the series so as to assure uniformity in the type of material to be selected and in editing, printing, binding, etc. Other similar plans for coöperation between such state historical agencies might be suggested and carried forward with profit both to the guild and to the public in general.
VI. Publication Problems
In our opinion the annual printing of abstracts of doctoral dissertations, published . and unpublished, is desirable. These abstracts should be approximately from three hundred to six hundred words in length and should summarize the type of materials used, the methods employed, and the contribution to knowledge made by the investigation. It is desirable that this publication should include summaries of dissertations in other fields of learning when such dissertations are obviously of interest to students of American history. We hope that Social Science Abstracts may be able to proceed with its plan for the publication of summaries of dissertations in its field and express the hope, in case this is impossible, that the Council may take active steps to achieve this end.
In reviewing the present status of historical periodicals, we express no little satisfaction in the high standards maintained. We view with approval the practice adopted by the Journal o f Economic and Business History of prefacing articles with brief abstracts of their contents and urge that a similar device be employed by other historical periodicals. In the matter of book reviews, we deprecate the cataloguing of insignificant errors, which often gives an erroneous impression of the work under consideration. On the other hand, we urge a more incisive and critical appraisal of the scientific and literary merits of books. To this end, we propose that occasional sessions of the American Historical Association, be devoted to a consideration of the art of book reviewing.
We appreciate the service rendered by the Revolving Fund of the American Historical Association and hope that the publication of books through this medium may be continued and, if possible, extended. It seems desirable, moreover, to provide for the publication of studies too short for books and too long for articles. At present there is no general vehicle, open to all scholars, for the publication of studies from seventy-five to a hundred and fifty pages in length. We therefore recommend the inauguration of a series for such monographs by the American Historical Association. Such a publication would provide for the printing of condensed doctoral dissertations and of separate studies which cannot well be further shortened into articles.
In concluding our report we stress, as our main finding, the conviction that the historical profession defines its functions too narrowly, fails to plan and coördinate efficiently and lacks inspiration and creative enterprise in its investigations. Only by redefining and broadening our part in the world of research can we attract the abler type of young scholar seeking a career and assume our place as the discipline fundamental to all scholarship.
A. M. Schlesinger, Chairman
R. F. Nichols, Secretary
S. F. Bemis
R. D. W. Connor
M. E. Curti
D. R. Fox
R. H. Gabriel
Ossining, N. Y.,
June 5-6, 1931.
 For the widest usefulness such an abstracting service should extend to all fields of history, but it is beyond the province of the present conference to make such a recommendation. At the present time Columbia and Bryn Mawr are apparently the only institutions to require full publication of theses before the conferring of the doctorate, and but fourteen other universities require eventual printing in full or by abstract. The number of doctorates in history granted in 1913-1914. was 36; in 1921-1922, 47, and in 1929-3o, 67. In addition, of course, a number of theses in the humanities and the other social sciences are historical in character.
Last Updated: May 22, 2007