The American Journal of Sociology/Volume 1/Number 1/The Relation of Anthropology to the Study of History

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The American Journal of Sociology, Volume 1, Number 1  (1895) 
The Relation of Anthropology to the Study of History
By George Emory Fellows


THE RELATION OF ANTHROPOLOGY
TO THE STUDY OF HISTORY.


When a want is felt there comes an effort to satisfy it. That there has been within a few years a greater desire than heretofore to study history is clearly evidenced by the efforts that have been made in educational institutions of all grades, to provide increased facilities for its study. The increasing number of special teachers in this subject and the increasing number of departments of the subject, with subdivisions, are indices of the greater interest of students, and of the recognition, by college and university authorities, of the need and importance of history.

Twenty years ago, in many institutions where now a separate department of history is maintained, or at least a department of history and economics, there was no teacher with special training in these subjects. In the college course, however, history was usually included for an hour a day, for from one to three terms. Taught from a text-book, by an overworked instructor in literature or the classics, as a sort of desirable adjunct to other absolutely necessary subjects, little benefit could come of it.

The growing interest in the study of history in colleges and universities has a logical cause. For many years scientists have been pursuing the historic method in the laboratory. Careful examination has been made of animal life from the simplest form up to the most complex. Plant history and animal history, all the way from protoplasm to the forms we see about us, have occupied the student. The doctrine of evolution has revolutionized the methods of investigation. These methods in biology have had a strong influence on all branches of study, and without doubt a new life has been given to historic study by looking upon events as the product of forces, and as the result of development of earlier causes.

The facts of history have been too often regarded as occurrences and not as in a connected chain; but of late the habit of looking for the evolutionary principle has been carried over from the biological laboratory to history, and this could not fail to cause the same revival of interest in history that it had already caused in biology. This new interest has been seized upon as reason for enlarging the history course in many institutions where the teachers have not all as yet felt the true import of the revival.

The value of history to a man in actual life is not so much in the facts learned as in the experience gained by contact with other peoples and other times. As a preparation for the activities of business, social and political life, the offering of history in the old way was chiefly valuable as an example to be avoided. History is only just now freed from the thralldom of the text-book. The writer has seen, within four years, in a university recognized as one of the foremost in the country, the only Professor of history and economics seated at his desk before a class of juniors, actually hearing a recitation in history, with his finger upon the line in the text-book. Happily now the same institution has two or three competent men in each of the departments of history and economics.

It is not necessary to enter upon an argument to prove the value of the study of history for a general education. Its claims are well established. The professional man, the politician, the artist, the financier, if he would be the best among his fellows, must have at his command a knowledge of the past. And it goes without saying that he who would write history, or teach it, must avail himself of all existing facilities in preparation for his profession.

Now that history has a place in the colleges more nearly in accord with its deserts, educators still have serious problems before them. What periods shall be studied? Shall the outline of universal history be offered as a college study, or shall it be left to the high schools and preparatory academies?

What is actually offered in the larger number of universities, and such colleges as have already established a department of history, is a course or courses upon the period or countries in which the professor is himself most deeply learned and hence most deeply interested. This is, of course, proper from the standpoint of the professor or the special student, but is it the best that can be done for the general student?

Can a student in the university, with only the history training he has received in the earlier school, enter with proper comprehension upon the study of the Middle Ages, or the French Revolution, or the Reformation? Yet these are examples of the courses offered in the best universities by the best known and the best prepared teachers.

People often accomplish their objects without using the best methods. The fact that many students after several years of study are able to obtain a degree, or even to do creditable productive work, does not prove that they did not flounder in too deep water for a year or more before they got their bearings. It is often said by students who have attended some of the best American and European universities, that after a year or so they began to comprehend the relations of different periods of history and of civilization, and henceforth the work was more profitable. The inference would be that they were forced by circumstances to work painfully backward and forward from some arbitrary starting point, and that some short course, as advocated further on in this paper, should precede the higher studies in history.

Let us illustrate the condition of the average college or university student at the beginning of his study of history by the better known condition of the public school pupil at the first presentation of United States history to him. The whole world which he hears about began in 1492. Columbus appears out of the misty somewhere and discovers a new part of the world. Other men follow him and America becomes a reality. Soften it as we will, smooth over the abrupt beginning with Ferdinand and Isabella stories and the early life of Columbus, the impression is still received by the pupil that 1492 is the commencement of things. Whether this state of mind is unavoidable I shall not now discuss, but I venture to say that a large number of those who read this can recall similar impressions. May not the student of the future be saved such damaging experiences? Is there not some way of better preparing the college student for the study of history without leaving him in total ignorance of all that has contributed to make the people what they are at the time which he studies? The high school work in general history is not all the preparation that he needs.

We recognize that the study of history in the university must be in greater detail and of shorter periods than in the high school or preparatory course. As soon as we begin to study closely, and penetrate to the moving forces of history, we find that we must know all about the origin of a people if we would clearly understand that people. By origin I mean genesis in so far as we are able to trace it by any means within our power. If men are evolved by slow processes from the lower forms of life I surely do not intend to say that the historian must trace all men back to a speck of protoplasm. We may be content to let the biologist occupy the whole field from protoplasm to man; but as history is the study of man, let us begin with man where we first find him.

Even if history be considered as the study of governments, wars, and social development of men, we must not take an arbitrary starting point. It would not seem quite the proper thing to commence the study of arithmetic with percentage, or of science with astronomical calculations, yet in the study of the social development of a people our history books begin at a point where there is already a well developed social organism, and it is considered sufficient if we follow it on to the present. We think we have penetrated sufficiently far into the mythical, misty and doubtful, if we say that Romulus founded Rome, and then proceed to investigate the wars with the Etruscans, Sabines and Latins, and merely leave Romulus poised in the ether of the past, like the turtle in space upon which Atlas stands to hold the world. There is far more sense than is discovered at first thought in the apparently foolish question of the negro in the audience when he heard from the sacred desk the explanation that God made man of mud and set him up against the fence to dry. "Who made that fence?" is certainly a very pertinent question. The reply of the preacher was no less satisfactory than the "Hands off" method of our history books. No nation was ready made, no social organism was created complete and placed before us for study.

The histories of England begin with the invasion by the Romans, a highly civilized people, who have to fight for their possession with another people who have already certain arts, civilization and religion. The histories of Greece begin when there is already a poet of such ability that he is studied as a model for later times; and this poet is singing of the deeds of his people long before. In view of all this shall we not cry out, "Who made that fence?"

If we were absolutely certain that Adam was the first man and the only man on earth till Cain was born, and if we could account for all races springing from a single pair, then the present history books might serve as approximately complete text-books. But though the inadequacy of this solution is pretty generally recognized, the writer knows of but one book, which is intended for a students' text, that starts upon any other assumption than that the cradle of the whole human race was somewhere in Asia, and the existence of a people anywhere is accounted for by assuming that at some time they came from Asia. We have no record historically of any person or people migrating to any locality without finding the soil already to some extent occupied by human beings, and those beings no more differing from the invader than one race at present differs from another.

In studying the character of the French people and their various institutions as they exist at present we must consider that Keltic, Iberian, Teutonic, Roman and possibly other elements are mingled together in undetermined proportions. This is more or less true in the history of all other nations. When written history begins the races are already differentiated and each has progressed in lines peculiar to itself. Is it not exactly as essential and fully as interesting to study how any or all of these racial elements have developed in man, the simple human, and brought him to the condition, intellectual and social, in which we find him at the opening of what is properly called history, as to follow the later developments of him of whom we know nothing before his appearance in history?

On the borderland of history is anthropology. Sociology is as closely related to history as the part to the whole, and without anthropology sociology cannot exist. The Century Dictionary defines history as the "Aggregate of all human events, recorded and unrecorded, which mark a given period of past time, as in the development of an individual or of a race." Anthropology is defined as the "Science of general physical and mental development of the human race." It includes sociology.

He who would teach history best cannot confine himself entirely to what is generally understood to be history. If he would get out of it its fullest meaning and lift it to its highest usefulness with students, he must run over into the borderland; he must study the origins of peoples and of customs, that is, he must invade the domain of anthropology.

Is it not likely that humanity as a whole develops as a child; the centuries or indefinite periods counting for the race as years to the child? Children learn first language and later etymology and syntax; first the complex and then the parts. Facts are noted long before causes. Some of the sciences most recently developed are the most fundamental. One of the latest developed is anthropology, yet for its necessary relation to other branches of science and learning it lays claim to the first place in the attention of the scientific world.

To understand the working of a whole machine one must study all its wheels and cranks, with the sources of power and how it is applied. History is the product of the human organization or machine. Man's mode of thought, habits of life and of association, are essential to be known as being the sources of power which has produced and is producing history.

The first society established in England that had any relation to anthropology was one for the abolition of slavery. The first one established in France was to consider the ideas advanced by M. Edwards in "Des Caractères Physiologiques des Races Humaines considerées dans leurs Rapports avec l'Histoire." The thesis was that "races and their special temperaments play an important part in the existence of nations." In this light can we not now see that history elucidated by anthropology assumes a new aspect? Causes and effects are more readily explained, the teachings of anthropology suggest solutions to questions left unanswered by theology, and the whole conception of past ages is altered.

The policy of civilized nations in their dealings with savage races ought to be greatly influenced by anthropological science. Instead of a policy of extermination, which has been too often adopted, might there not have been a wise and tempered policy which could only be called into existence by an understanding of the distinctive character of the conquered savages, their capabilities and adaptabilities? If extermination can no longer be tolerated, then the savage peoples must in the march of progress be brought closer to each other. A practical application of anthropology would be, in the light of scientific knowledge of the peoples, to so place them that their development could proceed in the line of nature, but with the assistance of contact with those who had already made great advances. What might not have been saved of dishonor, as well as of blood and treasure to the United States, had the Indian question been treated as one for scientific study, rather than as one to be handled only by politicians and plunderers.

In the settlement of territory now occupied by untutored races who are as distinctly a part of the human race as themselves, the English, Germans and other civilized peoples are in exactly a position where they can make practical use of all the truths yet gained by anthropologists, and where they can open still wider fields for research.

One of the accepted theories of education is that the child must in his development up to maturity pass through all the stages that have been passed by his race; he must meet and solve in twenty or twenty-five years the problems that have occupied centuries; he must become familiar in an hour with acts that were years in transpiring.

The civilized peoples of the earth are possessing themselves of the territory now occupied by people who have in some instances not yet reached the vantage point of the child born in civilized surroundings. If then the essentials of civilization were presented to them in the right order they might advance along the line at a more rapid pace than if they first see those things that are the worst in civilized character. At present what first are presented to uncivilized peoples are exhibitions of greed, lust and drunkenness. Here then is a field where what is known of the science of man may be applied, and governments should rather commission anthropologists to enter a new country than East India Companies, slavers and ivory traders.

These are some of the considerations which lead me to the conclusion that at least an outline of anthropology should be included in all college courses, and that such an outline is absolutely essential to any comprehensive studies in history and sociology.

In thus advocating the study of anthropology I am by no means, as it may appear, proposing a new burden in adding a new subject to the course of a student; the new subject will rather serve to elucidate all the others and lighten the strain of study. "In the mountains we see the bearers of heavy burdens contentedly shoulder a carrying frame besides, because they find the weight more than compensated by the convenience of holding together and balancing the load."

Anthropology, like each of the other sciences, has claim enough of its own to demand the closest devotion of a lifetime; but for the purpose here considered, of preparing for the study of history, an elementary sketch would suffice. Art, language, mathematics, any science and religion, may be observed at the very starting point. How much easier then to follow them through their later development!

Consider a student of law who ordinarily is plunged into the intricacies of legal systems which have grown up through the struggles, the reforms and even the blunders of thousands of years. How clearly he could make his way if he saw how laws began in their simplest forms, framed to meet the needs of savage tribes.

If the student learns of the rudest means men have of conversing by gestures and cries, and then follows through the development of articulate speech as an improvement on the earlier and lower methods, this is a better start in the science of language or philology than could have been made by beginning with the apparently arbitrary rules and subtile perplexities of grammar.

The same arguments that we all use for going thoroughly into any subject to its very foundation apply equally here. History is the whole of human life, and we must know all we can about man if we make any attempt to understand his acts and grasp the full significance of his influence upon his race and age.

George E. Fellows.

The University of Chicago.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1944, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.