Humanistic Historical Research
Robert A. Carlson
In its commitment to encouraging change, the field of adult education tends to be oriented, in its research, toward present and future. The backward look may seem irrelevant or, at times, even subversive. Indeed, a philosophical or humanistic history of an adult educator's life, past activities, thinking, or organization often challenges assumptions on which the profession is based. The historical study may even question the right of adult educators to attempt to control or change their fellow man. This is the great strength of humanistic history. Because of its potential for challenging basic assumptions, this type of research may offer a unique opportunity to those involved in the study of adult education.
Intent and Approach
Anyone responding to the challenge of humanistic historical research should recognize his concomitant responsibilities for careful
investigation and for high-quality literary scholarship. The writing of humanistic history requires not only analytical skills but also the talent and mind set of the playwright. To write history is a two-part endeavor. Historians present a reasoned argument regarding the past, based on evidence and their own values. They must also make the presentation an exciting and literate narrative. Historians, like playwrights (Baritz, 1962), ring up the curtain on the period they choose. They select the lead characters and the bit players. They develop the plot by selecting and arranging the facts. Through the narrative, they illuminate the idea, issue, or thesis related to some topic. And they bring the curtain down when they choose. The writing of high-quality historical research, then, requires that the analytically minded investigator also become adept at writing the narrative.
Another requirement faces the historian: the need for interpretative creativity within the limits of what happened in the past. Reality disciplines the playwright-historian. He cannot make up people and events out of whole cloth. At the same time, the historian cannot simply chronicle this person and that event, string them together, and have a worthwhile history. Interpretation is essential to a historical study and is at once the most important and most difficult skill to master. Historians interpret the past by sifting through the available relevant evidence and by mixing this information with their own values and philosophy. Through this sometimes agonizing process, they create or discover patterns in the thinking, action, motivation, and relationships that occurred in the past. Disciplined only by reality and their own common sense, historians tease out, dream up, and spin out their interpretation of why the events they are describing have occurred.
Each historian thus writes a personal explanation of the past. The significance and meaning accorded to the facts of history are "necessarily a result of the historian's own conception of himself, his craft, and the motivations of men" (Baritz, 1962, p. 340). The historian's values influence his decisions on what data he incorporates and emphasizes in his writing and the interpretation he makes of those data. Each researcher makes these decisions informally from day to day as he works through his original source material. He does not know the precise direction to be taken until
he has studied much of the documentation and is ready to prepare an outline for writing. History, then, is essentially a personal, individual effort to make sense of what has happened at some point in the past.
Steps in the Process
If one is interested in developing a research topic related to the history of adult education, a logical starting point is an interest in some adult education institution, a practitioner or theorist of the field, a particular program or activity, or an idea or concept now or once prevalent in the field. A preliminary check of secondary sources and some informal inquiries of individuals who might be helpful in the research will show whether the study is feasible. The next move is to determine what primary sources will be available, such as correspondence, speeches, articles, and similar material. It is particularly gratifying when those in control of such sources make them available to researchers. If not, the research process is more difficult but still not impossible. A lack of cooperation by those to be studied, for example, is unfortunate, but that should not stop research. In such cases the historian has to rely on other available evidence and do a great deal of inferring from secondary sources. Such history may not be perfect, but it may help open doors for later efforts.
The next step usually is to develop a succinct research proposal or plan that shows the focus of the study. Such a plan, in its early stages, should delineate the general topic, pose some of the questions to be addressed in the study, indicate its limits, and note prospective primary and secondary sources. Eventually, and this may be well along in the process, the historian should update the research proposal to indicate the overall thesis to be argued and to provide an outline that shows how each chapter fits into the pattern of support being built for the thesis.
This type of proposal can help to preserve the humanistic nature of history, avoiding strangulation among the weeds of social science methodology. The historian must be allowed to develop his interpretation and thesis naturally as he works through the source material, building this aspect into his proposal only when
he is ready to prepare an outline for the writing of the study. The proposal for a historical study seldom requires an extensive description of methods and should judiciously refrain from stating hypotheses, locking into a social science theory, or articulating the study in the form of a problem. Historical research is not intended for solving problems or for predicting or controlling human action. The intent is to explore issues related to man and his relationships. It is the belief of many historians that man is far too complex and spiritual a creation to be reduced to a problem. Thus, historical research is not a discipline with which to solve problems but a means of exploring the mystery that is man.
Following the development of an acceptable preliminary proposal (one that probably lacks an explicit thesis or chapter outline), the researcher begins a direct involvement with the sources. Some research methods call for certain techniques or a standardized approach to dealing with sources. Historical research discipline, however, urges the investigator to adopt a consistent philosophy of life and to let his research reflect that philosophy. To think of history as a technique is likely to demean it, to reduce it to just another method of snooping into people's lives in an effort to control those lives. Historians, therefore, have never concocted a special language, a consistent theoretical system, or uniform criteria for evaluating their performance.
The historian is not a totally free spirit, though; there are some research requirements. If an investigator engages in historical research, he has to develop ways of dealing intelligently with sources. Obviously, it is necessary to criticize sources for their authenticity or trustworthiness (Carr, 1965, Gottschalk, 1950). Conclusions, theses, and interpretations developed from the data should stand the tests of logic, and the footnoting of sources should enable critics to check accuracy. A bibliography or bibliographical essay is required. So is a table of contents and usually an abstract.
The historian has to deal with and record relevant information from a variety of sources. This activity likely will include archival research, the use of other library resources, interviewing, and note-taking. Does this mean that the historian should take courses in interviewing, note-taking, research methods, and library science? Not necessarily. Such courses may be helpful, but it should
be remembered that in history, taking notes, conducting interviews, and the like are very individual undertakings. Though some helpful guidelines are available on these matters, the most important guides to the humanistic historian are to maintain skepticism and common sense.
While working with his sources, the historian begins to develop in his own mind the story he will tell. He begins to look for issues of import that he can fashion into his story. He determines what it is he wants his story to accomplish. He begins to draw out of himself an explanation or interpretation of why the story happened in the way he recounts it. Then he performs the most difficult early requirement: he struggles to develop a thesis or argument around which he will evolve his story.
Theses can range from the simple to the intricate. Several excellent historical studies related to adult education will serve to exemplify what I mean by the term thesis. McGinnis (1972) told a story in which he argued that failure was the likely outcome when an adult educator entered a foreign culture to help people develop along lines of interest to that outsider. The failure, McGinnis argued, was devoutly to be wished. He added, however, that such an experience may produce some ancillary results that can justify the otherwise fruitless helping enterprise. The thesis of Dolan (1972) was far less complex. He argued simply that playwright Sean O'Casey was an adult educator who used the theatre as his classroom. Dolan supported his thesis by examining the changing content and process of the playwright's life work. Collins (1972) incisively stated his thesis at the outset: he denied the assumption current in adult education that the founders of mechanics' institutes sought to promote working-class aims. Collins claimed the founders wanted to indoctrinate workers in middle-class values as a bulwark against the furtherance of the political notions of lower-class radicals. Making a strong case for this thesis, he effectively called into question the interpretations of such historians of the field as Thomas Kelly, E. A. Corbett, and Malcolm Knowles. Interpretation and thesis, of course, are intimately connected, often blending into each other, as they did in the Collins study.
Two other studies, like those of McGinnis Dolan and Collins, illustrate excellence in the humanistic historical research
genre. One is Taylor's study (1965) of recent English
history. Though Taylor's book is lengthy and not directly related to the
study of adult education, it is an excellent history and an example to consider
when doing history on a topic in adult education. The other
deals specifically with adult education. It is a seventeen-page article
by Weinberg (1968) about adult educators in the World War II Office of War
Information (OWI) in the
None of the historians thus far cited related his work to any theory. Each was telling a story and illuminating issues. They were not seeking to test or add data to sociological or psychological theory. They wrote history that could be characterized as "unrepentantly and blatantly untheoretical" (Briggs, 1966, p. 195). Any of these historians, however, could easily have allowed his study to be subverted to some existing theory. Collins (1969), for example, could have been trapped into turning his history into an "involvement" or "participation" study, showing how the clientele's background influenced the development of an institution. To take advantage of the full opportunity offered by humanistic historical research, however, the writers had to decide that they were applying history, not social science theory, to the study of adult education.
Historians of adult education are wise to eschew theoretical frameworks for their studies, relying instead on the creation of historical context. They should read extensively about the times to which the topic related. To understand the topic, writers need to know the milieu of the person, institution, activity, or idea being studied. Before and while working the sources, historians should be reading for this type of context. Context is essential to history. Unless the research is fleshed out with some contextual background, the adult education story may float like a disabled spaceship or a disembodied spirit. Context will give the story contact with life, with reality. One does not write about intramural disputes within the Thailand office of an international adult education organization, for example, without bringing in the military dictatorship, American
influence, and insurgency in the countryside. It is not a theoretical framework, then, but a historical context that is required of a historical study.
Writing Style and Format
In writing history, one certainly needs balanced judgment, but one ought not to clutch at that wet noodle called objectivity. After making a judgment, historians write in support of that judgment. They take a position and argue it with reasoned passion. In their writing, they marshal the facts to prove their case. They must avoid the extremes of special pleading on one hand and letting the facts speak for themselves on the other. If there is evidence contrary to that being emphasized, they should indicate it briefly and explain why they deemphasized or rejected it in building the case. The historian must not try to hide contrary evidence. At the same time, he cannot rely on the premise that facts can speak for themselves. They cannot speak for themselves. The historian's job is to breathe life and meaning into them.
Some especially effective ways exist for breathing life into the narrative. Good literature requires intelligent organization and a sensitivity to writing style. For example, it is desirable to develop an outline before starting to write. Without some sort of working outline, organization is difficult. The outline will provide tentative chapter headings and will determine when and where the historian presents the various scenes of his story. (This is the outline that becomes a part of the overall proposal for the study.)
Most histories begin with an introductory chapter that supplies the reader with both a road map and an interest in making the trip. The first chapter likely will establish the historical context and introduce the topic. It may also state the thesis to be argued and, perhaps, some of the critical issues that will be at stake in the course of the narrative. The historian then uses each chapter to carry the story along, enticing the reader on to the next chapter until the final chapter is reached. The last chapter in a historical work on adult education will not provide recommended solutions to present problems. If the historian wishes, he may suggest briefly
and tentatively some analogy or relationship the story may have to the present. More typically, the final chapter will summarize briefly both the story and the interpretation. It will undoubtedly restate the thesis. It should not be mere repetition, however. It should either carry the story a bit further or explicate the interpretation in a new and exciting way. A bibliography or bibliographical essay should complete the presentation.
The historian must beware of didacticism as he unfolds his story. Too much analysis will render a history cold and lifeless. Too little analysis may leave the story pointless. Drama and analysis must be combined judiciously, with the action carrying as much of the explanation as possible. For example, Dolan could have stated didactically that the main character of his study would be Sean O'Casey, the Irish playwright. He chose, rather, to introduce O'Casey more dramatically: "The gaunt, slightly stooped figure stood hesitantly before the footlights, the peak of his cloth cap pulled down to shield his weak eyes from the harsh glare of the lights. He wore a scarf round his neck, an old trenchcoat, thick workingmen's trousers, and the heavy hob-nailed boots of a labourer. The curtain had just fallen on The Shadow of a Gunman in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It was April, 1923. Sean O'Casey, flushed with the triumph of his first success, peered out at the wildly enthusiastic audience. Another great dramatist had arrived to join the ranks of distinguished Irish writers" (1972, p. 7).
The first paragraph of each chapter can be to that chapter what the introduction is to the total study. Each chapter can begin with a brief introductory paragraph showing where this particular chapter is going and how it fits into the total thesis. The concluding paragraph of each chapter might sum it up and lead the reader in some tantalizing manner on to the next. To avoid dullness, such an approach would require some subtlety and variation. A similar approach has application from paragraph to paragraph through each chapter. Each paragraph can open with a topic sentence that sets the stage for what is to come in the paragraph. Like the last paragraph in a chapter, the last sentence in each paragraph can conclude by briefly summarizing the major point of the paragraph and giving a transition to the next paragraph. This approach is one way to keep from meandering among a number of thoughts in one paragraph
and from burying something important within a paragraph, away from the reader's view.
The historian must find his own way of taking charge of the data he has gathered. There is no reason, for example, to be locked into telling a story chronologically. The historian sometimes utilizes materials dated much earlier than the main events in order to develop the motivations for later actions by the characters in the story. He can use flashbacks and other such methods of the playwright. But whatever approaches he may use, it is essential that the historian avoid letting the data control him; he must control the data.
Good literary style in history helps to personalize, humanize, and communicate (Strunk and White, 1965). The writer may sometimes be tempted to seek clarity by dividing the manuscript in some mechanistic way that gives up the attempt at literary style and subtlety. For the sake of the human beings in the story and those reading the story, and perhaps for the sake of his own soul and for the soul that still exists within historical scholarship, the humanistic historian seeks subtlety and sensitivity, as well as clarity. The effective application of history to the study of adult education requires more than clear analysis. It demands good literary style.
This chapter has presented a philosophical essay on the writing of humanistic history in adult education. It is, of course, one person's opinion. This is not to demean what has been written. All scholarship, including the most rigorous scientific analysis, comes down to one person's opinion in the end. Whether the opinion is accepted or rejected depends on the cogency of the argument and the skill of the writer. It must be noted that this chapter has championed humanistic history. Social science history is a different genre, based on research patterns discussed in other chapters of this publication. Although the chapter professes humanistic history, its success should not be judged by counting the number of feet of adult education students and practitioners observed newly marching to the drumbeat of humanistic historical research. It should be judged, rather, by how well it shows professionals in the field an alternative way of thinking about research in adult education.