‘Sometimes friends in other disciplines ask me the question, “So, what are the big ideas in history these days?”’. So says Tom Scheinfeldt, Managing Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. ‘I then proceed to fumble around for a few minutes trying to put my finger on some new “-ism” or competing “-isms” to describe and define today’s historical discourse’, Scheinfeldt adds. ‘Invariably, I come up short’.
In a blog-post provocatively called Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology, Scheinfeldt argues that global scholarship is currently witnessing a shift away from ideologically-driven theoretical frameworks towards a preoccupation with method and technique. We are on the brink of a ‘new phase of scholarship’, he claims, dominated not by ideas but by ‘new tools, methods, materials, techniques, and modes of work’.
Now I certainly agree that there is a new interest in internet-related research tools and management systems in scholarship today (including the tool Scheinfeldt promotes in his post, developed by his center at George Mason – nothing like a bit of product placement in the course of one’s critical commentary). I also agree that a disenchantment with High Theory has been growing within the humanities. But what I see as misleading about Scheinfeldt’s argument is its assumption that if scholarship isn’t about Big Ideas, then it isn’t about ideology.
The fact that there isn’t an -ism to define and describe today’s historical discourse does not mean that historiography is witnessing a shift away from matters ideological. Indeed, it seems to me that what we are seeing in place of High Theory is more of an interest in everyday life and affect among humanities scholars. In some cases this interest is explicitly theorised by reference to such figures as Michel de Certeau or Eve Sedgwick. In others, it is more generally associated with a desire to make scholarship responsive to the immediacy and diversity of human experience. The whole point of that desire is to attend to the nuances of history and cultural life rather than to make Big Claims about History and Culture at large. Obviously, then, this move towards more specificity, towards more modestly-framed scholarly enterprise, can’t be described as the triumph of methods over ideas.
Scheinfeldt’s argument has been taken up by a number of other scholarly bloggers, predictably from the field of digital history and new media. It is time, these enthuasiasts say, for traditional academia to start responding to the shift in scholarly orientation taking place around it. Mills Kelly, another blogger from Scheinfeldt’s Center at George Mason, makes a similar claim about the inevitability of change within tertiary education. Universities need to catch up with the twenty-first century, he says. They need to replace creaky old Western Civilisation survey courses for first-years with ‘free, online content delivery systems’. Such systems would place a new emphasis on learning rather than content – on making sure that students acquire skills rather than simply amass facts of one kind or another.
Now, I have zero desire to defend Western Civ. survey courses. As an Australian historian, I have never had to teach one nor had experience of one as a student myself. I also have zero desire to defend an approach to education which values content in place of learning, just as you can’t have good ideas without attention to one’s methods or modes of research. I agreed with much of what Kelly says in his series of posts on first-year education. But given that the Center for History and New Media is quite possibly interested in developing such a ‘free online content delivery system’, I am cautious about his claim that it represents a shiny new era in learning for undergraduate students. And once again, I am suspicious of claims that learning in the humanities can somehow be divorced from content, pared back to a set of methods or structures capable of replication on an economically-efficient basis by web-based developers. I am also wary of the idea that seems implicit in these booster-arguments – that is, that scholarhsip might at last become depoliticised by technological means.
Am I overstating the case made by these bloggers here? What do other people think about this?