Presenting History

The natural end of the discovery process is to share the discovery. The first question that arises is: share with whom? No a priori rule can be given, but the first audience for any advance in historical understanding is probably those with historical understanding: the present and future adepts.

Richard Feynman Lecturing at Caltech

We here make that assumption. Making it frees us from the necessity of considering how to talk to people who are not part of our universe of discourse.

But there are still problems within that universe of discourse. New facts or nonroutine ideas may be valued in a field, but in proportion as they are valued, the competition for them increases. Such phenomena as personal control of scholarly journals, or partisan management of scholarly meetings, become part of the scene. People lie about the value of other people's work and then steal it for themselves. (Sorry to mention this, but the first instance you encounter shouldn't be the pillaging of your thesis by some higher-placed person, not excluding your thesis advisor. Exercise decent caution, and keep your records. In a safe place).

All this clouds the atmosphere of communication. What of it you cannot prevent, at least be prepared for. Once prepared for the faults of the medium, use the medium. You rely on there being a decent majority, and you use your energy and ingenuity to reach that majority. You profit as far as you can from their feedback. The expert audience is the two-way audience. It is not only the expert group which you need to convince, but it is the expert group which you can most realistically hope to learn from. Don't share half-developed ideas, which somebody out there can rush into print sooner than you can. But equally, don't make the Seminar mistake, of reading to the seminar a paper you have already mailed to the journal. Your paper by definition won't benefit. Not benefiting is the greatest waste of time imaginable.

The Other Audience

Trobriand Islanders in Other Costume (Commemorative Parade in, Moscow, 9 May 2005

Meanwhile, there is the larger public. The danger in experts addressing only each other is that the larger public goes its own way, moved by less expert considerations. There may develop a severe separation between those who know and those who celebrate, between the head and the heart of a nation. This has two dangers. First comes the obvious one: a nation acting out of heart but not head can do a lot of damage, to itself and to the rest of the world. A subtler understanding of the past, and a cannier estimation of the future, are thus desirable, and should somehow be aimed at. We want a public whose back-alley barbers think a little above the level of the one who once remarked to me:

"You're studying Chinese, eh? That'll come in handy if we fight'em."

Well, haircuts cost too much anyway. But the problem itself won't go away by being avoided. It is best dealt with from both ends. At our end, we might notice, and approve, the way the [Mediterranean] Classics people have developed a style of scholarly writing that is also intelligible to those who have not spent their lives on the Greek genitive absolute. That style admits complications, but it handles those complications gracefully. It confronts obscurity, but it does so clearly. It cites data, but it does not bury itself in data. This tradition of clear scholarly writing may be only a relic of the time when the larger public was more acquainted with the Greek genetive absolute than is now the case. No matter; wherever it came from, it is a welcome part of the toolkit. It might not be a waste of time to compile an anthology of significant articles in one field that may be read without bafflement by those in other fields. Before trying to talk to others, we might first be sure that we can talk effectively to ourselves.

And as we turn to talk to others, to the larger literate public, we might note the previous successes in that category. In France, and to a certain extent in the Netherlands, there is a tradition of scholarly writing for the wide as well as the specialized public, through popular books (ouvres de vulgarisation), newspaper columns, or magazines founded for the purpose (such magazines were a significant part of the action plan for Czech Sinology in the mid 20th century). At their best, these bridging efforts not only make information more widely available, they make the concept of information itself more socially tolerable. They inform while at the same time subtly educating.

Kindergarten Scene

The rest of the answer probably lies with education per se. It is enough to ask that the scholar should be intelligible to the general public. Others may properly be assigned the job of producing a general public that is open to the intelligible. Can it tolerate qualifications? Deal in conditionals? Pass from evidence to inference? If so, it will be because it has been accustomed to these things from early years. Think of that, you many, when you hear the date of the next Parents and Teachers meeting.

To the extent that the public knows how to think, and to value the results of thinking, the enterprise of thought in that that country will be more firmly based. In a world in which very little can be taken for granted, including next year's History Department budget, that may be worth thinking about.


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