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 Conference on Ancient History
I. Present Trends and Neglected Areas in Research
Since ancient historians are heirs of the classical tradition, they have for many generations devoted their attention to all aspects of civilization. They accordingly do not feel the need, which may exist in other provinces of the subject, of enlarging yet further the content of history. As a result of long practice they have elaborated methods of investigation, organized their primary and secondary materials, and established the interrelations of their sources in a manner which might well be followed, in adapted forms, by scholars in the more recent fields of historical research.
While recognizing the fruitfulness of the injection of new ideas and points of view emerging in related studies, we desire to insist upon the danger of reading into ancient history concepts taken from modern economic experience. The view was strongly expressed in the conference that an attitude of uncritical receptivity of such concepts prevailed widely among ancient historians, and that we must either avoid using the terminology of the modern world, e.g. capitalism and socialism, or state precisely the meanings attached to such terms when used in reference to ancient practices. A close scrutiny of ancient conditions is the only proper method by which we can formulate definitions of imported terms sufficiently exact to obviate confusion. This is particularly necessary in ancient history, for its comparative lack of data, statistical and other, exposes it especially to the impact of alien generalizations.
Research in ancient history is inevitably affected by the nature of the material available in this country. Since no collections of original material, except papyri and the contents of museums, exist in the United States, students who cannot visit the great foreign collections or who have not turned their attention to papyrology are forced to rely on printed materials for their investigations. The comparative completeness of the publication of the primary sources and their general availability in our big libraries reduce greatly the effect of this limitation.
Since it proved impossible either before our meeting, through lack of opportunity for discussion, or at our meeting, through lack of time for careful study, to list the major problems ,in ancient history which might be attacked, we make a recommendation to cover this point at the end of our report, and add a specific statement regarding one project with which we are favorably impressed. In general, problems in ancient history are fundamentally individualistic. For certain types of research coöperative effort has proved advantageous and its possibilities are, doubtless, far from exhausted; but there is danger in too much organization. We append a statement showing, inter alia, how this danger is avoided in the institutes for research in ancient history already established. Since large projects now under way are a matter of common knowledge, and since in smaller projects duplication of effort does no great harm and is often very helpful, it seems to us unnecessary to publish periodical lists of current undertakings.
II. Enlargement, Improvement and Preservation of Materials
The collection and preservation of materials in ancient history is now being actively carried on by museums and universities. In this way manuscripts, papyri and archaeological remains of all sorts are coming to this country so far as they can be obtained. In fact, activity in the collection of papyri has outstripped the possibility of critical study, with the result that we need trained editors rather than additional supplies of material. In the collection of materials there is at present no need for further specialization; and since historians are now interesting themselves to the full extent of their ability in museum development, conditions, in our opinion, are fundamentally sound.
In our field, it is undesirable to lay out a national plan for library development. All the big libraries should continue to aim at acquiring well-rounded collections.
In the publication of source material for ancient history, particularly papyri, the work is being done systematically and as rapidly as is now possible with the limited number of trained papyrologists in the country. We recognize the ultimate necessity of publishing a corpus of papyri, but action in this matter must be postponed until the sources of papyri, as yet running freely, begin to dry up. The present need is the immediate publication of the papyri on hand. Scholars engaged in this work, both here and abroad, coöperate with one another in the publication of the membra disjecta of the separate groups of papyri.
Our current bibliographies are ample, except in the Oriental fields, and there they are ample for Egypt. We lack, however, good catalogues for- a large number of the local museums in the Old World.
III. Development of Research Personnel
As we have noted above, our present need is men trained for work in the ancient field, notably in archaeology, papyrology and Oriental history. Many of the best men tempted to enter this career do not proceed with it. One of the chief reasons for this is the fact that there is a scarcity of permanent, well-paid positions to which they can look forward. It is hoped that the development of institutes like the Oriental Institute in Chicago and the corresponding institute at Michigan will add an outlet to men looking for a career in ancient history, supplementing the outlets at present existing in universities, colleges and museums.
Since ancient historians must be trained in two fields, history and philology, and since they need to acquire not only a knowledge of the languages used by modern historians but also a knowledge of the languages of the ancient sources, notably Greek and Latin, and since travel and study abroad are highly desirable, the period of training approximates five rather than three years. In view of this situation it is particularly desirable that liberal fellowships, available both for graduate students and for students who have already completed their formal education, should be created to promote better work in this field. There is little room in this country in ancient history for second-rate men. We urge, therefore, that the fellowships should be large rather than many. They should be sufficiently remunerative to attract and maintain men of the desired quality. The enormous development of archaeological work, both in America and abroad, and the establishment of institutes for the investigation of fundamental problems have augmented the need of trained workers and the opportunities for permanent careers. In our opinion liberal fellowships for additional study abroad and for bringing students into direct contact with local material are very inadequately provided by universities. If additional fellowships should be created, they should be designed only for men of unusual promise and attainment. We suggest as one of the present needs the creation of more research fellowships and an enlargement of the grants-in-aid to scholars. It is suggested that professors engaged in directing work in ancient history should make a special point of encouraging men who have a natural aptitude for research to apply for grants-in-aid and assist them in obtaining them as far as possible.
During their formal training candidates for the doctorate might profitably be encouraged to migrate in their earlier years, but generally speaking it is distinctly advantageous for men who have chosen the subjects for their dissertations to remain in one university, as is the custom in Germany.
IV. Improvement of Research Methods
We have no suggestions to make for the improvement of methods of training men in ancient history. We do not think that new manuals devoted to historical method in our field are needed at present. As for courses in general historical method, since their value depends largely upon the men in charge, we feel that they are fruitful for our students only when they are in the hands of men competent to give due attention to the ancient field. Seminary methods are likewise dependent upon the personality of the teacher. There are as many good methods and seminaries as there are good teachers.
We find that our graduate students are now encouraged and required to devote their attention to the chief contributory techniques, for example, philology, numismatics and palaeography. A closer relation with anthropology would be desirable. Statistics, however, at least in its more advanced phases, has little to offer the ancient historian.
In our field we see no reason to complain of overspecialization. We deprecate, however, the fact that overspecialization in other fields on the part of prospective teachers often creates serious situations in that in many institutions the teaching of ancient history has been placed in the hands of men who have had no serious training in the subject. We suggest in this connection that the well-tried methods and the rigid discipline prevalent in seminaries of ancient and mediaeval history have proved their worth to such an extent that it is desirable for graduate students of history generally to be given an opportunity to benefit by them.
It is our unanimous opinion that the art of historical writing is seriously neglected in America. The reasons for this deficiency reach far beyond the teaching of history. We are fully conscious of the problem and each of us in his own way is doing what he can to remedy the evil; but we call for help.
The conference considers it absolutely essential to graduate study in the ancient field for students to have a wide reading knowledge of Greek and Latin, to be evidenced possibly by general examinations on readings suitably selected. It also considers that the training in these languages should be begun as early as possible in the students' undergraduate or, better, precollege career. A knowledge of modern languages is of course indispensable. For research work in special fields of ancient history other ancient languages, notably Semitic, must be acquired.
The formulated language requirements of the universities are as rigorous as the present situation allows; but it remains the fact that students are unable to read as they should the essential foreign languages. It is feasible to supplement the existing requirements by instructors insisting systematically upon the actual use of modern languages early in the course of graduate training. Much improvement is possible here.
V. Improvement of Research Organization
We submit under this heading a report on the institutes now organized at the universities of Chicago and Michigan. It has been drawn up at our request by Professors Olmstead and Boak.
As a result of our personal experience, we are convinced that the organization of an institute is the ideal solution for certain types of research. At the same time, we should point out that the two institutes with which we are associated have grown naturally from the less formal grouping of scholars from different departments for common research and we believe that there is no advantage in forming an institute unless such association has paved the way. Under the proper conditions the formation of an institute brings together scholars of different viewpoints for a common end and is advantageous from the standpoint of administration and of raising the larger funds required. We are also keenly aware of the danger to individualism in such an organization and believe that each project should be individually controlled and that in the various subdivisions of any given project there should be as much regard for individual activity as is consistent with sound administration.
VI. Publication Problems
Since abstracts of doctoral dissertations are seldom able to give the evidence on which conclusions are based, the publication of an article based on a dissertation might be preferable to the publication of an abstract. The publication of dissertations is desirable; but we do not consider it desirable to force premature publication, and we should avoid placing undue financial obligation on the writers. Publication of abstracts is desirable when no more adequate methods of publication are available.
The profession needs a new medium for the publication of long critical reviews of significant works. Except for this deficiency, the bibliographical and other aids in this field are adequate.
The establishment of series devoted to the publication of short monographs (articles too long for journals and too short to make books) is one of the greatest needs of the moment. They would serve inter alia as a medium for the effective publication of the significant content of doctoral dissertations. Other channels of publication are hardly sufficient for taking care of genuinely meritorious pieces of research.
VII. Financial Needs for the Promotion of Research
Wherever research funds exist in colleges and universities, ancient history receives its fair share of support. A number of liberal research fellowships is urgently needed. The provision of grants-in-aid from outside agencies seems adequate, at least in number.
We recommend that steps be taken to create a standing committee of the sort reporting herewith. It would serve as a clearing house for suggestions about large coöperative enterprises and for forwarding suggestions and recommendations to the proper authorities. This is particularly desirable in the case of ancient history since no other committees exist in this field.
The special coöperative project of research on which we are now prepared to report favorably is outlined by its originator, Professor Tenney Frank of the Johns Hopkins University, as follows:
A group of volunteer workers are engaged in an economic survey of the Roman Empire, with the intention of gathering all the significant source material during the next four or five years. The publication is to include the materials province by province with descriptions of pertinent archaeological matter, translations of the continuous texts, brief commentaries where necessary and concise historical introductions. T. R. S. Broughton, Tenney Frank, A. C. Johnson, R. S. Rogers, A. A. Trever and J. J. Van Nostrand are at present engaged on the task, and some secretarial assistance is being provided from a "Fluid Research Fund" granted to the Johns Hopkins University by the General Education Board. Further financial support, however, will probably be required to aid in the publication of three or four volumes when the work is nearing completion.
W. S. Ferguson, Chairman
A. B. West, Secretary
A. E. R. Boak
E. F. Gay
A. D. Nock
A. T. E. Olmstead
W. L. Westermann
New York City,
May 9, 1931.
Last Updated: May 22, 2007