Tuesday, August 17, 2021


 Gertrude Himmelfarb, excerpt from “Beyond Method”
What’s Happened to the Humanities?, Princeton University Press, 1997, pp. 146-147

        In the year-long course I took under Louis Gottschalk at the University of Chicago, there were two principal assignments tailored to the student’s field of specialization. Since mine was the French Revolution, I was asked to determine the hour of sunrise on a particular day during the Revolution. I do not now remember the day (to say nothing of the time), nor do I remember how I solved the problem. But I do recall, after my initial resentment at having to devote so much effort to so trivial a matter, becoming conscious of the importance of determining that fact (it turned out to be critical to some event) and also taking pride, even pleasure, in the practical experience of research.

        That was a minor chore. The major assignment was a paper based upon a detailed examination of a few pages from the most reputable, recent work in our field. The charge was simple, or so it seemed until we tried to carry it out. We were to examine every published source cited (manuscript sources were excepted only because they were unavailable to us), first to see whether the quotations and footnotes were accurate, and then, more important, to see whether each quotation or paraphrase was faithful to the sense and context of the source; whether the source itself was trustworthy and impartial (or, if not, whether that was taken into account by the author); whether the author drew the proper inferences from the sources; whether every significant or controversial fact in the text was based upon relevant and reliable sources; and whether there were other relevant and reliable sources that were not cited and that might have supported other facts and conclusions.

        It was a challenging exercise and a salutary experience. In my own case, I discovered several errors in quotations and citations and one serious discrepancy between the source and the deductions drawn from it. This was my initiation into the discipline of history—a painful initiation, because it made me acutely sensitive to the rigors and difficulties of scholarship (and because my own half-written thesis had drawn heavily on that book and I had to go back and check all the facts and quotations I had borrowed from it). At the same time it was an exhilarating experience, rather like a game of chess. And like a good game of chess, it gave me a great respect for the craft of the discipline, a craft that was patently not infallible but that did aspire to high standards and could be tested against those standards. (I later discovered that this was essentially the same exercise, on a much larger scale obviously and with access to the primary documents, that Forrest McDonald performed when he refuted Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.)

        Such required courses on methodology are now relatively rare. Although modernist history continues to be practiced by a good many historians, it no longer has the credibility and authority to sustain a mandatory course of this kind. For the postmodernist the very idea of a “discipline” of history, let alone a methodology, is regarded as specious, even fraudulent.

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