Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Amateur historians everywhere, take heart

"An honest professional job of any kind deserves equal respect; an honest amateur job merits a different and less searching appraisal. We hear to-day a good deal about the absurdities of minute research, especially in Ph.D. theses. An eminent scientist has condemned those who crawl upon the frontiers of knowledge with a magnifying glass. [Whoever that scientist was, you have to admit, he knew something about Ph.D. research. - HCR]. But what is wrong with taking a magnifying glass to the frontiers of knowledge? Surely that is precisely where it is needed. Perhaps one may want some man at times to stand up, gaze around, and look beyond; but unless they have taken an active part in the painful mapping of the advancing frontier, the visionaries are nothing but a menace. I have no patience ... with the common attitude of contempt for the young student who labours on what may seem a narrow or petty subject and attempts to master the techniques of study which it can teach, though I would agree that the mature scholar who still seems to be at that stage of interest raises one's doubts and hackles. Except for examiners, who are paid for it, no one needs to read Ph.D. dissertations, but those who flatter themselves that they can make a valid distinction between what is important and what merely superfluous in such enterprises, elevate personal taste to the level of a critical standard. Judging thus, they have no answer to those who sniff at their own splendid and ranging edifices because they think them unsound or (this can happen) tedious. Research work of this journeyman kind deserves to be judged by the only tests it seeks to satisfy: is it honest and exhaustive, has it asked questions that are right and adequate in the context of the problem, has it found reasonable answers, does it prove the author to have learned his trade? And much the same point applies beyond the stage of the Ph.D. dissertation. Good and bad work can be done at all stages of historical enterprise; and the standard of quality to apply must be defined as intellectual honesty and intellectual penetration within the compass of the problem investigated."

- G. R. Elton, The Practice of History (1967), p. 34-35

1 comment:

Bridges said...

I, doing research on an obscure puritan iconoclast, thank you for this post.



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