This historic historian is a voice worth reviving

C G Crump’s History and Historical Research, published in 1928, is a guide to the practice of the subject for novice historians. Manuals on how to study are common nowadays, and nearly all of them suffer from a hortatory tone, making scholarship sound like an endless grind or parade-ground drill of arranging notes just so and of using time only in overtly productive ways, and all seemingly done for an examiner’s benefit rather than your own.

Crump is different. His tone can be old fashioned (“…the curiosity of the enquirer was thoroughly inflamed… the advocate of an abbey was the man who presided over the courts held in the liberty of the abbey… The earl’s third penny of the pleas of the shire swept from his mind the French advocates and German vogts…”) but he acknowledges the strange terrain our minds so often travel and the circuitous ways they travel it; acknowledges too that this is half the delight of research, and that our methods are very much our own. What seems inefficient to the writers of study guides is thoroughly efficient to us because it is ours so we know our way about it.

On notetaking for example:

It is often suggested that all that is required… is to select a subject and that the student may then… collect his materials, make his notes and finally expand his notes into the form of a treatise. Those who work in this way will produce a result of a kind… All the necessary facts will be there… but one thing will be lacking, the skeleton of thought needed to make the book an intelligible whole… [T]he writer, absorbed in perfecting the mechanism of his process, has never perfected the art of thinking… The remedy is… a paradox. Write your treatise first, and make your notes afterwards.

In other words, write what you know of the hunches you have which have led you to your subject and see what patterns they make even at this early stage. That will guide you as to the notes you really need to take and to their form and extent. And your early hunches, since they are yours alone, will give the work the individual flavour which will delight a reader in the end. Notetaking will be the servant of creativity and not the other way round; it will thus cease to be a grind or rather, it will be the sort of grind you can gladly bear.

Or take his view of systematic and unsystematic minds:

The systematic mind will have its stock of events ready to hand… Its disability [is] that the discovery of new relations involves the disturbance of the familiar order so carefully achieved. All the stored events must be turned out and sorted and re-sorted… The old habit of order will of course resist this process… [T]he possessor of the disorderly mind [has had] to be continually turning over his stock of events… to keep his knowledge in any kind of control [so that] accidental juxtaposition is always a possible source of new views to him [yet he] must acquire the power to impose order when order is needed… Just as the owner of the systematic mind must acquire the power to break up the array of his ordered knowledge, so the owner of the disorderly mind must try to introduce some neatness into the disorder… [T]hese extreme cases are, like all extreme cases, imaginary. No minds are completely orderly; few are in complete disorder. The normal mind probably lies nearer, a good deal nearer, to the disorderly type than to the orderly. [But] most students think that the latter type is the right thing to aim at… and many critics and teachers share this view. And yet though the luckless possessor of an untidy mind is always conscious of his own sins… in his heart he knows very well that he gets far more fun out of his work than the other fellow, and thinks, possibly with some justification, that he finds out more things, even though he makes more blunders.

This kind of high-spirited subversiveness is calculated to confound any inscrutable advice on “study techniques”: cultivate your particular eccentricity, and not only will that be your kind of efficiency however seemingly convoluted, but you will enjoy yourself more and may well write better history. The customers for study guides are usually too much in awe of authority and all too ready to be burdened by their authors with a great weight of puritan conscience. I commend Crump to them instead – whether or not they are historians – for an example and an injection of a boldness which would enable them to repudiate that burden.


One of the things which we can explore

Sir Alec Clegg, then Chief Education Officer of the West Riding of Yorkshire, giving the presidential address to the Association of Chief Education Officers in 1965, asked whether localities going comprehensive should retain direct grant schools when their grammar schools disappeared. He said:

If we believe that it is a good thing to get rid of selection for the 20 per cent who go to the grammar schools but to retain selection for the top 2 per cent or 3 per cent of the ability range and we think this should be done on principle, we should say so, stating the principle. I must say that personally I should deplore it if we did this because it might induce a vicious kind of cramming in the junior schools, because I dislike intensely the exaltation of the intellect above other great manifestations of the human spirit which seems to me a twentieth century disease and because I don’t care for the Führerprinzip.

I do not want to comment directly on this. What interests me is that, whether or not the intellect has been over-valued in the twentieth century and since, there are surely two ways of putting an intellect through its paces and any over-valuation may well come from emphasising one at the expense of the other. We can undertake a slow march through a body of knowledge that simply has to be learned or we can have, to borrow a title of Whitehead’s, “adventures of ideas”; and the latter is likely to appeal to people left cold by the former. The novelist Joyce Stranger once complained that although we all want to encourage children to acquire a habit of reading, too often reading is presented to them as “a chore to be fostered as a sort of daily do your stint”. Reading is not alone in this: academic work has all too often been given the same treatment.

On the other hand Conrad Russell, in a radio tribute to C V Wedgwood, once said that he became a historian because he enjoyed exploring and “her books taught me that the past was one of the things which I could explore.” Although in many languages “history” and “story” have the same word, I believe that exploration of the past is a better root metaphor for the subject. For one thing it subsumes the story aspect: explore the past thoroughly and you will have a sense of the story, you will have covered the body of knowledge. And the exploration is enjoyable in a way that mere coverage is not.

Now archives are par excellence material for exploration. They encode the events of the past in a different way from the narrative history derived from them – I intend some time to examine the nature of the difference – and we explore their often disjointed ways in order to construct a whole. It is our search for integration.