A classmate of mine was a bit exasperated earlier tonight when we were talking about an upcoming paper in a history class we're both taking. I believe her words were somewhere along the lines of, "Ack! My paper is just going to be plagiarism with footnotes!"
Her fear, I suspect, was that her paper will consist of nothing but the thoughts and arguments of other scholars, with comparatively little analysis or synthesis of her own. "But," I insisted, "you need evidence!"
To be sure, a mere catalog of facts is not history. But without facts you cannot write good history. Sure, you can tell a good story, but with no evidence to back it up and no way for other people to check out your conclusions, it's simply not history.
I ran into this problem recently during the class I'm taking on memory and history and memory at Penn (I know, I know, that class seems to be the impetus for all my posts these days. Truth be told, it's just one person who consistently says annoying, uninformed things). While discussing the controversy that surrounded the National Air and Space Museum's planned exhibit on the Enola Gay (recounted in History Wars
), a fellow student claimed that, unfortunately, Americans don't like to hear complicated stories, especially those in which Americans are the bad guys.
Now, this might be true. Maybe Americans are as simple-minded and jingoistic as my classmate seems to believe. But that's not what was suggested by the Enola Gay controversy. Following the release of an early draft of the exhibit, there was considerable uproar that led to the eventual cancellation of the exhibit. But that uproar did not come from the American public en masse
. Instead, the actions of a particular group, the Air Force Association, set off the chain of events that prevented the project from ever coming to fruition.
The details of that particular case don't matter except to the extent that details always matter (to careful scholars, that is).
Details emerge with engaging with the sources you have, not making vast unsubstantiated claims. Any talking head can talk about Things That Americans Like. Scholars back up their claims with evidence.