Tuesday, February 12, 2013

In praise of enthusiasm

Finding the remains of Richard III in a car park has spawned the usual litany of jokes, resulted in journalists rapidly revisiting their school history and has produced the odd bit of sneering too. What struck me about this extraordinary discovery is that it marked the triumph of the obsessive amateur.

These obsessives come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes armed with an impregnable self-confidence in their own lack of expertise and a masterly command of massively detailed bollocks, they launch into the murky waters of conspiracy theory or climate change denial. But there are others who become formidable independent researchers and they can produce more interesting work than the stuff that gets churned out by the academic treadmill. History is a particularly fruitful area.

Working in adult education I learned to ignore the advice that was always being offered - 'there are loads of local history societies here, you should put on a local history course.' No you shouldn't. They will bomb. The members of these societies will enrol in droves and then all drop out within a week or two when they realise that they know far more than the tutor. And their approach is different too. They are less interested in the type of broader analysis that grabs an academic historian, instead they want to know about people and places. Local characters, landmark buildings, the lives of people working in local trades and industries, stately homes and workhouses, reminiscences of childhoods lived long ago are what inspire them to beaver away in archives, sometimes with remarkable results.

The 'King Richard was Innocent' brigade straddles both camps. The conspiracy they are trying to unravel is a Tudor one, but their research is formidable. And without them Richard's body would never have been found, even if it did disprove their theory that the King's spinal deformity was another example of Tudor mud slinging. However, they could not have done it without the work of professional archaeologists. This was a symbiosis of professional expertise and the research of enthusiasts.

My own research is mainly in the nineteenth century - the era of the enthusiastic amateur. Their writings are fun to read. And it makes me think that the absorption of research by the academy is not wholly beneficial. Above all, academic language can be a form of exclusivity; a private, inaccessible code - and incredibly dull. So the sheer enjoyment of watching academics working with a decidedly dotty amateur to produce spectacular results reinforces my general prejudices about the importance of popular education and the fact that we should value what those outside the system can offer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

what an interesting read :)